By Bonnie Kristian
It is a bizarre and dangerous quirk of American politics that U.S. airstrikes are accepted as a moderate step between diplomacy and war.
Consider, for example, new poll results published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The subject at hand was North Korea, and participants were asked what response they would support to Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weaponry. Options ranged from inaction to negotiations to sanctions to broader sanctions to airstrikes on nuclear facilities to boots on the ground. The pollsters may not have presented these choices in this sequence, but had they done so it would have been a familiar path because of our curious quirk.
Or take a look at the Philippines, where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday the United States may begin airstrikes against local Islamic State-linked militants. Does this mean we’re at war in the South Pacific? I suspect most Americans would say no. It’s “just” airstrikes, after all. It is by that same calculation we rarely hear of America “at war” in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, or Libya—though all these countries have been subject to U.S. airstrikes in 2017.
What we ignore at our peril is that airstrikes are war, as is evident with a moment’s reflection. Dropping bombs on foreign territory is warfare whether we talk about it in those terms or not.
This definitional statement is not as pedantic as it may seem, because Washington has a well-established history of using sloppy language in civic conversation to pull a fast one on the public. Former President Obama was a master of this where airstrikes are concerned: By prioritizing air war over ground troops, Obama was able to pay lip service to his campaign-era promises of reform and restraint while, in reality, maintaining and in some cases escalating the very interventionist foreign policy he was elected to repudiate.
Thus, during Obama’s final year in office, the United States dropped more than 26,000 bombs in seven nations (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, in addition to the four listed above), though only for three of them (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan) does the executive branch have anything even remotely resembling the congressional authorization for war required by the Constitution. There are many reasons for that failure of basic, procedural accountability—congressional fecklessness and presidential overreach not least among them—but the inaccurate way we think of airstrikes as war junior is surely a factor.
With Obama out and President Trump in his place, the consequences of our messy conception of airstrikes grow more serious still. In his first half-year in office, Trump is ordering airstrikes at five times Obama’s already-incredible pace. That escalation, coupled with this week’s announcement about the Philippines (not to mention April’s strike on regime targets in Syria, the first of its kind), suggests we are due to see more airstrikes against more targets in more places in days to come.
Whether those strikes are necessary, right, or prudent may be subject to debate. There is a long record of warnings from U.S. military and intelligence officers plus independent studies that airstrikes often exacerbate security threats by radicalizing previously ordinary people who lose innocent family members to American bombs As conservative columnist Jim Antle has argued, “Just like government stimulus spending might end up hurting the economy, Obamacare might cancel your health insurance, welfare policies might prolong a cycle of poverty, military interventions aimed at killing terrorists might actually create them.”
Such unintended consequences deserve more serious consideration than short-sighted politicians have been inclined to give, because what isn’t up for debate is that these airstrikes are a form of war. That means we must demand the same constitutional due process and oversight; realistic risk analysis; and open deliberation about our aims and interests that we ought to require before more traditional war-making. Airstrikes are not a step to war but rather war itself, and it is time we talk—and demand Washington do its job—accordingly.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by Reason on August 12, 2017. Read more HERE.