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Should U.S. Strikes On Syria Be Referred To As 'Acts Of War?'


The Trump administration has now launched two rounds of strikes on the Syrian government. So does that mean the U.S. is at war with Syria? To explore that question, John Nagl joins us. He's a West Point graduate, retired Army officer, combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and a former president of the Center for a New American Security. Welcome.

JOHN NAGL: It's good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: There are legal, moral, practical definitions of war; how do you define war?

NAGL: War is the use of force to achieve political objectives. In the political science literature, with which I'm familiar, there's a minimum number of deaths. A thousand deaths a year as a result of that political violence constitutes a war.

SHAPIRO: Wow, an actual number.

NAGL: An actual number. And the Syrian civil war absolutely qualifies as a war. It's not clear to me that the United States, however, is at war with Syria.

SHAPIRO: Is there another term that you prefer to describe what the U.S. is doing in Syria, which might look war-like but by the definition you gave falls short of actually being at war with Syria?

NAGL: So we do not think Bashar al-Assad is a very good person, and we think that he uses chemical weapons and other forms of fairly indiscriminate violence against his own people. And so the United States is, it would argue, enforcing international norms against the use of chemical weapons when Assad crosses that particular red line. But the United States is not determined to bring down the Assad regime. That would mean that we were at war with Assad.

SHAPIRO: I wonder how much of this is politics and PR and messaging because the country debates whether the U.S. should be involved in a war differently from the debate over whether the U.S. should be involved in surgical strikes or military offensive or whatever other terms a person might want to use. So how much of this is actually a national security debate, and how much of it is a political or communications debate?

NAGL: Like many veterans, I think, I would prefer to see more debate. I would prefer to see America more engaged when it deploys military force and military forces abroad on behalf of the nation. I think the fact that we have an all-volunteer force now since 1973 means that the American people aren't as engaged in it as we would like them to be. Congress tries to avoid taking hard votes, so they don't have those deliberations in public. And so I would very much appreciate it if America as a whole talked more about the times it chooses to use military force, putting our soldiers at risk but also putting at risk the soldiers and sometimes the civilians of other nations to accomplish objectives that may not be well understood and may not be adequately discussed.

SHAPIRO: There's a project out of Brown University called Costs of War that has mapped 76 countries where the U.S. military has recently use lethal force against suspected terrorists, from Africa to East Asia and the Middle East. Most people would not define all 76 of those countries as places where the U.S. is engaged in war. But I wonder if our terminology is out of date when we don't have a good way to describe what the U.S. is doing in such a large number of places around the world.

NAGL: This war in particular has been hard to describe or hard to define for many years now.

SHAPIRO: This war, meaning the global fight against terrorism.

NAGL: The so-called global war on terrorism, which was, of course, grammatically incorrect. Terrorism is a tactic. It's not an enemy. And so we have been fighting for 15 years now a war against a virulent strain of radical Islamic extremism. We will continue to fight that war for a number of decades still to come. And the imprecision of the way we describe it, I think, betrays some imprecision in how we are thinking about this war and then how we are employing all the elements of national power, not just the military but also diplomacy, international development, the moral authority of the United States. We have not done a good job of thinking through what it is we're trying to accomplish with these conflicts.

SHAPIRO: Well, John Nagl, thank you for helping us think through this issue today.

NAGL: I've enjoyed it very much.

SHAPIRO: He's former president of the Center for a New American Security, currently headmaster at The Haverford School in Pennsylvania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.