Why presidents don't speak the 'war' word

Kosovo 'conflict' renews Clinton's fight with Congress over use of

Officially, the war in Yugoslavia is not a war at all. After more than 4,000 bombing runs, 1.5 million displaced people, and six weeks of reported rapes, killings, and burnings, it is merely a "conflict."

The word "war" has so many political and legal ramifications that the White House has made a point of never using it. President Clinton has even resorted to the awkward phrase "at arms" to describe America's military engagement in the Balkans.

Behind the semantics game is a presidential tussle with Congress over the use of American military might. By calling a war anything but, Mr. Clinton (as well as his modern-era predecessors in the Oval Office) can avoid the inconvenient fact that only Congress can declare war. In this way, commanders in chief preserve their ability to back diplomacy with force.

The Republican-led Congress, well aware of the power struggle, is trying to force Clinton's hand. The House last week voted to require the president to seek its approval before sending ground troops to Kosovo. The Senate is more hesitant, and is expected not to act on a proposal allowing the president to use "all necessary force."

Moreover, Rep. Tom Campbell (R) of California and 16 House colleagues are fighting for Congress's authority in federal court. They filed suit Friday, challenging the president's right to continue the NATO air campaign without approval from Congress.

"We are at war and Congress has not yet declared that, and that is unconstitutional," Representative Campbell said last week. "Whether you call it war or hostilities or armed conflict, it is what it is and one person is putting us into it."

Why a war is not a 'war'

But the word "war" is avoided for other reasons, as well.

Presidents are reluctant to use it because it connotes expensive, long-term, large-scale combat that pushes to a final conclusion and involves heavy casualties. Calling Kosovo a "war" could alarm the American public, which, in this age of laser-guided bombs, has grown accustomed to clinical strikes with minimal casualties.

Further, a declared war over Kosovo could provoke the Russians, who are friends with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Serbs, and risk broadening the conflict. That's why NATO countries such as France are uneasy about an oil blockade on Yugoslavia, which under international law would be considered an act of war.

Still, using euphemisms for war can erode Americans' respect for political leaders and skirt public dialogue, analysts warn.

"People look at it and they say, 'Well, obviously, that's war,' and they lose respect for political leadership that's not willing to call a war a war," says Martin Medhurst, an expert on presidential rhetoric at Texas A&M in College Station.

"It's a Pandora's box," agrees John Hillen, a former Army officer in the Gulf War and a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. But "this is not just a recent phenomenon," adds Mr. Hillen. "The balance of history is against wartime."

Since its founding, the United States has deployed military forces overseas at least 200 times. Yet only five times has it declared war: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II.

The Korean War, for instance, was an "international police action" sanctioned by the United Nations. "War" evoked nuclear bombs, so the undeclared war in Vietnam was often called a "containment strategy." The invasion of Grenada in the Reagan administration, and Panama in the Bush administration, were called "military interventions."

Technology, among other things, has made it easier for the US to launch military strikes around the world. In the Clinton administration alone, US military muscles have been flexed in Iraq, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Sudan, and now Yugoslavia.

Difficulty of going to war

But Hillen says the constitutional framers didn't foresee such frequent use of military force. "It was supposed to be hard to go to war," he says.

That is what Congress had in mind when it passed the War Powers Act in 1973, which says a president must consult Congress on military deployments within 48 hours, and remove troops within 60 days if Congress does not authorize the mission.

The act was meant to protect the nation from Vietnam-like quagmires, but it has been largely ignored by presidents since. President Bush, however, did get approval from Congress on the eve of the Gulf War. Representative Campbell's suit cites May 25 as the date for Clinton to get approval or end US involvement in the NATO air campaign.

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