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The Wartime Presidency

By Andrew Polsky

In 2012, the American people will choose between two candidates for the Oval Office who share in common something unusual — neither one has ever spent a day in a military uniform. No presidential election since 1944 has featured two major party candidates with no military experience. The absence of a candidate with time in the military has led some to bemoan the separation between civilian life and military service. But the more immediate concern should be whether a lack of military experience has an impact on how well a president performs as a wartime leader.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt greeting Hon. Anthony Eden during the Quebec Conference, August 1943. National Film Board of Canada. Library and Archives Canada.

A quick glance at the record of wartime commanders in chief suggests that prior military service doesn’t correlate closely with success. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt rank as our most accomplished wartime commanders in chief. Neither had significant military experience. Lincoln served as a militia officer for a few weeks during the Blackhawk War and never heard a shot fired in anger. Roosevelt never served. On the other side of the coin, some of the least successful wartime leaders spent time in the military during earlier conflicts. In the Second World War, Lyndon B. Johnson found himself in a B-17 bomber as it fought off an attack by Japanese fighters; Richard Nixon was in the Navy in the same war; and George W. Bush was a National Guard pilot during the Vietnam War.

A military background matters little for a wartime president because most of the core leadership tasks he must accomplish are political in nature, not military. For starters, a president has to decide whether to take the nation to war or accept that a conflict is unavoidable. This calculation reflects a judgment about the national interest, specifically, whether the security of the American people requires recourse to arms. Although the choice should be informed by an appreciation of the potential cost in human terms of military action, an evaluation that combat experience may sharpen, the decision depends more heavily on an assessment of the economic, political, and social consequences of a possible conflict.

Once a president chooses war, he needs to lay the foundation for success, which includes securing public support, forging alliances or coalitions against the adversary, and mobilizing economic resources. Note, again, that the skills a president needs are political and perhaps organizational, not military. Knowing when to ask Congress for a resolution of support for military intervention involves ongoing conversations with lawmakers. Inducing a reluctant ally to join a coalition in support of an American-led military operation may require hard bargaining and concessions on goals or side payments of some kind. Prior military service won’t help a president navigate his way through the political and diplomatic thickets he may encounter.

Wars seek political goals, not merely battlefield success. So a president needs to frame the broader national objectives he seeks in going to war, and then he has to tailor military strategy, operations, and tactics to meet the ends he has identified. This is probably the single task for which military knowledge would be most useful. But the kind of military expertise a president most needs is the sort that senior officers acquire over the course of a military career. Our presidents who served in uniform did so only briefly, leaving the military to pursue politics. The rare exceptions — Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower — never faced war when they finally reached the White House.

National objectives may include ambitious goals for a new postwar order or the political transformation of a defeated enemy. Here again the tasks are much more political than military. Yes, American troops may need to preserve order after the shooting stops, and it will help if a president can call upon advisors with postwar peacekeeping experience. But this type of expertise is readily available to the Oval Office.

Some of the most vexing challenges a president faces during wartime are diplomatic in character. Presidents struggle to keep allies on the same page, especially client regimes that depend on American aid. The United States has been frustrated by the governments it has supported in Saigon, Baghdad, and Kabul. Yet there is no reason to think that an earlier stint in the military would help a president better deal with a Nguyen Van Thieu or Hamid Karzai, especially when US ambassadors who were career soldiers tore out their hair in frustration at trying to influence the conduct of client regimes.

Finally, a president has to maintain the backing of the American people for the war. Failure to do so puts victory (the accomplishment of his political goals) beyond reach. This task too is a political one, for which military service offers no particular preparation. Public support hinges on recognizing what to ask of the public, and when. Presidents need to find the right language to explain their goals, justify the sacrifices of war, and answer their critics. Few have managed to strike the right chord. Those who did, Lincoln and Roosevelt in particular, were gifted politicians first and foremost.

Leading the nation successfully in wartime, as it turns out, involves accomplishing tasks that are more political than military. Prior military service might make for an attractive candidate. But the best wartime leaders were never soldiers. They were just great at politics.

Andrew J. Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read his previous blog posts: “Obama v. Romney on Afganistan strategy,” “Mitt Romney as Commander in Chief: some troubling signs,” “Muddling counterinsurgency’s impact,” “To be Commander-in-Chief,” and “Presidents, protest, and patriotism.”

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