White House refuses to call Libyan operation a ‘war’

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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White House spokesman Jay Carney spent most of today’s press-conference not mentioning the war, and several Democratic advocates suggested that the ‘no-war-here’ approach will be the administration’s Libya policy for weeks and months ahead.

“It is a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners, with the objective of protecting civilian life in Libya from Muammar Gaddafi and his forces,” Carney said in response to a pointed question about why the administration is not using the W-word, from Fox News’ Wendell Goler.

Carney’s circumlocutions took him through much of the thesaurus as he repeatedly didn’t mention the war during the 37 minute press gaggle. He referred to the U.S. military’s air-attacks and missile-strikes against the Libyan’s government’s airpower and ground forces as ”this mission,” “operation,” and “action,” but only used the W-word twice.

He first used the W-word when he said the administration had complied with the War Powers Act of 1973, and secondly, when he waived the W-word. “I think what it is certainly not, is, as others have said, a large-scale, open-ended military action, the kind of which might otherwise be described as a war.  There’s no ground troops, as the president said. There’s no land invasion.”

His tour through the thesaurus took him through such terms as “enforcement of the no-fly zone,” “our engagement,” this military endeavor,” “intense efforts of the United States military,” “militarily driven regime change,” and “this kind of thing,” and “it’s a serious enterprise that involves what we have seen.”

His verbal meandering did place him close to the W-word on several occasions, such as when he used the phrase “military force.” But, despite prodding from reporters, Carney insisted that the White House remains a W-word free-zone. “I’m not going to get into the terminology,” he declared, after sharing diverse synonyms for the W-word.

The bloodiest term used by Carney came when he described an event that was prevented by the war; “Something had to be done to prevent Gaddafi’s forces from committing a massacre in Benghazi,” he said as he talked around the U.S. military’s role in Libya.

Carney’s wariness of the W-word is shared by Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, who also declared the W-word to be irrelevant to the government-directed military attacks, assaults and bombardments now taking place throughout Libya. When asked about the Libyan military efforts to seize the rebel-held town of Misrata, Kaim declared today that “there are no any [sic] military operations on the ground in Misrata. The situation is just confined to a number of packets of violence and snipers scattered in different areas of Misrata.”

Carney’s W-free lexicon was justified, Carney said, because the U.S. government’s various efforts to depose Gaddafi are not part of military operations. “The military mission that is described in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, specifically deals with using all necessary means to protect civilians in Libya,” said Carney. “The military mission … is separate from the policy and position of this administration, this government, that Muammar Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and that he should step down, that he should remove himself from power.”

Under that “policy,” Carney said,  “we have engaged in a number of actions — unilateral and multilateral — aimed at putting pressure on Muammar Gaddafi and those around him to convince him or those around him that he should leave power.”

Carney’s separation of politics from war, however, is driven by domestic politics. The public doesn’t want U.S. force involved in another war in Arab-Muslim lands, although most support the idea of stopping Gaddafi’s attacks on civilians. A March 21 poll by Gallup showed that only 47 percent of respondents approve of the intervention in Libya, far below the 76 percent that approved of Saddam Hussein’s removal as the Iraq war began in March 2003, or the 90 percent that approved the October 2001 assault on the Taliban government in Afghanistan, according to Gallup’s data. These polls reinforce the worries of Democratic political consultants, who say the war will add another weight to the president’s election chances in swing-states, including North Carolina and Virginia.

Administration officials and their allies suggest that the administration will try to downplay the U.S. role in Libya over the next few months as the White House gears up for the 2012 reelection battle. Officials, including President Obama, say that U.S. grounds forces will not be deployed, that U.S. fighter aircraft will not be enforcing the no-fly zone and that the U.S. soon will take a back seat to an international task force that has not yet been assembled or organized.

Once Gaddafi’s army has been bottled up, the killing stopped, and the international task force assembled, the U.S. will step away, voters will be concerned about other issues, and the conflict will have no impact on the 2012 election, said Lawrence Korb, a prominent Democratic defense commentator at the Center for American Progress. The center works in close alliance with the White House on numerous initiatives. Unless there’s a painful Libyan counter-attack, the president is in an excellent position, he told TheDC. On Libya, “he’s golden,” Korb said.

But Korb’s effort to downplay the war complemented Carney’s policy of avoiding the W-word. The president’s calendar likely reflects the same strategy, in part, because Carney downplayed the prospect of future presidential comments about the war. “The president looks forward to communicating to the American public about Libya, as he has on multiple occasions already,” Carney said. “I don’t have an announcement on the forum for the way in which he will do that next, but I can assure you it will be more than one time in the future.”