America's war mistakes

President after president has fallen into similar traps when it comes to conflict. An expert explains why

Published June 16, 2012 8:00PM (EDT)

A detail from the cover of "Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War"
A detail from the cover of "Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War"

By conservative estimates, the United States has been at war for 40 of the last 100 years. During that time, American presidents have led interventions in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq -- war efforts that, for the most part, have been backed by a historically unrivaled war machine. In part because of this, the men sitting in the Oval Office have often embarked on dubious conflicts and made some extraordinary mistakes along the way.

In his new book "Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War," Andrew J. Polsky, a professor of political science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate center, analyzes the record of seven warring presidents. Starting with Lincoln's decisions during the Civil War and concluding with Obama's handling of Afghanistan, Polsky evaluates each president's performance and draws lessons from their victories and shortcomings. Among his other conclusions, Polsky finds that presidents at war are not as powerful as they think. Once the conflict begins, history shows, they find themselves constrained by their initial decisions. Besides, he says, winning a war isn't merely a matter of military victories -- something that Romney and Obama should ponder as they consider the risks of intervening in Iran or leaving Afghanistan.

Salon spoke to Polsky over the phone about drones, the current election, Obama's Afghanistan strategy and why American warfare is different from everybody else's.

How do American leaders' attitudes towards war differ from those of the rest of the world's leaders? And why?

American leaders have had, from the beginning of the 20th century, an extraordinary degree of power. Coupled with that, there hasn't been any significant danger to the American people in all of the conflicts we've found ourselves in. For the leaders in the rest of the world, if they consider the use of violence, they have to be aware that that violence might come home and hit their own people and their own country. Wars have simply not touched the United States directly. Apart from the isolated terrorist attacks, we have been immune to the kind of violence that Europe and the rest of the world has seen. So American presidents not only wield a vast amount of military power, they also preside over a country that has been mostly safe of reciprocal violence. Furthermore, they operate in a political system in which, if they time the war properly, they might not face a political fallout from an unsuccessful war for at least some time.

In the book, you point out that Lincoln's actions during the Civil War reshaped the limits of the executive office and how presidents can go to war. How did he change the executive office?

The first president to understand that he could start a war if he wanted to was James K. Polk. He sent troops down to the border of Mexico in Texas in 1845 in the hopes of provoking the Mexicans to attack the soldiers so that he could go to Congress and say, "We basically have a war, so you might as well declare it." Lincoln's particular contribution was to govern during the first months of the Civil War without Congress being in session. During that time, he acted in certain ways that were clearly outside the Constitution. For example, he decided on his own to expand the size of the army and the navy, even though the Constitution clearly makes that a power of Congress.

Lincoln took several emergency actions without the approval of the legislative branch. When Congress came back into session, they validated his actions -- which I think set a precedent for presidents to assume that they could go beyond the Constitution. Lincoln did more than that by suspending, during the course of the war, the writ of habeas corpus, and although there were limited prosecutions of political incidents, it did occur. To his credit, Lincoln gave forthright explanations for why he was doing these things, something that his successors have failed to do. In the end, however, I believe he went farther than he needed to do. Essentially, Lincoln established a clear precedent that a president will assert his power in wartime and challenge the other branches of the government or the American people to stop him after the fact, rather than seeking permission or approval before he acts.

There is the fundamental paradox about the executive office that you mention in your book: The most powerful man in the world has, in fact, very limited power once a war begins.

Power is relatively unlimited at the very beginning, and that's probably one of the seductive qualities of going to war. Presidents today can deploy extraordinary military power. The United States spends roughly half of the world's defense expenditures. That's an enormous sum of money, and the military we have is incredibly commanding, even though it might not be suited for the challenges that we now face. Presidents, then, control a lot of power, and they usually find that Congress and the public tend to follow in line and are very supportive at the outset.

Things usually change quickly, though. Presidents decide on certain actions, and this makes it impossible for them to change the course of events afterwards. For example, if they decide to send too few troops to a military operation, and they then discover that they needed to send more, the extra soldiers simply won't be ready in time. Also, the relationships with allies tend to weaken. Our leverage, for instance, with the client regimes that we are supporting is very limited -- take Afghanistan, for example. Presidents, then, can find themselves powerless as the conflict reaches its final stages.

Wilson curtailed civil liberties during the First World War. What can we learn from that?

Wilson was perfectly happy to let his political subordinates and the conservative political organizations that took up the cause of suppressing political dissent in the United States go overboard. What you see in World War I is an example of something we've seen many times throughout history. Presidents regard dissent and protest against wars simply as unpatriotic and as something that gives aid and comfort to the enemy. Accordingly, they have little patience for that dissent.

If protest against the war doesn't gain traction with the political mainstream, it will be marginalized and suppressed. That's what happened to the left wing during World War I. In more recent wars like Vietnam and Iraq, protest started as a marginal phenomenon. It quickly entered the mainstream, however, and it simply couldn't be suppressed. It was heard, and I think presidents need to pay attention to it.

Wilson had an agenda that he was persuaded was correct. He was indifferent to the fact that some of the people that were being crushed under the political repression of that period were essentially supporters of his domestic program. By the end of the war, because of his actions, the left in the United States had been so thoroughly beaten down that it had become a spent political force, and a period of reaction consequently followed. 

In a chapter entitled "The Perils of Optimism," you discuss George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war. What was his biggest mistake?

I believe that when George W. Bush looked at Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he saw danger. Put simply, his reaction to Saddam was out of proportion to the threat. It was distorted, and he allowed himself to be persuaded that Saddam was a greater risk than he actually was.

Now, why did that happen? I think in part he saw the moment after 9/11 as a transformative time for the United States in the Middle East. He saw it as a period in which we could break away from supporting authoritarian regimes to actually create a functioning democracy in the heart of the Arab world. It was an enticing vision, and he believed and was persuaded by his subordinates that the Iraqi people were waiting to be liberated, that they were eager to take up democratic values. Essentially, he allowed himself to be seduced by the dream of American power.

While analyzing the first years of Obama's presidency, you write that, "He gave up on winning the war in favor of managing it." The change, you argue, was relatively gradual and subtle. How did that come about, and what actions signaled the shift?

Obama's an interesting case because in some ways he is like Richard Nixon. He took over a war that was already ongoing, and when a president takes over a continuing conflict, he gets a brief window of opportunity to do some things his predecessor probably couldn't. In those instances, the American people and his own party will usually give him a little more time. Nevertheless, he has a very narrow window, and there are only a limited number of options on the table.

When Obama took over, Iraq was essentially history. He made clear that he was going to end the war quickly, and he did, even if the situation is still a messy one right now. In Afghanistan, he had a limited amount of choices. He couldn't mount a long-term counterinsurgency campaign because if you had wanted to do that in Afghanistan, you would have had to do it in 2002.

In part because of this, Obama made the decision to manage the war fairly early. In 2009, when he was considering whether to embark or not on his own surge and the military asked him for 40,000 more troops, he asserted his authority by saying he was only going to send 30,000. He also said that he would send the troops sooner and bring them home sooner. Obama made clear that he was not embracing an open-ended commitment to counterinsurgency. It wasn't very clear what he was trying to accomplish with those troops, but he was certainly not buying into the military's preferred agenda.

Obama also decided that the goal to defeat the Taliban was impossible. He spoke instead of degrading the Taliban. In a speech he made when he announced the surge, he moved away from the language of defeating the enemy, and spoke of limiting the damage the enemy could do. Ultimately, he chose a strategy of containment.

You argue that political and military factors led Obama to adopt a middle ground between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. As the United States exits Afghanistan, the weight has clearly shifted toward counterterrorism, exemplified by the growing number of drone strikes. What do you think about the current strategy?

I believe counterterrorism is a mixed bag. It doesn't buy you long-term political success. Moreover, as long as drone strikes and airstrikes cause civilian casualties, they inflame public opinion, antagonize the Pakistanis, and limit American influence. On the other hand, these strikes are primarily designed to decapitate Al-Qaida and the Taliban and to make it difficult for them to carry on coherent terrorist attacks. That is all part of managing the so-called "Global War on Terror," and in that sense, the strikes accomplish what they are supposed to, according to the current strategy: managing a long-term chronic challenge or problem.

There hasn't been much discussion about this during presidential campaign. It almost seems as if both candidates thought this was the best way to handle the problem.

Yes, and we don't know whether this is a viable strategy. At the moment, however, there is a political consensus in the United States that accepts this as an acceptable course of action. In that sense, it won't attract much discussion during the campaign. Romney's statements about Afghanistan are interesting. They are not very coherent, but it's pretty clear that he doesn't have any alternatives, and that's because there is essentially no significant division in the political mainstream on the wisdom of that general strategy.

How do you think drones, other unmanned machines and cyber sabotage will change the way American presidents decide to initiate wars?

Once again, I think the illusion of power carries with it the idea that the president can inflict harm on an enemy without directly jeopardizing or putting at risk American lives. Now, as long as American lives are not at risk, it becomes politically much more acceptable at home to initiate a conflict. We're only beginning with this, so we don't know what the long-term costs or consequences will be of an approach that inflicts violence without endangering American lives.

I have very deep doubts about this approach. In every kind of asymmetric conflict in which the United States has far better means of violence than its adversary, the enemy always adapts. I use the expression "war amongst the people" to describe these scenarios. I don't see drone strikes helping to win people's hearts and minds in Afghanistan or anywhere else. Good as our technology may be, our adversaries will always adapt to these technologies, and they will always try to defeat the United States by using our tools against us. That is one of the reasons why in Afghanistan and Pakistan we see such an effort from the Taliban and Al-Qaida to publicize civilian deaths caused by drone or air strikes. As far as the local populations are concerned, the people who are being killed are mostly innocent.

You believe war is an extension of politics. How does that alter the president's possible actions and his relation to his citizens?

Wars have political goals. They're never simply about winning a victory in the battlefields. If that were the case, we would have won in Vietnam because certainly, in most battles in that country, American forces prevailed over the communists. Presidents are always trying to achieve a series of political objectives. When Bush invaded Iraq, for instance, he mentioned three objectives: to remove Saddam Hussein from power -- an easy one -- to prevent WMD from falling in the hands of terrorists, and to transform Iraq into a modern democracy that people across the Middle East would embrace. The first two objectives don't seem enough to justify a war, but the third one is a more expansive and much more difficult one that seemingly does.

These transformative goals are initially helpful to gain support for the war, but once they come up far short, as they are usually bound to, people are left disenchanted. In that respect, Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush are very similar. They both used broader goals to attract support for the war and faced problems with the American public once they failed to achieve what they had promised.

You argue that perhaps the most significant failure of the seven presidents you chose to analyze was their lack of preparation regarding the postwar effort — what you call peace-building. How can presidents better avoid the mistakes of their predecessors in future wars?

[Laughs] Here's how: First of all, avoid wars. Seriously, if your goals are political, you have to ask whether the goals are achievable at a reasonable price. Most of the time, they are not. Trying to transform Iraq, for instance, is not a realistic goal. You have to take a skeptical look at your objectives and be realistic about them. Too many things can go wrong when you try to go from point A to point W, if not Z, like we did in Iraq. I think avoiding wars and trying to achieve what you want by other means is a better course of action, [for] in the end, you can always fall back on the use of force as a last resort if you have to.

By Santiago Wills

MORE FROM Santiago Wills

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

American History History