The US Presidency and Small Wars: Genealogy of the Mismanagement of International Conflict
Jonathan F. Lancelot
When the founders of the United States were in Constitutional Hall in Philadelphia arguing over how to limit the power of government, specifically the executive branch of which was forged by the first presidency of George Washington, two camps emerged. The Hamiltonians “called for an executive that would be an elective monarch that a life term (elected by an electoral college) would place him above temptation and enable him to act solely in the national interest. They urged that the executive be vested with extraordinary powers, including unalloyed control of the military, enormous authority in the realms of foreign policy and finance, and an ironclad veto" (Ferling). Of course, the Jeffersonians differed. “The officeholders in their plans were to serve for brief terms, the executive was to be a weak official, and a bill of rights was to be included in order to protect the people from their government” (Ferling). The US presidency has taken on traits of both schools as the office evolved over years of succession, yet we can surmise that the Hamiltonians won out since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 gave the President expanded war powers. It could be argued that Presidential war power was significantly reduced by Congress' War Powers Act of 1973, yet today in the post-September 11th, 2001 era, we are dealing with a Presidency that has been allowed to mismanage conflict through successive administrations leaving it to the other to end conflicts started by the former. Herein lies the contradiction of limit and power embedded within the DNA of the Presidency: the limit of time to see a conflict from beginning to end, and the enormous amount of presidential war power to start a conflict without the consent of Congress. This is where mismanagement begins and ends, with the new occupant of the office and their advisors.
It would be simplistic to blame the presidents themselves for the mismanagement of conflict, yet the situation is more complicated than meets the eye. One can assess that the culture of the presidency and political parties contribute to the increasing heavy load of unending small wars that beleaguer the president’s ability to make sound decisions regarding national security, warfare and diplomatic strategies, and the economic wellbeing of the republic. The responsibility of the office is overwhelming, and it has been since the beginning. “The burden of executive leadership wore George Washington down, and it has been the same for every president after him. Washington led a new and imperiled government, and although he faced fewer crises than his successors, the pressures on the first president were already very heavy” (Suri). President Andrew Jackson added to the office with a dictatorial approach to the presidency his predecessors could not have imagined. “Jackson boosted executive power in general and challenged the basic separation of powers between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Despite Jackson’s firm advocacy for the Union, this emphasis on executive power seeded a growing conflict between national and state leaders, which Congress and the courts would struggle unsuccessfully to mediate in the decades before the Civil War” (Suri). This set up a situation where President Lincoln was forced to take on emergency powers unto the presidency to preserve the Union and defeat the Confederacy. “The commander-in-chief of the military, responsible for overseeing the generals, now had to become the chief manager of the war effort” (Suri). This is a role that has remained, especially during the Theodore Roosevelt administration. “His advocacy of the ‘strenuous life’ created a most strenuous presidency. He increased the speed, range, and impact of the nation’s executive as a catalyst for domestic and international change” (Suri). This is before his cousin Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) extended the pressures of the office to the extent we know today. "FDR built the postwar presidency, and he was the last to master it. His successors would find themselves struggling to manage an office that more often managed them. Extraordinary power not only corrupts, but it also encourages distraction, hubris, narcissism, and excess” (Suri, page. 176). From this point on starting with the Truman administration, the mismanaging of international conflicts began.
During the Cold War preceding the end of World War II, President Truman was the first to mismanage a conflict that was passed down to successive administrations until today, the Korean War. "The US military in 1950 was unprepared for a war such as the one in Korea was to be. The effort to raise a force to carry out the dictates of Truman, as well as the United Nations, was far-reaching" (Edwards). The situation came from the mismanagement of international diplomacy from the Teddy Roosevelt administration, yet the complexity of the region was not truly respected until later in the 20th century. The Truman administration also planted the seed of another conflict in Asia that was not ended until the Ford administration, the Vietnam War.
Within this period between the Eisenhower and Nixon Administration, the Vietnam conflict was a thorn in the side of US foreign policy, despite a near nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the never-ending cold war with the USSR. Eventually, small wars involving the US entered the Middle East, Central America, and the Caribbean during the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, the country of Haiti has been the site of small American wars since the Wilson administration. Today, we see continuing conflict in regions where war policy from the White House was mismanaged, the failed nation-states of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. These are major foreign policy problems that will plague future administrations post-Trump.
Given the herculean whirlwind of responsibilities modern presidents have to face where there is not enough time in the day to finish a majority of daily tasks facing the office, and the enormous amount of current and potential conflicts facing the presidency every hour, future president should seek to follow the example of conflict that was starting on a president's watch, and ended by that same president. The first is the Gulf War of 1990-91, and the second is the Kosovo War of 1998-1999. These two wars had clear objectives and were able to achieve jus post bellum. There was also a robust diplomatic presence within these conflicts that allowed for a proper exchange of regional power and responsibility. Being aware that it is easier said than done, the number of international disputes must be narrowed down. Future presidents must be mindful of the consequences of continuing the tradition of mismanaging warfare, and the implications it has on our ability to maintain the defense of the republic into the 21st Century.
Edwards, P. M. (2006). The Korean War. London: The Greenwood Press.
Ferling, J. (2013). Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged A Nation. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.
Suri, J. (2017). The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office. New York, NY: Basic Books.