Wars and Wartime Presidents

Aerial view of World Trade Center after September 11 attacksFareed 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.”

He continues:

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

FILED UNDER: General, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Fareed Zakaria contends that, President Bush’s attempts to brand himself as a “war president,” the United States isn’t really at war

    Isn’t it amazing, how often this kind of play is attempted? Are you going to trust yor lying eyes, or Fareed Zakaria?

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    What’s an existential threat? The North did not present an existential threat to the South during the War Between the States. They didn’t plan to put every Southerner to the sword. But they did threaten a way of life.

    Spain presented no existential threat to us in the Spanish-American War;the Central Powers weren’t an existential threat to us in the Great War;the Axis didn’t present an existential threat to us during WWII (although I suspect they’d have liked to). That’s simply not the standard by which we decide when we’ll go to war.

    Violent radical Islamists don’t present an existential threat to us, either, but our way of life will be hard put to survive attacks that destroy a trillion dollars worth of wealth in a day, which happened on 9/11, with any frequency.

    As you know, James, I think that both of our military ventures post-9/11 were ill-advised. That doesn’t mean that I think that all military ventures are ill-advised nor that they won’t be required from time to time. I also think that some sort of military response was mandatory after 9/11.

    Is the notion of a “war-time president” a useful trope right now? I think that the facts decree that it will be the fact for some time to come. I’m not so sure that it’s particularly useful to think of the president that way whatever the facts decree.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Eisenhower was a unique figure, virtually universally esteemed. There is no comparable person today. And nobody doubted his willingness to use force.

  4. Kind of a weak effort from Mr. Zakaria.

    Mr. Schuler, I believe the existential threat was to the nation, or perhaps just the government if you like. Throughout history, few conquerors believed it was best to put everyone to the sword, except as an small examplar from time to time. Through medieval times, slaves or serfs tended to continue to have some value, and as the Enlightenment took hold, it became to be deemed anathema for more humanitarian reasons.

    The existential threat to our way of life is an existential threat to many of our citizens. How long will the citizens of Southern California survive without an infrastructure to deliver water to them? How long will the denizens of our largest cities be able to survive without an infrastructure to deliver them food? Any guesses as to what sort of civil unrest we might expect these days with 20% unemployment? How about 30%?

    Generally speaking, war is no longer limited to the formal and now outdated definitions of the Geneva Conventions and Westphalian sovereignty. My guess is we will be at war for a long, long time. Hopefully, it will never be as bad as most of the 20th century disasters, but let’s not make the “No True Scotsman” mistake of defining war away unless it reaches WWII levels of slaughter and destruction.

  5. steve says:

    The problem with acting like a wartime president, is that this is not a war to be won by the military. Read Petraeus. Read Nagl. Read Galula. A President who takes unto himself the mantle of wartime President and ignores military advice and political opposition undercuts his own efforts in what is likely to be a long term effort. If you have not, please go read the MNF Commanders rules recently released. Nice little section there call Live Our Values. Time we started doing so.

    Steve

  6. Would it be fair to suggest that the rules of engagement have changed for wartime presidents as they have for uniformed commanders? They shouldn’t be trying to fight the last war either.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Mr. Schuler, I believe the existential threat was to the nation, or perhaps just the government if you like. Throughout history, few conquerors believed it was best to put everyone to the sword, except as an small examplar from time to time. Through medieval times, slaves or serfs tended to continue to have some value, and as the Enlightenment took hold, it became to be deemed anathema for more humanitarian reasons.

    My point was that Mr. Zakaria seems to be defining “existential threat” sufficiently narrowly that as long as somebody survives, it’s not an existential threat. I think our way of life is under existential threat and the arguments over the last eight years over how far government surveillance should be able to go fully supports that view.

    Note BTW that radical Islamists are under an existential threat from the modernity that contact with us brings. They see, correctly, that their way of life won’t survive as things are going now. I have no sympathy for them.

  8. Mr. Schuler, thank you and I concur.

  9. Floyd says:

    The VAST MAJORITY of the Neo-Hippies are calling it the IRAQ WAR!