I am in the process of reading Bill Bennett’s history book America: The Last Best Hope. In discussing the War of 1812, Bennett makes an astute observation. He says (p. 204), “It is always trouble for a president when a war is identified with him—and not with the country’s enemy.”
The War of 1812 was the result of continued British interference in American trade, continued British pirating of American ships and sailors, British refusal to relinquish control of forts ceded to the Americans in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, and the concept among Americans that Canada was a threat that was lightly guarded and easy prey.
The main point of contention was the British Orders in Council that stated the British position that forts in American territory would not be relinquished per the Treaty of Paris until Americans satisfied war debts from the Revolution. Even as the Americans worked to pay off the debts, the British sensed that the Americans were too weak and/or unwilling to take the forts by force, so they kept making new demands before the forts would be vacated.
Ironically, the Orders in Council were withdrawn in London just two days before Congress declared war. Transatlantic communication typically took at least three weeks back then. (Please note that Congress declared war. This was not simply an executive decision following Congress’ authorization of necessary force.) Our new president, James Madison, one of our nation’s Founders and the brilliant mind behind the Constitution, strongly pushed for the war, which was strongly opposed by the northern states. Bennett says (p. 198) that while Madison was one “of the greatest of the Founders, he was not well suited for governing what he had helped gather.”
The war went badly initially. US forces were defeated in several important battles, and they infamously fled in the face of British troops advancing on the nation’s new capitol (Washington, DC), allowing the British to burn the new Executive Mansion and the Capitol Building. It soon became apparent that the Canadians would not take invasion passively, so Canada wasn’t going to be an easy plumb to pick. The war became a debacle.
Part of the reason for the problem was that Madison and his predecessor Thomas Jefferson had worked for years to prevent the development of a national navy and were strongly opposed to a standing national army. World history to that point (and especially European history) showed that national military forces were difficult to control and often became threats to their own governments. Wishing to avoid this problem, Jefferson and Madison supported using only state militias. The War of 1812 and other international conflicts soon proved this to be an overly cautious stance that reflected a moralistic denial of reality.
As the war became increasingly unpopular, people began calling it, “Mr. Madison’s War.” The cry started in the northeast, which had long opposed Madison’s policies, but it eventually became more general throughout the country. But the war wasn’t without its bright sides. One American victory in Baltimore yielded our National Anthem. The war’s greatest victory for the Americans, the Battle of New Orleans, actually occurred a couple of weeks after an end to the war had been negotiated by US and British representatives in Belgium.
The Treaty of Ghent basically left both sides in the same position they were at the beginning of the war, so it seemed that little was gained and much was lost. In retrospect, Bennett says (p. 211), “[T]he War of 1812 helped to form a new American consciousness. This American identity was fused in the crucible of battle.” But Madison’s political reputation never recovered from the war. Wikipedia notes here, “In 2006, historians ranked Madison's failure to avoid war as the #6 worst presidential mistake ever made.”
I find Bennett’s proposition compelling that a president is in trouble when a war becomes identified with him/her rather than with the enemy. Just during my early life, this occurred with both Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon with respect to the Vietnam War. I think it is obvious that this has now occurred with George W. Bush with respect to the Iraq War.
Most of the discourse on the Iraq War, regardless of who is discoursing, seems to be tightly tied to President Bush. It even happens when the President and his administration’s officials are talking about it. The focus seems to be on the president rather than on the enemy we face, regardless of who is talking. I think Bill Bennett’s astute observation applies here. This focus is a symptom of the extent of the trouble in which the president finds himself at present.
It would be interesting to explore the reasons the Iraq War has become identified with President Bush, but only if the exploration could exclude the type of extreme commentary from either side that has become common in political discourse. This type of discussion yields plenty of sparks and heat, but not much light.