Of the horrific events in Paris, French President Francois Hollande said: “It is an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, Daesh, against France,” Hollande told the nation from the Élysée Palace. He went on: “It is an act of war that was prepared, organized and planned from abroad, with complicity from the inside, which the investigation will help establish.”
In retaliation for the atrocities committed by the “jihadist army,” many have called for a war against ISIS. But labelling the assassinations an act of war and calling for war against ISIS are level-of-analysis errors that could have negative consequences in the fight against terrorism and preventing future attacks.
Although the term is loosely used, war is very specific. It is clearly defined by international law. The laws of war, or international humanitarian norms, have been ratified by states. In many situations, even non-state actors like ISIS fall under international law. By calling the attacks in Paris acts of war the French President has given a certain publicity if not status to the perpetrators that they had been hoping for as a caliphate or legitimate authority.
For the United States to declare war there must be Congressional approval. Only eleven times between 1812 and 1942 has the United States formally declared war. It has engaged in extended military operations authorized by Congress on numerous occasions, but each was short of a formal declaration of war. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave Congressional approval to expand hostilities in Southeast Asia for a limited period of time in what was thought to be a reprisal for an attack on an American ship. The Korean War was not a war authorized by Congress, although it was fought with the approval of a UN Security Council Resolution.
Much of the confusion about going to war is exemplified by declarations about wars. Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964. Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971. George W. Bush declared a war on terror on September 20, 2001. In the first two cases, the use of the term war gave an impression of a serious assault, but the results show that the nature of the conflict had no specific enemy and that the rules of engagement made the use of the term war meaningless. The third case also had no clear enemy.
And that is the most important point in dealing with ISIS. By using the term war, one gives the impression that there is a battle going on similar to battles in previous wars. The United States declared war on Japan and Germany. In those cases, there was a clear enemy, the United States was fighting against a country, and the rules of engagement were along traditional military lines.
ISIS is not a traditional enemy. Although it has a territory, flag and an army, it is a 21st century network of different groups with no clear chain of command and no official recognition. It is as much a social network as it is a military organization or legitimate state. To declare war on ISIS is to recall images of tanks, airplanes and battlefields. To fight ISIS, although force may be needed, demands a totally different strategy.
Ever since the Vietnam War, the Western powers have tried to use overwhelming force against non-state actors. The U.S. failures in Vietnam as well as the Soviet failure in Afghanistan are obvious examples of the incapacity of traditional strategy to defeat non-traditional enemies. Call it counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism, visions of traditional uses of force against non-traditional enemies have been and will be unsuccessful.
If you ask me the solution, I will say that the beginning of finding solutions would be to stop using the term war, and to stop thinking in terms of traditional warfare. The expression often used is that: “Generals are always preparing for the last war.” In the case of ISIS, we could say that the generals are indeed preparing for the last wars, and that the use of the term war blinds them to changing realities and whatever hope of whatever victory might mean. Indeed, it may be that generals will be necessary but not sufficient in this struggle.