At the State Department press conference yesterday, acting deputy spokesman Mark Toner was asked a straightforward question:
QUESTION: Are we at war in Libya?
MR. TONER: We are implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1973. It is clearly a combat operation or combat mission. As the President made very clear, there will be no U.S. ground force involved in this and that the U.S. role is upfront – frontloaded, if you will, on this. But that’s going to obviously recede into a more – a broader international coalition as we move forward to implement the no-fly zone.
QUESTION: So you would not say we’re at war?
MR. TONER: I think we’ve – you love these sweeping characterizations and I appreciate it.
QUESTION: This isn’t about what I love or do not love. (Laughter.) But the question on the table is: Are we at war in Libya or not?
MR. TONER: I would say it’s a combat mission, clearly. But beyond that, you can parse that out.
So it’s not a war; it’s a frontloaded combat mission that’s obviously going to recede into a coalition.
Later in the afternoon, in a press briefing on Air Force One as it returned to Washington, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes was asked “if it’s not a war, what’s the right way to characterize this operation?”
MR. RHODES: … I think what we’ve said is that this is a military operation that will be limited in both duration and scope. Our contribution to this military operation that is enforcing a U.N. Security Council resolution is going to be limited — time limited to the front end, and then we’ll shift to a support role. …
Q But it’s not going to war, then?
MR. RHODES: Well, again, I think what we are doing is enforcing a resolution that has a very clear set of goals, which is protecting the Libyan people, averting a humanitarian crisis, and setting up a no-fly zone. Obviously that involves kinetic military action, particularly on the front end. …
So it’s not a war; it’s a kinetic military action that is time-limited and contribution-limited on the front end.
Byron York notes other administration officials using “kinetic” to avoid the word “war.” John Hinderaker calls it emblematic of the administration’s confusion about its role. Combining the Toner/Rhodes formulations, however, it’s clear we are simply in a frontloaded, time-limited, contribution-limited kinetic combat mission that’s obviously going to recede into a coalition, as soon as we parse out who’s in charge of the backloaded part of the … war.