In the last few days, Obama administration officials have frequently faced the question: Is the fighting in Libya a war? From military officers to White House spokesmen up to the president himself, the answer is no. But that leaves the question: What is it?
In a briefing on board Air Force One Wednesday, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes took a crack at an answer. "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," Rhodes said. "Obviously that involves kinetic military action, particularly on the front end."
Rhodes' words echoed a description by national security adviser Tom Donilon in a briefing with reporters two weeks ago as the administration contemplated action in Libya. "Military steps -- and they can be kinetic and non-kinetic, obviously the full range -- are not the only method by which we and the international community are pressuring Gadhafi," Donilon said.
Rhodes and Donilon are by no means alone. "Kinetic" is heard in a lot of descriptions of what's going on in Libya. "As we are successful in suppressing the [Libyan] air defenses, the level of kinetic activity should decline," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a meeting with reporters in Moscow Tuesday. In a briefing with reporters the same day from on board the USS Mount Whitney, Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, said, "The coalition brings together a wide array of capabilities that allow us to minimize the collateral damage when we have to take kinetic operations." On Monday, General Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, said of the coalition forces, "We possess certainly a very significant kinetic capability." And unnamed sources use it too. "In terms of the heavy kinetic portion of this military action, the president envisions it as lasting days, not weeks," an unnamed senior official told CNN Saturday.
"Kinetic" is a word that's been used around the Pentagon for many years to distinguish between actions like dropping bombs, launching cruise missiles or shooting people and newer forms of non-violent fighting like cyber-warfare. At times, it also appears to mean just taking action. In a 2002 article in Slate, Timothy Noah noted a passage from Bob Woodward's book, Bush at War:
For many days the war cabinet had been dancing around the basic question: how long could they wait after September 11 before the U.S. started going "kinetic," as they often termed it, against al Qaeda in a visible way?
Now, White House officials are referring to the war in Libya not as a war but as a "kinetic military action." As common as "kinetic" might be among those in government, it still seems likely to strike members of the public as a euphemism that allows the Obama administration to describe a war as something other than a war.