When Is a 'Contingency' By Any Other Name a War?

Although the crisis has subsided, the US did launch missiles at Iraq. American reconnaissance aircraft still crisscross the skies over Iraq. And American troops are camped along Iraq's southern borders. It's all very warlike.

Is America, then, at war with Iraq?

It is not. Nor is the United States at war with Bosnia or Korea where American troops are stationed in their thousands. It is not at war because, for all practical purposes, the US no longer has an official definition of war.

Ten times since World War II American troops have been sent abroad on combat missions - or missions that could involve combat. Only one of those dangerous expeditions has been preceded by a declaration of war by the United States Congress and president George Bush before the Gulf conflict. The other nine - including Korea and Vietnam - are called "contingencies" by US strategists. The Constitution - in Article I, Section 8 - says that only Congress has the right to declare war. But neither that grand document nor the 1973 War Powers Act has anything to say about contingencies.

This is not a hawkish exercise in verbal gamesmanship. It is, rather, a bureaucratic attempt to cope with several historic changes in the nature of war and politics. The old system, under which a president asked Congress to declare war on some misbehaving country, worked satisfactorily up to 1945. Shortly thereafter, the advent of nuclear weapons imposed a stricture on belligerent powers - they could fight only limited wars. What that meant in terms of strategy and even tactics was uncertain until the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. That terrifying episode impressed the lesson of nuclear symbolism. Had the Soviets succeeded in installing short-range missiles on Cuba, the threat to America would not have been appreciably greater than from the intercontinental missiles on from Soviet land bases or submarines. But the symbolism of the enemy's nuclear weapons on an island 90 miles off US shores was devastating. The attempt to put them there brought the world close to nuclear war.

In his 1956 masterpiece, "On War," the French commentator Raymond Aron wrote: "The thermonuclear weapon, especially now that both sides have it, is destined to prevent war. But can one prevent a minor aggression by threatening excessive reprisals? Should one not adjust the threat to the aggression, in other words, graduate the threat?"

When Mr. Aron wrote those words 40 years ago, not many means of graduated threat existed in sophisticated form. Now there is a plethora of them - from the landscape-hugging cruise and its fellow missiles, through neutron bombs that destroy lives but not property, to exotic means of perception from advanced radar to sonar and satellite imagery. All of this means that wars could start instantly, given a buildup of sufficient provocation and grievance.

The classic American means of declaring war - presidential petitions to Congress and succeeding Senate debates - suddenly seemed too long and cumbersome to the executive branch.

Therefore, presidents and their advisers devised other rationales for fighting wars - which, they decided, were no longer wars but contingencies. If the overseas involvement of American troops was part of a United Nations operation (Korea, Haiti, etc.), that would provide sufficient legitimacy in the reasoning of the White House. If other NATO members joined with the United States in overseas missions (Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia), then there was supposedly no reason to ask Congress to declare war.

Sen. William Cohen of Maine, a senior Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, says that such reasoning puts presidents on shaky ground. He recognizes the need to strike quickly in some instances, but believes the White House should at least consult the congressional leadership as it deploys American forces. "The practical politics of the situation," Senator Cohen says," are that you disregard Congress at your peril. If you take action and it turns out badly and you suffer losses, then ... Congress will tell you, 'No. 1, you didn't consult with us - and if you had we would have told you no. So the blood is on your hands, and we're not going to rally around you.' "

That is more than an abstract moral risk. It has practical political consequences. Another development in the last half century is the power of public opinion to influence military policy, even to stop wars. The United States and its allies were losing in Vietnam as public protest reached its crescendo. That hurricane of antiwar conviction forced the withdrawal of American forces in 1973. The same antiwar sentiment ended the political career of President Johnson.

A good part of this public awareness of war's reality - versus its proclaimed glory - is due to television. "There is no glory any more," says an American diplomat. "The public sees what the president sees."

This illustrates why the United States has no official definition of war, why all but one of recent US military excursions overseas were called contingencies instead of wars. Ultimately, if Americans are to support foreign military adventures and the rest of the world is to understand why the only remaining superpower is taking such action, a return to some form of the traditional declaration of war - or intention - must be found. With Congress publicly ratifying the president's military decisions, the appearance is that of a democracy, rather than a single leader, applying its collective wisdom to US strategy.

That's probably what the architects of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote Article I, Section 8.

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