When is an act of war not an act of war?

The inimitable Matt Duss has a great post on Wonk Room today in which he notes that recent polling data from CBS News and Vanity Fair “indicates pretty strongly that Americans are not in favor of a U.S. war with Iran.”
He adds, however, that supporters of a U.S. war on Iran realize that a “war”, as such, is very unpopular– and hence, they prefer to couch their bellophilic musings in the less openly warlike (and more apparently “neutral”, or “surgical”) discourse of “military strikes”, “air strikes”, etc.
Thus, as Duss notes, though CBS and VF found that only around 10% of Americans would admit to supporting a “war” on Iran even if it tested a nuclear bomb or attacked Israel, when the Chicago Council on Global Affairs carried out its nationwide opinion survey recently it showed that Americans were “evenly divided” on whether Washington should launch military strikes against Iran “if diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions fail to stop or slow down Iran’s nuclear program.” (p.46 of the Chicago Council survey, PDF here.)
Well, two things are happening there to produce this interesting juxtaposition of results. Note first of all the difference in the scenarios the two polls were referring to. CBS/VF was asking what policies should be pursued if Iran actually tests a nuclear bomb, while the Chicago Council poll was referring merely to the (slightly vague) scenario in which– according to undefined criteria and unidentified judges of those criteria– it might seem that diplomatic efforts and sanctions have “failed to slow or stop” Iran’s nuclear program. (With the unexamined assumption embedded in there being that– “of course”– Iran’s program is indeed aiming straight at the possession of nuclear weapons… Wow!)
And so, under those circumstances, which might occur at a point when Iran’s nuclear-tech programs are still at a point far short of possession or testing of a nuclear weapon, around half the Americans surveyed say they would favor the launching of a “military strike” against Iran… Whereas a presumably similar sample of Americans, when asked the slightly different question about what would justify an American war against Iran, overwhelmingly say that even Iran’s performance of an actual nuclear weapon test would not persuade them that a war as such would be justified.
Oh, what a difference those weasel words, a “military strike”, can make!
But make no mistake about it, an unprovoked attack against the territory of another country is an act of war…. An act of war does not require the formal “declaration” of a state of war. The state of war is initiated with the launching of an act of war itself. A declaration of war can come after (or even, as as often happened in recent times, not at all.)
Think Pearl Harbor.
And this, I think, is where Matt Duss was a little misleading. He was robust in arguing that a Western “military strike” against Iran would indeed lead to a war. But his argumentation there suggested strongly that this would happen only because the hostilities would be long-drawn-out. He wrote, “war is what it would be. The idea that the U.S. or Israel will deal with the problem through a few days or weeks of air strikes should be put to rest.”
Japan’s air attack on Pearl Harbor did not last more than a few hours. But it was certainly more than grave enough to justify– under the international law situation prevailing at the time– the U.S. entry into the broader war on the anti-Japanese side, and therefore the United States’ sperpetration of all kinds of hostile acts against Japanese targets both inside and outside Japan.
In 1945, as the Crimes of War website notes,

    the United Nations Charter banned the first use of force, putting an end to declarations of war. Article 2(4) of the Charter states: “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.”

Well, it is true that that prohibition on the launching of acts of war–and even on the voicing of threats of such acts–has become sadly diluted in the 65 years since 1945. (The U.S. government itself has done a lot, especially under Presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush, to hasten that dilution. So has Israel over the years.) But the prohibition still stands. It applies equally to the United States, and to Iran, and to all other states.
As revealed in the CBS/VF poll, the American people seem to have a gut understanding of the wrongness of starting a war.
But ask them about “military strikes”? Then, their answer is different.
The weasel words by which the warmongers try to tell people that an act of war is somehow not actually an act of war but only a “military strike” should be everywhere challenged.
And yes, that would include Sen. Joe Lieberman, who on Sept. 30 told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations that “the military option [is a] real and credible alternative policy” to diplomacy and sanctions, in dealing with Iran… But also that, ”we’re not talking a war.”
(Kudos to Ali Gharib and his colleagues for picking up on Lieberman’s dreadful weaseliness.)

2 thoughts on “When is an act of war not an act of war?”

  1. I really wanted to comment on what a truly great article this was. And then there was that bit at the end, about Lieberman, blatantly attempting to misdirect us from the fact that it is Obama who has repeatedly, over and over and over again, threatened Iran.

  2. If it’s just a “military strike” then we can sustain the conceited fiction that we are simply performing the function of “world’s policeman”. You know: “take up the white man’s burden” and all that…

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