It should be noted that Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution states, “The Congress shall have Power … To declare War, … and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water ….” But nothing in the Constitution or in US law specifies how Congress must exercise its power to declare war. Many insist that a declaration of war requires Congress to pass a bill that formally uses such terms in its title, but this is purely opinion rather than a matter of law.
According to Infoplease, the US has engaged in 21 notable military conflicts. Some of these could perhaps more appropriately be classed as domestic struggles. Using the (legally unsupported) strict interpretation of declaration of war, it appears that Congress only formally declared war in five of these: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, WWI, and WWII. It may be argued that a declaration of war was implicit with respect to the American Revolution and the Civil War. The US pretty much prevailed in these conflicts, except for the War of 1812.
That leaves 14 other conflicts. It may be argued that Congress technically declared war in at least some of these. Looking through the list, I’m not sure that it can be argued that these conflicts were altogether unsuccessful. Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs were debacles, to be sure (probably unnecessarily). But success needs to be measured on a sliding scale in the other conflicts listed. Some were more successful and others were less so.
Many decry the Korean War as unsuccessful, but without it, three generations of South Koreans would have lived like their former countrymen in the great worker’s utopia of North Korea. The brief Grenada conflict was tiny, but was a significant turning point in the Cold War and in the USSR’s plans to expand into the Americas. We’ve still got troops in the Balkans following the conflicts in Bosnia and in Kosovo.
The Hoover Institution’s Shelby Steele postulates a different view of US military conflicts in this WSJ article. He argues that much rests on the concept of moral authority. Some of our wars have been wars of “national survival,” while others have been “essentially wars of choice.” Steele calls these latter types of wars “wars of discipline” that are “more a matter of urgent choice than of absolute necessity.” The reasons for choosing to fight these wars are more “abstract.” Choosing not to fight them would not immediately imperil our national survival.
Wars for national survival necessarily carry with them the weight of moral authority. In these wars, we don’t worry much about political correctness because “we fight to achieve a favorable balance of power,” Steele writes. “We fight unapologetically for dominance, and we determine to defeat our enemy by any means necessary.”
Conversely, wars of discipline are fought “to preserve a favorable balance of power that is already in place in the world.” Steele writes, “We fight as enforcers rather than as rebels or as patriots fighting for survival. … We don't sacrifice blood and treasure for change; we sacrifice for constancy.”
It can certainly be argued that wars of discipline are fought to prevent us from having to fight wars for survival. But this is often a hard sell. Steele explains, “When survival is at stake, there is no lack of moral authority, no self-doubt and no antiwar movement of any consequence. But when war is not immediately related to survival, when a society is fundamentally secure and yet goes to war anyway, moral authority becomes a profound problem. Suddenly such a society is drawn into a struggle for moral authority that is every bit as intense as its struggle for military victory.”
Steele explains where wars of discipline leave us:
“America does not do so well in its disciplinary wars (the Gulf War is an arguable exception) because we begin these wars with only a marginal moral authority and then, as time passes, even this meager store of moral capital bleeds away. Inevitably, into this vacuum comes a clamorous and sanctimonious antiwar movement that sets the bar for American moral authority so high that we must virtually lose the war in order to meet it. There must be no torture, no collateral damage, no cultural insensitivity, no mistreatment of prisoners and no truly aggressive or definitive display of American military power. In other words, no victory.”
I think the major difference in the Gulf War is that we had moral authority because we went to war to fight for a small ally nation that was unable to defend itself after it had been invaded by a despotic neighbor. We went in, kicked the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and then quickly scaled back to maintenance mode. The public is often supportive at the beginning of a disciplinary war effort. This support quickly wanes for the reasons Steele mentions. There simply wasn’t time for that transformation to occur in the Gulf War.
It has often been argued that had we gone on to Baghdad and deposed Saddam in 1991 instead of pulling back, we’d not have had to go through the last several grueling years in Iraq. This is a shortsighted analysis. We would still have gone through grueling years, but they would have occurred 12 years earlier. It’s not possible to go back and project what the domestic and international political scene would have been like had we deposed Saddam in 1991.
My assessment of this is that Americans are willing to commit lives, time, resources, and even personal freedom to a war for survival. You can get plenty of support for a disciplinary war, but only in the short run. You can get away with it if it’s targeted and short. But disciplinary wars that drag on tend to lose the support needed for success.
When it comes to Iraq today, Steele contends, “our great military might is not enough to compensate for our weak sense of moral authority, our ambivalence.” But the vast majority of Americans are not ambivalent when it comes to “Our broader war on terror,” which “is a war of survival.” While Iraq may ultimately “prove to be a far more important war in preserving a balance of power favorable to America than our war against al Qaeda,” Steele says, support necessarily wanes when we get too far afield from our primary objective, where our moral authority lies.
This scenario makes the current political waters very difficult to navigate. On the one hand, Americans are quite deeply committed to fighting terrorists that threaten our survival. On the other hand, they are ambivalent about our support of disciplinary conflicts undertaken to collaterally support the main goal. Still, Americans prefer to win in disciplinary wars, if it can be accomplished soon and decisively. But if not, they’re not very enthusiastic of efforts to simply maintain the status quo.
How is a politician to come across as tough on terrorists, while addressing concerns about conflicts where we lack moral authority? Anything you do can seem off base, depending on how it gets spun. Anti-war statements come across as being weak when it comes to terrorists. Pro-war statements can seem like war-mongering and overreaching. Saying we should get out of Iraq can seem like a commitment to defeat. Saying we should do what it takes to get the job done in Iraq may be taken as a sign that you want to keep fighting there ad infinitum. And fickle public opinion varies daily and varies by location. It’s a tough season to be running for national office.