We Don’t Declare War Anymore, We Just Declare Quagmire

I’ve written before that our war in Libya contains many of the ingredients for quagmire. At the top of the list: the gap between our objectives and what can actually be accomplished with the resources we’ve committed thus far. The sort of limited engagement we’re attempting may minimize American risk in the short term, but in the long term it can’t secure the rebel victory unofficially sought by the United States. So that leaves us with three options: (A) withdrawal, (B) stalemate, or (C) a gradual escalation of our military commitment. The problem with gradual escalations, of course, is that they can be met with corresponding escalations on the other side. So while (B) and (C) both smell like quagmire to me, at least (B) would be significantly less bloody.

The question is why the White House, if it really believed Gaddafi had to go, would put us in this position instead of making a significant military commitment from the get-go and laying out clear, unambiguous objectives. One reason: that’s the sort of thing that makes it look like you’re at war with someone. And as Scott Horton wrote for Foreign Policy yesterday, the OLC’s whole legal rationale for the Obama administration’s actions is predicated on the notion that this isn’t a real war.

Think about the precedent we’re setting here. Obama’s DoJ, adopting the Bush administration’s legal rationales, has decided that the executive’s power to deploy the American military is virtually unchecked by any domestic power. The only caveat: the strength of that deployment is capped at a level that makes quagmire seem very, very plausible.

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