In the more than three months since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration has said a lot of things about the war. It had to walk a few of them back almost immediately, like when President Biden’s statement that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” turned out not to be a call for regime change. On other points, its rhetoric has sharpened over time: In March, America’s goal was to help Ukraine defend itself; by the end of April it was a “weakened” Russia.
But on one thing the administration has been very consistent: America won’t get into war with Russia for Ukraine.
“We do not seek a war between NATO and Russia,” President Biden wrote in The Times at the end of May. “As much as I disagree with Mr. Putin, and find his actions an outrage, the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow. So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces.”
Much of the praise and critique of Mr. Biden’s Ukraine policy has accepted his version of events. But are we sure Americans can reliably recognize when we’ve joined a war?
Presidents have a history of insisting they have no intention of going to war, until they do. “He kept us out of war,” President Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 re-election slogan declared, only for Wilson to take us into World War I a mere month into his second term, right after describing American intervention as inevitable.
During the presidential election of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson promised he was “not about to send American boys nine or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” But in February 1965, within a month of his inauguration, Johnson authorized the bombing campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder. A month after that, “American boys” were in Vietnam.
That history is instructive on the shelf life of any president’s promise — perhaps particularly during an election — to keep us out of war: Even if it’s true at the moment it’s uttered, it is no guarantee for the future.
But at least in the cases of World War I and Vietnam there was a demonstrable shift from not at war to at war, and Americans could point to a moment when that shift occurred. That bright line meant presidents could make straightforward promises to stay out of a war, and the public could tell when those promises weren’t kept.
In recent decades, however, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, we’ve moved into a model of perpetual warfare, with ambiguous boundaries of chronology, geography and purpose. The line between what is war and what is not war has perilously blurred, and determining the moment we move from one into the other has become a more difficult task.
That’s partly because of technological advances, like drone warfare and cyberattacks, that have made it possible to commit what might otherwise be seen as acts of war — killing adversaries, destroying buildings, degrading nuclear facilities — in other countries without U.S. troops ever leaving U.S. soil. It’s also a function of executive war-making: Congress hasn’t formally declared war since 1942, but successive presidents have relied on the broad war powers granted to George W. Bush in 2002 to authorize the use of military force.
Are we at war in Pakistan or Somalia, for example, where we have been conducting drone attacks against Qaeda, Islamic State and Taliban militants in Pakistan since 2004 and Al Shabab in Somalia since 2011? Or at war in Niger, where U.S. forces were deployed and where four American soldiers were killed in an ambush in October 2017?
Our role in the seven-year conflict in Yemen has been robust enough that many experts believe the Saudi-led coalition would sue for peace without it. It has been robust enough that American lawmakers — including a bipartisan majority of senators in 2019 and Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, and Peter DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, this year — have characterized it as a violation of Article I of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power to declare war, and of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which sharply limits, in nature and timeline, military action initiated by the president.
We crossed the line in Yemen, those lawmakers concluded, even if it’s not wholly clear where the line is.
And what we’ve done in Yemen looks a lot like what we’re doing in Ukraine. Last month, leaks by U.S. officials revealed that the United States helped Ukraine to kill Russian generals and strike a Russian warship, and Mr. Biden signed a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, a lot of which is for military assistance like weaponry and intelligence sharing. The bill, which Ms. Jayapal and Mr. DeFazio voted for, comes on top of billions of prior military support. The Biden administration also announced, this month, that it will send rocket systems to Ukraine that could theoretically strike inside Russian territory, and it reportedly has plans to sell the Ukrainian government four drones that can be armed with Hellfire missiles.
Are we at war in Ukraine? If we swapped places — if Russian apparatchiks admitted helping to kill American generals or sink a U.S. Navy vessel — I doubt we’d find much ambiguity there. At the very least, what the United States is doing in Ukraine is not not war. If we have so far avoided calling it war, and can continue to do so, maybe that’s only because we’ve become so uncertain of the meaning of the word.