As the union fell apart in 1861, Abraham Lincoln claimed the “war power” as his own, relying on a constellation of Article II clauses including the president’s role as commander in chief and the presidential oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” In subsequent wars, Lincoln’s precedent has generally prevailed. Today, it is axiomatic that war empowers the president.
The constitutional ambiguity on this point, however, makes for endless debate, especially in times like ours, when waging war is controversial. Indeed, much of the critique of wartime governance typically involves judging aggressive presidential behavior against a set of fuzzy constitutional standards.
Andrew Polsky, a professor of political science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, writes that he undertook his book, “Elusive Victories,” in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, expecting it to take “its place on the bookshelf of liberal laments about excesses of executive authority.” Instead, he has written a very different book, one that moves beyond the constitutional arguments often put forward to contest presidential war powers; consequently, it may have a distinctive impact.
In Polsky’s telling, presidents ought to beware of war despite its typical rally-around-the-flag popularity at the outset because war more often leads to presidential failure than to success. Using the examples of the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Polsky documents the hardships and frustrations presidents have encountered in exercising their war powers. The book is a sobering counterpoint to heroic narratives celebrating martial presidencies and to the scholarly emphasis on how presidential power has expanded with war.
Polsky’s wartime presidents are conventional politicians facing acute problems that threaten to overwhelm them and the agendas they brought into office. They confront restive Congresses and prickly military leaders. Their leverage over wartime allies and the conduct of the wars themselves is often weak and ineffectual. And they face domestic opposition and, with it, a weighty temptation to silence dissent.
Moreover, Polsky shows that as war persists, each president finds that his freedom of action dwindles. Early decisions limit later options, inexorably rendering wartime presidents captive to choices made before the full magnitude of the tasks before them became clear. “Presidents enter wars believing they have in their hands the military instruments to accomplish their most ambitious political goals. . . . [Yet] in each instance, they have fallen short, sometimes by a vast margin.”
Those political goals are not limited to military victory but include the broader aims victory was intended to achieve. “Think of Woodrow Wilson banishing war and bestowing self-determination on oppressed peoples, Roosevelt establishing a benign liberal order that would encompass all the major powers (including Stalin’s Soviet Union), or Bush remaking Iraq.” This history, joined to the fact that war typically entails a sacrifice of the president’s domestic priorities, leads Polsky to claim that ultimately the problem of war is not that presidents are too powerful but that they are too weak. For all the latitude the Constitution and the American people give them, wartime presidents are, ultimately, subject to forces they cannot control, even in victory.
Polsky’s case studies are constructed almost exclusively from published secondary sources, but there are two ways in which his reading of the past seems unduly influenced by his conceptions of the present. First, his appraisal of Iraq as a “war of choice” leads him to seek out the ways in which earlier presidents’ choices about national security also created the conditions for taking the nation to war. Although these accounts are sometimes subtle and illuminating, they seldom convey the degree to which these presidents felt they had no choice but to fight. He seems uncomfortable with the notion of a war of necessity, which by definition leaves little room for presidential avoidance.
Second, his criticism of earlier presidents for not focusing sooner on postwar planning seems unjustifiably harsh. Polsky’s wartime narratives largely ignore the fear and contingency of war, which create an obsession with military victory. Thus presidents rarely have the luxury “from the outset [to] focus attention on peace-building,” as Polsky recommends. One of the historian’s most difficult tasks is to recapture the uncertainty of the past, when the fog of war heavily shrouded the knowable future. Wartime presidents usually are not free to choose their fixations — or to look beyond them.
Polsky more nearly captures this reality when he acknowledges “the troubling possibility that wartime political leadership, with its multiple, demanding challenges, exceeds the capacity of any person.” This recognition, more than any elegant constitutional logic, is likely to give pause to a future president contemplating war — as appears to be the intent behind Polsky’s thought-provoking volume. But what if previous presidents had access to Polsky’s conclusions? Would Lincoln, for instance, still have moved to keep Fort Sumter in April 1861?
Russell L. Riley
chairs the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.