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Vice Presidents at War

By Andrew J. Polsky

Much of the attention to Mitt Romney’s choice of a running mate will focus on whether the selection will influence the outcome of the election in November. (The short answer is probably not, unless he suddenly decides to think outside the proverbial box.) We might do better to spend more time considering how a vice president influences policy. I find that vice presidents have sometimes played a role in policy debates, but it is never decisive.

Dick Cheney stands out as the most visible vice president in the shaping of war policy, but visibility and influence should not be confused. After 9/11, Cheney’s was one of a number of voices in George W. Bush’s inner circle claiming that Saddam Hussein posed a risk to the United States. The vice president worried about another catastrophic attack and exaggerated the very slender evidence of connections between Saddam’s intelligence organization and al Qaeda. On August 26, 2002, he went so far as to claim that the administration had firm proof that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD): “The Iraqi regime has in fact been very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents, and they continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago.” His words caught the president and others off guard. Still, they adopted Cheney’s alarmist view — not because they believed he was correct but because it suited their purposes as they sought to build public support for military action. Cheney did not lead Bush to war. The decision, and the responsibility, rested with the president.

Following the invasion, Cheney continued to make reckless statements and give poor advice. He claimed in June 2005 that the insurgency was in its “last throes,” even as the scale of violence continued to increase. Perhaps Cheney’s most damaging intervention occurred after Bush won reelection in 2004. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld offered to resign, but the vice president persuaded Bush to retain Rumsfeld lest his dismissal be seen as an expression of doubt about the course of the war. That kind of reassessment was exactly what the situation required. But, again, the final call was made by the president. He stubbornly refused to reexamine his war policy for three years as the violence in Iraq worsened. A different vice president might have urged another course of action, but there is no evidence that Bush would have listened. He ignored all other calls to rethink his approach, both from within the administration (by, for example, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice) and from without.

In contrast to Cheney’s hawkish stance, at least two vice presidents have cautioned presidents against military intervention or escalation, and they were overruled. During the debates within the Johnson administration about whether to send U.S. troops to Vietnam in 1965, Hubert Humphrey joined George Ball, the undersecretary of state, and Clark Clifford, Johnson’s longtime confidant, in arguing against direct American military intervention. In July 1965 Clifford and Humphrey warned the president that the American people would never back the kind of war he proposed to fight. But their views represented a small minority within the administration. In the atmosphere of the Cold War and in view of Johnson’s conviction that “aggression” had to be resisted at the earliest opportunity (the lesson he derived from Munich), moreover, Humphrey’s objections carried little weight.

Joe Biden also adopted a dissenting stance during Barack Obama’s 2009 deliberations over an Afghanistan surge. Biden argued for an emphasis on counterterrorism, targeting al-Qaeda leaders in particular, while the military recommended sending enough troops (and keeping them there long enough) to mount a sustained counterinsurgency campaign. Obama insisted that Biden argue his case, but the vice president’s view was a minority position, much like Humphrey’s. On the other side stood Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the Joint Chiefs. The President chose a version of the surge option (albeit with fewer troops than the military preferred and for a shorter time).

The record suggests that vice presidents may be heard, but presidents listen to a circle of advisers and then make the final decision. If a vice president takes a stand close to the president’s position, it may appear that the veep had a significant role. But it makes more sense, when we try to explain presidential war policy, to look at the president’s own predisposition and at the dominant view in his inner circle. Occasions when the number two carried the day are rare. Harry Truman put it correctly when he said of the presidency that “the buck stops here.”

Andrew 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 Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.

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Official White House Photo of US Vice President Dick Cheney by Karen Ballard, 2001. Official White House Photo of US Vice President Joe Biden by Andrew Cutraro, 2009.

Recent Comments

  1. truthsquad

    “Dick Cheney stands out as the most visible vice president in the shaping of war policy”.

    He was even more visible when he famously declared “deficits don’t matter” which led to new tax cuts. We are still struggling to correct our fiscal condition.

  2. Andrew Polsky

    As in the case of Iraq war policy, Cheney’s statements about deficits did not lead to the tax cuts. The policy decision belonged to Bush, not his VP.

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