In the past, nations typically fought wars against other nations or enjoyed peace, providing a dichotomy that was easy for politicians to communicate, the media to relay, and the public to understand. Wars ended and, perhaps as importantly, the concept of victory or defeat was unambiguous. But that era is long over, said Martin J. Medhurst, a Baylor University professor of rhetoric and communication. “War, in the American experience, has not been a simple question since the end of World War II,” he said. “The whole nature of what is a war, how to conduct warfare, and how to know whether you win or lose has become very murky in the past half century.”
The administration’s capitulation on the word choice is notable, Medhurst added, as it represents a starting point for the evolution of political discourse surrounding the war. “Once you invoke the term ‘war’ — whether it’s literally, as was the case with Vietnam, or not, as was the case with the War on Poverty — once you invoke that metaphor, you’ve put all of those marbles in the game,” he said. “There’s almost no going back.”
Tanisha Fazal brings up some other reasons why the nomenclature matters:
A major reason states do not declare war upon non-state actors is because doing so would accord these actors the very legitimacy, rights and status that states are fighting to keep them from gaining. We observe this most easily in civil wars, where rebel groups might declare war upon states, but states tend not to reciprocate, instead labeling rebels as criminals or terrorists.
There are other reasons not to expect a US declaration of war against ISIS. As I have shown, all states have pretty much stopped declaring war. The US is no exception – Congress has not declared war since World War II. This decline is not due to a decline in war – there have been plenty of wars and armed conflicts since the Second World War, and the US participated in many of them. Rather, once states issue a formal declaration of war they unequivocally oblige themselves to comply with international humanitarian law. And as the standards of complying with international humanitarian law have risen over time, states appear to be increasingly reluctant to step over the bright line of issuing a formal declaration of war.
Yes, the War on Terrorism is different from other conflicts in various ways. But why does the number of troops needed as compared to Iraq matter? Why does the cost, which is only “negligible” in terms of the rest of a gargantuan military budget, matter? Why must Obama be graded on a curve set by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?
If American war planes are firing missiles at a foreign nation or militia, that is war. Everyone understands as much with respect to foreign countries. Imagine an Iranian drone carried out a single targeted missile strike on an Israeli settlement. Would that be an act of war? Or not so much, because it’s merely part of “a balance of measures—political, military, legal, and otherwise,” to degrade Zionism? What if Russia stationed, in a foreign country, just a tiny fraction of the troops that Bush mobilized for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan?
And Ilya Somin takes on what he considers “the strongest of the newer arguments for Obama’s decision”, i.e. that there’s no need to declare war because ISIS itself has already initiated it:
The self-defense theory has several virtues. It does not rely on a strained interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or the 2002 Iraq AUMF. And unlike John Yoo’s theory of executive war powers, it does not give the president blanket authority to initiate new wars on his own.
But the idea nonetheless has some real flaws. ISIS’ atrocities in beheading two American journalists and holding a few other Americans hostage are horrendous. But it’s hard to argue they are an attack against the US on a large enough scale to count as a war. Serial murderers such as Ted Bundy and the Unabomber probably killed as many or more Americans than ISIS did before Obama ordered air strikes against it (like ISIS, the Unabomber even did it for political reasons). The same is true of quite a few pre-9/11 foreign terrorists. Yet few claim that their actions amount to initiating a war against the United States.