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Kerry’s Warped Definition of War

Peter Beinart chides John Kerry for claiming yesterday that the administration isn’t proposing to go to war in Syria:

It’s not surprising that Kerry sees it that way. If America only goes to war when it puts large numbers of Americans in harm’s way—as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq—then “war” is something we do relatively infrequently, and with great solemnity. If, on the other hand, America goes to war whenever we put non-Americans in harm’s way, war is something we do routinely and with little public debate.

This was the fiction that the administration promoted during the Libyan war, when it offered the pathetic defense that the U.S. was not involved in hostilities because there was no real chance that the Libyan government’s forces could harm any of the Americans participating in the bombing of Libya. If U.S. involvement in a war is lopsided enough, and if it can be waged from a great enough distance, it isn’t counted as war or “hostilities.” This is a risible argument, but it is one that Kerry was quite comfortable making yesterday. Perhaps he assumes that most members of Congress think of these things in the same way, or perhaps he has convinced himself that the U.S. can carry out acts of war without waging war and can commence hostilities against another state without being engaged in hostilities.

War opponents will sometimes try to get people to see things from the perspective of the people in the country that the U.S. is preparing to attack, and this can be useful, but I sometimes wonder if this misses the point. Imagining how Americans would perceive another government’s military attack on us seems irrelevant to many hawks because they don’t accept that the positions can be reversed. As far as many hawks are concerned, it is obviously war when others attack the U.S. or our allies, but it is not necessarily war when our government and its allies attack others. They might even dispute the claim that our government is attacking. “This isn’t an attack, it’s a response,” they might say, or even less credibly they will claim that launching an attack against another country has something to do with self-defense. After all, starting wars and attacking other countries is what other nations do. We merely enforce norms and uphold “global order” through the repeated violation of international law.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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