Presidents At War
By opting to invade Iraq, George W. Bush was following in the footsteps of history
America is attacked. The president addresses Congress in stirring terms. Senators and representatives, with a few eccentric exceptions, vote for a declaration of war, and the overwhelming majority of the people support the war effort without stint. The president appoints sterling generals and admirals and superintends massive war production. American troops surge to victory, and peace is made.
This is the picture we have of the way America, and American presidents, go to war. It comports with what we think happened in World War I and, especially, in World War II. In this view of U.S. history, American presidents lead the nation only into wars that are forced upon them.
There's only one problem. This picture is almost entirely contrary to the facts.
Critics of George W. Bush like to say that Iraq was a war of choice--a conflict that could have been avoided. But almost all American wars have been, to a greater or lesser degree, wars of choice. It is said that Bush went to war in Iraq without sufficient forces, without a game plan for the occupation, and without an exit strategy. Even if all those charges are true, then he has plenty of company in American history.
For generations, presidents have wrestled with the difficult decision to lead the nation into war. Woodrow Wilson chose to bring the United States into World War I when he could have acquiesced to Germany's demand that we stop trading with Britain and France. Franklin Roosevelt, beginning in 1939, took daring and controversial decisions--starting with his sending massive aid to Britain and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany--knowing they raised a grave risk that Germany or Japan would attack.
Military success was rarely guaranteed. In the early 1800s,the American military was small, and usually outnumbered. So there were practical limits on the president's ability to exercise his powers. Spurred by young "war hawks"like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, James Madison asked Congress for 10,000 troops to fight the British in 1811. Then, a year later, he imposed an embargo on trade and got Congress to vote, far from unanimously, to go to war. Madison's ability to prosecute the War of 1812 was so limited he was unable to prevent the burning of the White House and the Capitol.
Pirates of the Barbary Coast. Both the president and the American people had to learn that, in wartime, patience is definitely a virtue. Typically, the field of battle was far from Washington, and until the telegraph allowed Abraham Lincoln to communicate in real time with his generals, presidents learned of the course of battle only weeks or months later. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson sent the Navy and the Marines to take on the Barbary pirates, who were enslaving American merchants and demanding tribute. His ships set sail for the Barbary Coast in June 1801 but didn't complete their mission until September 1805.
The rationale for a war, then as now, was not always clear-cut. In 1846, James K. Polk started the war with Mexico by claiming, with murky evidence at best, that Mexican forces had crossed the Nueces River and "shed American blood on American soil." The treaty ending that war gave us more than half of Mexico's territory, including Texas and California.