Has Bush Learned the Lessons of Other War Presidents?





Mr. Hess is Distinguished Research Professor of History at Bowling Green State University and the author of PRESIDENTIAL DECISIONS FOR WAR: KOREA, VIETNAM, AND THE PERSIAN GULF.

President George W. Bush's commemoration of the first anniversary of the launching of the war against Iraq coincides with the beginning of his campaign for re-election as a "war president." Not since 1944 has an incumbent president sought re-election in the midst of a war. In 1952, the unpopularity of the war in Korea reinforced Harry Truman's private resolve not to seek another term and in 1968, the divisions within the country and his own party resulting from the Vietnam War led Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the presidential race. War continued in Vietnam when Richard Nixon sought re-election in 1972, but Nixon ran not as a "war president," but as a president who was fulfilling his 1968 promise to end the war. As a "war president" in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 or Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Bush, as his early re-election advertisements underscore, is engaged in two wars: the multi-faceted campaign against international terrorism and the ongoing military effort to suppress Iraqi insurgents. The war against Iraq, as the most visible and personal conflict to Americans, will have the most immediate political implications. It will also likely be seen in the long run as the most significant action of the Bush presidency. The war against terror was forced on the United States; the Iraq war was a war of choice.

Bush and his advisers might heed the "lessons" that can be derived from the experiences of three predecessors who waged regional wars during the last half of the twentieth century. Truman in Korea, Johnson in Vietnam, and George H. W. Bush in the Persian Gulf each faced problems similar to those confronting the current president. Studying their presidencies suggests that the outcome of a war reflects in large part the quality of leadership in taking the country to war. Prior to firing the first shot, the most important challenge for the president is defining the necessity of war to various constituencies. At home, he needs to build popular support and, as the Constitution mandates, to gain congressional authorization. Internationally, he needs to work for the backing of allies and the United Nations; this enhances the war's legitimacy and, of course, assures that others will share its military and financial burdens. If a president cannot convince both Congress and the United Nations that war is justified, then, history suggests, he ought to reconsider where he is taking the country.

During the prewar period, Bush could have drawn from the example of his father's leadership in 1990-91 for Bush I accomplished the most successful building of domestic and international support. His actions reflected "lessons" drawn from the two previous wars. Truman gained United Nations backing for intervention to repel North Korea's invasion, thus demonstrating--what to Truman was fundamental--the capacity of the new organization to resist aggression. He was not as effective at home. Although the decision to go to war was initially popular with the American public, Truman's failure to secure congressional approval undermined his authority, especially as the war became increasingly unpopular. Truman claimed that the responsibilities of membership in the United Nations and his powers as commander in chief provided a legal basis for waging a "presidential war."

Another factor that influenced Truman's ill-fated decision was concern that congressional debate over a war resolution would be contentious and enable Republicans to restate their familiar criticisms of East Asian policy. Ignored in the summer of 1950 was the imperative of a demonstration of national resolve to reinforce that of the United Nations. Fifteen years later, as he contemplated Americanizing the war in Vietnam, Johnson was determined to avoid Truman's mistake. Johnson skillfully used a shadowy incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in August l964 to gain overwhelming congressional approval for a resolution granting him a "blank check" to employ military power. Johnson, however, never gained meaningful international support for intervening in Vietnam: the United States did not take its claim of North Vietnamese "aggression" to the United Nations; America's European allies (even the British) doubted the wisdom of U.S. action (and none contributed troops). Aside from South Korea, America's Asian and Pacific allies, despite Johnson's browbeating, provided nominal support. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, established a decade earlier to provide multilateral resistance to communist aggression and subversion, was of no use. America's isolation contributed to the frustration of its military effort and the erosion of its international stature.

Among the ramifications of the contentious Vietnam War was a congressional effort to limit presidential war making, which led to the War Powers Resolution , which was passed over Nixon's veto in 1973. Intended to establish ground rules for protecting the respective war making and commander in chief powers of the congress and president, the War Powers Resolution accentuated differences between the two branches, marked by presidential refusal to accept its constitutionality and claims of inherent authority to wage war.

Hence, by 1990-91 when Bush I decided that the United States had to be prepared to liberate Kuwait if Iraq failed to withdraw its forces, he initially dismissed any constitutional role for congress. From August to November 1990, he built strong international support for U.S. objectives. A series of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanded Iraq's withdrawal, imposed economic sanctions, and, finally, established a January 15, 1991 ultimatum. As that date approached, Bush I finally went to congress asking for its "support," but not its "authorization." He did so for political reasons as public opinion polls indicated that 60 percent of Americans believed the president could not take the country to war without congressional approval. Yet as he approached Congress, Bush I, who was determined that the Iraqi aggression would not stand, stated that he was prepared to use military power regardless of congressional action; his defiant stance represented not just an assertion of presidential war making but also recognition of the possibility that the congressional war resolution would fail, because most Democrats and a number of Republicans were known to favor a continuation of sanctions. In the end, Congress narrowly approved what it insisted was a war "authorizing" resolution. This contributed to a remarkable sense of national unity when Bush I ordered the launching of military operations to liberate Kuwait. Although he was late in securing his domestic base, Bush went to war with a strong level of support at home as well as internationally.

Like his father before him, Bush II sought congressional support for political reasons, while refusing to acknowledge its constitutional necessity. Bush II could not ignore the pressures from congressional leaders, including many Republicans, demanding that Congress's constitutional role in war making be recognized. In addition, public opinion polls in 2002 as in 1991 indicated that Americans by substantial margins believed that congressional authorization was necessary.

In other ways, the circumstances differed, reflecting a significant change in the U.S. relationship with the United Nations. While Bush I had built a solid base of support in the United Nations before seeking congressional backing which he saw as necessary to buttress his position within the United States, Bush II went to Congress as a means of strengthening the U.S. position in trying to gain U.N. support for the campaign against Iraq. In both cases, the President was able to use the United Nations issue to his advantage; while the President in 1991 cited the impressive international support to press for congressional approval, Bush II contended that congressional backing would help him bring a reluctant United Nations into line. This consideration necessitated moving early; whereas Bush I went to Congress a week before the ultimatum, Bush II did so five months before military operations were launched.

In dealing with Congress, Bush II, far more than Bush I, held the high cards. He was able to exploit the Democratic Party's vulnerability on national security. The party's leadership, which had opposed the 1991 war, almost unanimously supported the 2002 war resolution. Having opposed a popular and successful war in 1991 put the party on the defensive when it came to another war in the Middle East. This accentuated an historic image of irresolution on foreign policy which dated back to the charge that Truman had "lost" China in 1949, the impressions that Truman and Johnson had been ineffective commanders in chief during the unpopular Korean and Vietnam wars, the image of Jimmy Carter as an inept leader during the Iranian hostage crisis, and, most recently, the criticism of Bill Clinton's seeming indecisiveness in the Balkans and Africa. So the advice from Al From, the chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, reflected political reality: "I hope the Democrats will support the president - period."

Bush played his advantageous position shrewdly. First, he decided to request an early war resolution vote, which forced Congress to take a stand on the issue prior to the mid-term elections. Members of Congress, especially those who were in tight re-election races, took enormous risks in opposing the administration on an issue of national security; by mid-September Republican candidates in some contests were already pressing their advantage. For that reason, Democratic leaders had wanted to postpone the matter until after November, but they could not ignore the White House claim that national security demanded immediate action. To defy Bush on national security was difficult, for since the terrorist attacks a year earlier, he enjoyed high approval ratings.

Second, once Bush took the offensive, particularly with his speeches to the American public on the anniversary of 9-11 and the next day to the United Nations, he redefined the debate on his terms. He shifted attention from the pre-emptive warfare doctrine that had been of concern to many Democrats as well as some Republicans. He focused instead on Iraq's record of violating the disarmament provisions of the agreement ending the 1991 war. Underlining the administration's rationale for war was Iraq's threat to U.S. national security, because of its non-compliance with U.N. weapons inspections, its duplicitous development of weapons of mass destruction, and its capacity to support terrorist groups in their anti-American campaigns.

Third, Bush benefited from the extent to which the public accepted the administration's contention of a connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and international terrorism. The assumption of a "link" was an often overlooked part of Bush's famed denunciation of the "axis of evil" in his January 29, 2002 State of the Union address; the President stated that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea "and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes constitute a grave and growing danger." The claim of a "link" enabled the White House and its congressional supporters to answer critics who contended that pre-emptive war against Saddam Hussein would detract resources from the war on terror. (The congressional resolution of September 14, 2001, passed with only one dissenting vote, authorized Bush to undertake whatever action he deemed necessary to defeat international terrorism.)

Finally, in response to those who argued that the United States should work through the United Nations, Bush contended that a show of domestic resolve would enhance the prospects for U.N. action against Iraq. Promising to make additional efforts to gain the backing of the United Nations, Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell provided a rationale for support of the resolution that was seized upon by a number of Democrats, who regarded U.N. sanction as essential. Bush played on the United Nations issue by stating repeatedly that it was time for the international organization to demonstrate "backbone" and "relevance" or else the United States would have to act unilaterally. So by supporting the administration through a resolution, Congress, so it was argued, would be making an American war less likely and strengthening the United Nations as well.

Operating from a position of strength, Bush had no need to assert presidential war making prerogatives. The possibility that Congress might reject the 1991 resolution had necessitated his father's unrelenting insistence that he could take the country to war without congressional authorization. In 2002, however, the president, with support his for the asking, could afford to adopt an accommodating stance. The more that he compromised with the Democrats, the greater would be the level of congressional support and the demonstration of national resolve. Working closely with a number of Democratic Party leaders, the White House and congressional Republicans modified the administration's draft resolution in ways that facilitated bipartisan support. As a result, with prominent Democrats in the vanguard, Congress in early October passed a war authorizing resolution by substantial majorities. (Only after the resolution was passed did Bush issue a statement, virtually identical in wording with that issued by his father under the same circumstance, that in signing the resolution he was not compromising the president's authority to take the country to war or accepting the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution.)

Having achieved an impressive victory on the domestic front, Bush, however, was unable to duplicate that success at the international level. He went to war in a weaker position than his father, for he failed to secure the United Nations backing of pre-emptive warfare. The case against Saddam Hussein's regime based on the WMD, delivered most powerfully by Powell, did not overcome the opposition of principal allies and other major countries (except for the British). Bush has attempted to compensate for the lack of support by emphasizing the organization of the "coalition of the willing." So the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and subsequent occupation of Iraq is a war waged with less international authority than those in the Korean and in Persian Gulf wars, but somewhat greater authority than in Vietnam.

Once at war, the president faces a wide range of new challenges. He must define the war's political objectives, work with the military leadership to coordinate ends with means, sustain popular and congressional support, build international support, and provide diplomatic direction. Unlike the three previous wars, the American objective in Iraq was the unconditional defeat of the enemy. This was no limited war as in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, where the objective was to repel aggression. In Korea once the ill-fated effort to unify the country led to China's intervention, Truman accepted the necessity of returning to the initial limited objective of restoring of the prewar division of the country. In Vietnam, Johnson, haunted by the memory of how Truman had provoked the Chinese, made clear from the outset that American warfare had the limited objective of repelling the North Vietnamese "aggressors." In the Persian Gulf War, Bush I--much to the annoyance of many officials in his administration, some of whom have become prominent in the Bush II presidency--refused to broaden the objective beyond the liberation of Kuwait. He acknowledged the limitations of the authorization given him by U.N. Security Council and Congress. He feared the ramifications, both within Iraq and throughout the region, should the United States overthrow Saddam Hussein and occupy the country. It was striking that Bush I's two closest foreign policy advisers--former Secretary of State James Baker and former national security policy adviser Brent Scowcroft--wrote lengthy essays in major newspapers during the summer of 2002 questioning the doctrine of pre-emptive warfare.

As expected, the United States in 2003 achieved its military objective with little difficulty. Ironically, the most decisive victory by America's armed forces since World War II has led to a situation which parallels in some ways the intractable problems of America's most frustrating war. Clearly Bush failed to insist that his administration confront the postwar problems; "wishful thinking" that the Americans would be welcomed as "liberators" and bureaucratic fighting over Pentagon versus State Department responsibility undermined systematic planning. Reportedly the State Department dusted off records of the occupations of Japan and Germany as a guide, but those were vastly different countries politically and economically. In any case, there was a dearth of preparation for the problems that were bound to confront an occupying army as an agent of the "nation-building" mission.

The occupation of Iraq has shifted warfare from high technology offensive operations to counter-insurgency, which has resulted in five times more American casualties than during the campaign to liberate the country. Bush's problems are reminiscent of those Johnson faced in Vietnam nearly forty years ago. As in South Vietnam, the United States is engaged in "nation-building" as it endeavors to establish democratic institutions by cultivating native leaders and drafting a constitution. The effort is threatened by attacks on Americans and Iraqis associated with the occupation, reminiscent of the communist insurgency that undermined American political objectives in South Vietnam.

More broadly, as with Johnson, Bush operates from a position of international weakness; most notably, the United Nations, which has a history of involvement in Iraq, keeps its distance from American operations. This reflects the inability thus far to repair the continuing antagonism resulting from America's disregard of the United Nations in 2003. And like Johnson, Bush faces the problem of sustaining domestic support. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction undermined the principal rationale for pre-emptive warfare. Charges of insufficient Bush administration attention to the specter of international terrorism prior to 9-11 undermines the president's credibility on national security, which public opinion polls continually underscore is his principal "strength" in the view of Americans. While support for the war has dropped, most Americans continue to believe that it was correct to overthrow Saddam Hussein and thus far regard continuing loss of lives as an "acceptable" price for building a democratic Iraq.

Despite certain similarities in the problems of Johnson and Bush, Iraq is not Vietnam. The staying power and objectives of the Iraqi insurgency is much more problematic than in Vietnam, where the United States confronted a well-organized and determined movement that represented the principal aspirations of Vietnamese nationalism and that controlled most of the rural areas of South Vietnam; whatever the tactical differences between North Vietnam and the communist insurgents in the South, they shared a common heritage and vision of a unified Vietnam. In addition, their war against the Americans drew upon the resources of the principal communist powers; indeed the Soviet Union and China were drawn into a competition to see which could provide the greater support to North Vietnam. The strength of the enemy and the weakness of the South Vietnamese government, which lacked nationalist legitimacy and did little to build popular support, foreshadowed the quagmire. The limits of U.S. power were evident from the earliest days of involvement in the country. As Johnson Americanized the war in 1965, a number of advisers warned him that he could not win.

In Iraq, the American nation-building effort relies principally on exploiting the widespread hostility to Saddam Hussein and in that sense, it has a stronger base than in South Vietnam. In the interest of solidifying the position of the Iraqi leadership which is to assume power after June 30, the United States has devoted resources to rebuilding the nation's infrastructure. More difficult is creating a unified nation in a political entity whose political boundaries were drawn principally for imperial administrative convenience; it remains unclear how the interests of the Shiite majority can be reconciled with the Sunni minority and the Kurds who have become virtually autonomous in the northern part of the country. Undermining America's protective presence and the credibility of Iraqis collaborating with the occupying force are the objectives of the insurgents, which, by a number of accounts, draws support from the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime, young men drawn from other countries to fight the American "imperialists," and terrorist organizations.

The fulfillment of the promise to turn authority over to the Iraqis will be a critical test of the Bush war in Iraq. It is assumed that American forces will need to remain indefinitely, but on what terms will be significant in establishing the credibility of a new Iraqi government; and to what extent they will continue to be engaged militarily will be fundamental to the American public's tolerance of nation-building. If Iraq breaks apart (which was a fear of the president's father if he had sanctioned an invasion) with communal warfare, then America will face another quagmire, and one potentially more explosive and more draining than in Vietnam.

Besides similarities in their problems as wartime presidents, Bush II and Johnson also share certain leadership traits. In taking the country to war, both chose to listen to hawkish advisers and to ignore those officials and members of Congress from within their own parties who urged patience and caution. Like Johnson, Bush cannot comprehend good reasons for other nations' not following the United States into war, although Johnson did not allow his administration to engage in the kind of "ally bashing" of the last two years that has further undermined American credibility in Europe. Like Johnson, Bush is a remarkably effective spokesman for his war. While not as eloquent a speaker as his predecessor, Johnson spoke with emotion and conviction about Vietnam's importance to the United States; this was, he believed, a critical test of American credibility. And Bush, while also lacking the eloquence of his predecessor, speaks persuasively about the war in Iraq as a transforming moment in American and Middle Eastern history.

Yet in ways that may prove to be more significant than their similarities, Bush is a very different leader from Johnson. From the beginning of his presidency, Johnson knew that the Vietnam venture might fail and he searched for a way to avoid war. His dramatic offer of a massive program of economic assistance to North Vietnam in April l965 was an ill-fated effort to "buy-off" an enemy that Johnson preferred not to fight on the battlefield. Although he did not heed the advice of Senators Mike Mansfield and Richard Russell, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Under Secretary of State George Ball and others that he not entangle America in a war it could not win, Johnson could not help but be impressed by the arguments of men whom he respected. Johnson's doubts were evident during the series of July 1965 White House meetings on whether to make an open-ended commitment when he asked the tough questions: how many troops would ultimately be required? could North Vietnam match American escalation? what would China and the Soviet Union do? could Americans fight a successful war in the jungles of Asia? how could the United States help a people who showed no willingness to help themselves? To his discredit, Johnson did not force tough analyses of those fundamental issues. Even as he went forward with escalation, Johnson persistently searched for a negotiated end to the war.

From what is known of Bush, it is difficult to imagine that kind of doubt, agony and questioning. By all accounts, September 11 convinced Bush that history has ordained him to wage global war against America's enemies and to rebuild the Middle East. That sense of mission leaves little time to consider the opinions of other nations or to weigh seriously criticism at home or abroad. Johnson too had a problem with France, named Charles DeGaulle, but Johnson tolerated his pretensions and arrogance and did not allow his administration to indulge in anti-French diatribes, recognizing that in the long run the common interests of the two countries would overcome the irritations of the moment. The Bush administration's intolerance of the views of other nations-the unprecedented "if your not with us, you're against us" pronouncement--is part of the mindset of the unilateralists and pre-emptive warfare advocates who dominate the national security apparatus.

So while Bush wages a war that is unique in many ways, he is not immune from the problems that his predecessors faced. Whatever happens in Iraq after June 30, it is difficult to imagine stability being established without some degree of international supervision or peacekeeping. A United Nations presence would provide greater legitimacy to an Iraqi government than a continuation of an American-dominated "coalition of the willing" force. Cooperation with the United Nations was fundamental to American success in the Korean and Persian Gulf Wars. That "lesson" seems clear enough.

The "war president" running for re-election relies on the urgency of the war to convince voters that the retention of proven leadership is imperative. That argument, however, had greater salience as voters went to the polls in 1864 and 1944 in the last years of long and monumental wars that were at last finally being won. In 2004 questions about both the necessity of the war in Iraq and its consequences are part of the political culture. When a president seeks re-election, it is basically a referendum on his record. To the extent that the election is determined by national security, the outcome will be based on whatever emerges as the public consensus of the quality of leadership that called upon Americans to embrace a bold new strategic doctrine by taking arms to achieve a lofty objective.


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