Wednesday, November 01, 2006

At War With the President

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Ironically, the Orders in Council were withdrawn in London just two days before Congress declared war.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.

5 comments:

Democracy Lover said...

Why is the Iraq War identified with Bush? There's a HUGE difference between the War of 1812 in which another nation invaded the US and the war in Iraq in which Bush decided to attack a country that had not attacked us, had not threatened to attack us, had no potential to attack us, and posed no threat to us.

Then when all his phony "objectives" had been met (or to be more precise, when they were discovered to have been fraudulent), he invented new ones and bogged us down in a brutal occupation that has cost nearly 3,000 American lives and half a million Iraqi lives. He has achieved nothing. He had no rational goals in the first place. He has no plan. He has no sense.

That's why we identify this war with Bush - because it is his collosal and criminal mistake.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you ask Mr. Roberts how many of those bylines in his premier issue are the real names of the writer? How is that being honest with the reader?

He does not promise to be different -- from the indications I've seen, he promises to be just like any other opininated axe-grinder with an agenda and a soapbox.

Reach Upward said...

DL, if I strip the standard liberal arguments that ignore realities out of your statement, you do make some good points. Of course it was different invading another country rather than being invaded, but you minimize Iraq's threat power prior to the war. And you minimize the fact that it was the US that invited Britain to invade in 1812 by declaring war.

Actually, I think it's obvious that most Americans supported going into Iraq. It was even supported by a significant number of Democrats in Congress. It burns my toast that Congress authorized this action without actually declaring war. (I'm not talking about party affiliation here.) Most in Congress wanted to cover their political hind ends by allowing the executive to go to war without actually declaring war. They wanted to have it both ways. They are partially to blame for excesses of executive power. Likewise, Congress' dereliction of duty is part of the reason for the focus on the executive.

In recent decades, Congress has been unwilling to take strong stands on many issues. They pass ambiguous laws that must be interpreted by the judiciary, thus, giving the judiciary branch more power than the Founders ever intended. This mushy kind of leadership is partially to blame for us going to Iraq and staying there. Just as the judiciary strengthens as the legislative refuses to step up to the plate, the executive also takes up part of the slack. Note how much attention courts get nowadays. It's similar with the executive.

While most Americans were ready to go into Iraq to overthow Saddam, far fewer were willing to do nation building, which is a long, arduous task that has no clear path or completion date. But that is exactly the path Pres. Bush has taken. Those that have interacted with him think he sincerely believes that he is doing what is best for our nation's security and for the Middle East in the long run.

It seems completely ridiculous at this point to think that we could cavalierly overthrow Saddam and then get out without helping Iraq to recover, but I maintain that most Americans had only bought into the short-term agenda but not the long-term agenda. That was childish and myopic. It was easy to see who the enemy was in the short run. In the long run of nationbuilding, however, the face of the enemy is much less clear. The one clear thing the public has to focus on is the president.

Moreover, the president has done an arguably poor job of selling the long-term agenda to the public. This is another factor that has put the focus on the executive rather than on the enemy. Following WWII, people bought into the Marshall Plan and were even very generous in helping their former enemies. The plan became the focus rather than the administration that carried it out. Enemies that acted out against us during our first decade of occupation in Japan and Europe were easy to identify.

Today it's hard for the American public to tell who the enemies are in Iraq. Everyone seems to be fighting everyone and there is a lot of suspicion about the people officially in charge. The effort is struggling. Many mistakes have been made. We are not exposed to many sentiments of gratitude for what we have done in Iraq. Americans wonder why we should continue to do anything for those that seem so ungrateful.

In all of this, the president stands resolute. With the faces of the enemies and allies in Iraq so obfuscated, the president is the only face people have to identify with the war. And that's bad for him.

In summary, I believe that some of the reasons the Iraq War is associated with the president rather than with the enemy are: the support for the short-term strategy but lack of support for the long-term strategy, the unwillingness of the legislative branch to do its actual duty (declare war or say no rather than simply authorizing the executive to employ force), the difficulty of telling who the enemies are in Iraq, and the president's failure to sell the plan to the public while standing resolutely in support of the plan. I'm sure there are other reasons as well.

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Anon, you make good points about The Ledger's authors using pseudonyms. The difference Roberts promises, however, is to clearly state the bias and slant from which the authors write instead of pretending it doesn't exist. I would rather have the slant clearly stated up front rather than hidden between the lines. It remains to be seen whether The Ledger will live up to its promotion.

Democracy Lover said...

I agree totally about the abdication of responsibility by the Congress on both sides of the aisle. Their failure to perform their Constitutional responsibility has played into the hands of those who want to increase the power of the Executive Branch -- exactly the kind of government the founders tried to avoid.

As for the Iraq War, there are so many problems that it's hard to know where to begin. It is clear now that this administration intended this war long before they developed any justifications for it and they "cooked" the intelligence and played the sycophantic media to develop support for it.

If they have a long-term plan, they certainly have not articulated it. I suspect that they have avoided doing so because their long-term plan has more to do with greed and exploitation than with any value reasonable Americans would support.

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