Well, now we know. The Global War On Terror - GWOT, in the jargon - which we once thought deliberately excised from the Pentagon's vocabulary, on the contrary is alive and well. Moreover, according to senior Pentagon officials, we should expect it to continue for years to come.
At a hearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee concerning possible changes to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the nominal legal authority for all U.S. overseas combat operations since 9-11-01, Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan insisted that such operations would be necessary for "at least" another 10 to 20 years, and might be mounted anywhere in the world "from Boston to the FATA" - Pakistan's tribal areas - without further Congressional authorization.
That assertion prompted one senator to declare Thursday's hearing "the most astoundingly disturbing hearing that I've been to since I've been here." "You guys," he complained, referring to the Pentagon, "have essentially rewritten the Constitution here today."
Rammed through Congress in the panicky days after 9-11, the AUMF authorized President Bush to use whatever force he considered necessary against those who "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the 9-11 attacks or "harbored such organizations or persons."
The AUMF's principal target, of course, was Afghanistan, whose Taliban rulers refused demands to surrender Osama bin Laden and his henchmen to justice. In that respect only, the AUMF amounted to a declaration of war, although we'd have been better off in many ways had the Bush administration asked for, and Congress declared, just such a formal state of war.
Of course, no one at the time contemplated that the AUMF would later help to justify invading Iraq, still less to conduct a global campaign of assassination-by-drone against anyone even remotely associated with groups hostile to the U.S., not excluding American citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki and his teen-age son, killed by a CIA drone in Yemen two years ago.
The sheer light-heartedness with which Sheehan described the Pentagon's view of its reach under the AUMF disturbed some senators. Asked if any terrorist group affiliated however loosely with Al Qaeda automatically constituted a threat to the U.S., Sheehan replied, "Yes, sir, although it's a bit murky."
A bit murky. And for the next 10 to 20 years, according to Sheehan, that "murkiness" will suffice to justify U.S. military action anywhere in the world, without any further legal sanction, and at whatever cost to America's reputation as a nation of laws.
No wonder even hawkish senators such as Arizona's John McCain were disturbed. For McCain, of course, the appropriate answer is to reissue the AUMF in expanded form intended explicitly to permit if not encourage outright future U.S. military intervention in situations such as Syria that are only remotely related to the GWOT.
Others worry about the opposite problem. What would happen, one senator asked Sheehan curiously, were the Afghan government to make peace with the Taliban's Mullah Omar - he, of course, being the fellow who, by refusing to hand over Bin Laden, justified the invasion of Afghanistan in the first place.
Would we continue under the AUMF to be at war with Omar, hence the Taliban, even though Afghanistan itself no longer was? To which Sheehan replied, "That could be the case, yes." The exchange probably would have made perfect senseÖto Alice in Wonderland's Red Queen.
But the real problem with Sheehan's testimony, and his open-ended view of both the AUMF and the GWOT he claims that it authorizes, is how in the world we'll know when they end. Asked at the same hearing, "Does the AUMF expire by presidential declaration, congressional action or the occurrence of an actual event in the world," acting DoD General Counsel Robert Taylor replied, "Precisely how that would be written and established is unclear."
The irony of the AUMF, passed at a time of rare political unity, is that, in today's poisonous climate, the same congressional gridlock that prevents the president from achieving anything useful domestically also frees him effectively to do whatever he chooses militarily.
So the GWOT will continue apace, even though no one seems able to define precisely who our enemies are or how we expect to defeat them. Instead, the Pentagon apparently is quite comfortable prosecuting a "murky" war for decades to come, with no further congressional approval of its activities required or desired, and above all, with no clear idea of how they or we will know when it ends.
For those historically inclined, it's hard not to wonder whether we've regressed to the 17th century and the 30 Years' War pitting Protestants against Catholics, and that ended by killing millions and devastating large swathes of Europe.
But at least that war produced the Peace of Westphalia, which established the modern state system and the foundations of international law - the very foundations, it should be noted, that we now seem to be bound and determined to undermine.