June 17th, 2011
05:39 PM ET

Letters to the President: #879 'What's war got to do with it?'

Reporter's Note: The White House recently gave Congress a 32-page report about what our military is doing to help NATO in Libya but is rebuffing calls from Congress to explain more, arguing that it is not war so the need for explanations is limited. I suppose the need for more letters from me is pretty limited too…

Dear Mr. President,

I realize that I wrote to you earlier this week about this question of whether you need to explain to Congress more about our military involvement in Libya. I also realize that essentially your answer was: No, because it’s not really a war. Your team argues that because we don’t have troops in Tripoli exposed to direct danger, this falls short of full-on war as we know it.

Related: White House defends to Congress the U.S. military mission in Libya

I suppose I can see that argument. But if I do, I find myself wondering if anything will qualify as war in the years to come and, if not, how will we hold presidents accountable for war-like activities?

For example, if we’re going to say war must include boots-on –the-ground gunfights like we saw in World War II, does that mean anything short of that should not be covered by our laws about warfare? If so, I would think any president could unleash long range artillery, battle ships, rockets and fighter jets when, where and as long as he wants, with no accountability. After all, it’s not war.

Your team suggested that war, to fit the definition, must include a threat against our troops, not merely “us” attacking “them.” O.K. So what do we do about drones? In coming years it is fully possible we could see whole battles in which not one U.S. soldier is seen - in which all of our attacks are managed by predator drones and ground based robots. Maybe it won’t feel like war to the remote operators sitting at a command center in Colorado, but I’ll bet the people we are attacking won’t feel that way.

Is war about sustained engagement? Maybe. But if that is true, what do we do with the knowledge that modern transportation, weaponry, and communications can allow a battle to play out in minutes that once would have taken months? Is it no longer war because it happens quickly?

My point is that you, and other presidents, may be heading down a slippery path. Because if it looks like, sounds like, and feels like war, then I suspect it is. No matter how much we may want, politically, to call it something else.

Let me know your thoughts on all this. And hey, why didn’t you invite me to go along golfing with you and Boehner? Feeling a little hurt, I must say.


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

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