Wars and Wartime Presidents
Fareed Zakaria contends that, President Bush’s attempts to brand himself as a “war president,” the United States isn’t really at war.
America (and before it, Britain) has felt it was “at war” when the conflict threatened the country’s basic security—not merely its interests or its allies abroad. This is the common-sense way in which we define a wartime leader, and by that definition the politicians in charge during World Wars I and II—Wilson, Lloyd George, Roosevelt, Churchill—are often described as such. It’s not a perfect definition. The United States has been so far removed from most conflicts that even World War I’s effects could be described as indirect (incorrectly in my view). But it conjures up the image of a threat to society as a whole, which then requires a national response.
By any of these criteria, we are not at war. At some level, we all know it. Life in America today is surprisingly normal for a country with troops in two battle zones. The country may be engaged in wars, but it is not at war.
Of course, by that standard, the United States hasn’t been at war since, oh, 1865. Sure, we had gas rationing and whatnot during WWII but the homeland wasn’t in danger. Hawaii was merely a territory in 1941, after all. Yes, a U.S. naval base was attacked and, yes, military response was warranted.
By contrast, the current wartime posture is a response to a direct attack — more precisely, a series of them — on the U.S. civilian population. Virtually everyone supported war to remove the Taliban in 2001 and there’s strong bipartisan and international consensus that the ongoing mission there is vital. (There’s less consensus that it’s achievable.)
Now, are we subjecting our citizens to the same privations we did during WWII? No. We’re a far wealthier country than we were six decades ago and we’re much less hesitant to borrow. So, no gas rationing, no paper drives, no war bond drives. We’ve got a large standing military rather than relying on conscription. We buy weapons systems ahead of time, keeping them for upwards of twenty years, rather than taking over the civilian manufacturing sector to gear up in midstream. But just because this isn’t WWII doesn’t mean it’s not “wartime.”
It is by now overwhelmingly clear that Al Qaeda and its philosophy are not the worldwide leviathan that they were once portrayed to be. Both have been losing support over the last seven years. The terrorist organization’s ability to plan large-scale operations has crumbled, their funding streams are smaller and more closely tracked. Of course, small groups of people can still cause great havoc, but is this movement an “existential threat” to the United States or the Western world? No, because it is fundamentally weak. Al Qaeda and its ilk comprise a few thousand jihadists, with no country as a base, almost no territory and limited funds. Most crucially, they lack an ideology that has mass appeal. They are fighting not just America but the vast majority of the Muslim world. In fact, they are fighting modernity itself.
Of course, al Qaeda was a small group on September 11, 2001, too; that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. Are they an existential threat to the United States? Not unless they get a large nuclear arsenal, no. Then again, the Soviets presented an existential threat to the United States and Zakaria doesn’t consider that era to be “wartime,” either.
He then goes on to argue that the next president needs to be more like Ike:
Eisenhower refused to follow the French into Vietnam or support the British at Suez. He turned down several requests for new weapons systems and missiles, and instead used defense dollars to build the interstate highway system and make other investments in improving America’s economic competitiveness. Those are the kinds of challenges that the next president truly needs to address.
Then again, the United States already had a huge economic and military advantage over the Soviets during the Eisenhower years. The same is true, of course, vis-a-vis the Islamists. The latter seem less amenable to traditional modes of deterrents than the Soviets, however. Beyond that, where’s the evidence that we’re failing to build highways because we’re in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Photo credit: GlobalSecurity.org