William Greider's Point of View article of Feb. 25 [outlook] thoughtfully discusses our dangerous national tendency to ascribe strong leadership to a president only when he has wielded military force. While agreeing with most of Greider's analysis, I believe his conclusions require further elaboration, lest they be misunderstood.
Unlike his four immediate predecessors, President Carter celebrated his first anniversary in office without having intervened militarily in any foreign land. We should regard that as a signal achievement, or at least as a stroke of national good fortune. Yet it was, as the article's title observed, "Carter's Unheralded Milestone." Indeed, by managing for a year to avoid a shootout-and that is Greider's point-Jimmy Carter has been denied those benefits to image and popularity that the press customarily bestows upon presidents who resort to force in crisis management.
The president's problem, and ours, is a "situation room" syndrome: a national habit, developed over the years since PearlHarbor, of picturing our presidents most vividly and reverentially in their role as commander-in-chief, making fateful decisions of life and death. Greider suggests that, until a president has projected himself forcefully in that role, the press tends to think of him as "fuzzy" and untested. Dwight Eisenhower, having been supreme allied commander, presumably needed no trial-by-fire to establish his "presidential" credentials with the press. Ike's successors, however, are said to have projected their "presidential" images most successfully by means of dramatic military actions launched from the Oval Office. Most recently, Greider reminds us, Gerald Ford's short presidency gained its high point during a brief firefight with Cambodians, which, however minor in consequence, was covered eagerly by the White House press.
As Greider recognizes, the "situati on room" syndrome is perpetuated in large part by the nature of his own profession. Journalists, like the public they serve, crave action and drama-elements provided in quintessence by a foreign-policy "crisis." In such an event, potential consequences are projected much less clearly than the spectacle itself. The president is silhouetted as the Americans rally to his support, and, barring an obvious gaffe, his "presidential" image tends to be sharpened. That history may later show his military actions ill advised does not reduce any increased popularity he enjoys at the time.
Because a president's leadership must draw heavily from his reservoir of popularity, it is a beguiling notion that the chief executive can increase his domestic prestige by delivering some kind of international punch in the nose. Anyone tempted by that idea, however, would be well advised to look again at the records of our recent presidents. The lesson, I contend, is to the contrary.
To be sure, the popularity of John F. Kennedy reached its pinnacle in the immediate aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, but it quickly receded. The same was true with LBJ. Any gains in popularity he reaped from sending troops into the Dominican Republic were certainly short lived. And while considerable support, even enthusiasm, accompanied his subsequent decision to introduce American combat forces into Vietname, the eventual disaster that fateful error inflicted on his presidency should be self-evident.
Richard Nixon's first term, we should remember, suffered not a high but a low point when he invaded Cambodia, and it was only his large-scale withdrawal of our soldiers from Vietnam, coupled with ending the draft and an eleventh-hour promise of peace, that won him his landslide reelection.
Finally, as to the permanency of Ford's political gains from the Mayaguez incident, his current retirement should be sufficient evidence.
The political consequence for a president who commits U.S. forces abroad is at best dubious. Recent experience suggests that a brief involvement will confer little more than a transient benefit on presidential popularity. And if the fighting is prolonged, the American people, who have no patience for foolish or futile warefare, will inevitably hold the president to harsh account. We are, after all, the same country that happily embraced the Eisenhower presidency for two full terms, without his once introducing American troops into foreign hostilities.
Military adventures abroad can provide a momemtn of exhilaration, and perhaps a brief surge in presidential popularity. But, in the long run, unless the use of military force is governed by the enduring qualities of wisdom and restraint, both the nation and the president will be the losers