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.”