Voting for War, Again and Again

Looking at recent history, you would conclude not that the Constitution allows the president to make war, but that it requires him to do so.


Ninety-six years ago, when President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election, two notable things happened: 1) His campaign used the slogan "He kept us out of war," and 2) he won.

It has been a long time since any president could seek a second term while making that boast. Looking at recent history, you would conclude not that the Constitution allows the president to make war, but that it requires him to do so. Modern leaders don't brag about keeping us out of war but about getting us in.

Barack Obama reinforces that truth more than any president of our era. He owed his victory in the 2008 Democratic primaries partly to his record of opposing the invasion of Iraq—which Hillary Clinton and John Edwards supported.

"We've had enough of a misguided war in Iraq that never should have been fought—a war that needs to end," he said during the campaign. He proclaimed, "Now is the time to start bringing our troops out of Iraq—immediately." His opponents, Democratic and Republican, portrayed him as gullible and weak. But the voters were willing to elect someone who might be slightly averse to war.

Or, rather, someone they thought might be slightly averse. Either Obama's supporters misread him or he misled them. In any case, he turned out to be very receptive to war. Instead of immediately withdrawing our troops from Iraq, he adhered to the very same departure timetable established by President George W. Bush. Not until the end of 2011 did the last American forces make their exit.

In Afghanistan, Obama actually increased our presence, while setting a distant deadline (2014) for ending our combat role. He has greatly increased the pace of drone missile attacks on targets in Pakistan, and he has made them in Yemen and Somalia.

He launched an air war against the government of Libya, which had neither attacked nor threatened us. If this is an antiwar candidate, what would a pro-war candidate do?

So far, Obama has held his fire on Iran and Syria. But that brings to mind the scene in the movie "City Slickers" when Billy Crystal asks Jack Palance, "Killed anyone today?" Responds Palance, "The day ain't over yet."

Still Republicans are determined to disparage him as a UN-loving, concession-granting, unilaterally disarming appeaser. At least since 1972, they have prospered by painting Democrats as soft on the threat of the day—from communism to militant Islam.

The narrative of this year's GOP campaign will follow the theme of Obama the Wimp. They compare him to Jimmy Carter, who suffered the humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis. Obama, they argue, is rushing out of Afghanistan, letting Iran pursue nuclear weapons, gutting the defense budget and "apologizing for America." He is simply not warlike enough.

The spectacle involving Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng gave Republicans the chance to shift attention away from the killing of Osama bin Laden to an alleged example of mortifying capitulation. Mitt Romney pronounced it "a day of shame for the Obama administration."

Never mind that U.S. diplomats actually helped Chen reach the sanctuary of the American embassy in Beijing, and that they had no way to prevent Chinese agents from threatening retribution on his family. The particulars of the new controversy don't really matter. What matters is that the default response of American politicians to foreign disputes is breathing fire and belching smoke.

This is partly a cause and partly an effect of a reality that Americans generally manage to overlook. As University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer puts it, "We're addicted to war."

When the Cold War with the Soviet Union ended two decades ago, many people expected to bask in the warm sunshine of lasting peace. The optimism was unwarranted. Every president is a wartime president. Since 1991, notes Mearsheimer, we have been at war in two out of every three years.

Military considerations increasingly shape—and warp—our entire system of democracy and law. Despite the absence of any major threat to our safety and independence, we have become a garrison state, permanently mobilized for incessant intervention. It's a safe bet that whoever wins in November, we will be embroiled in a new war sometime in the next four years.

Romney and Obama may pretend they represent stark differences in America's approach to national security and world affairs. But in this realm, there is no Democratic or Republican party. There is only the war party.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.

NEXT: Brickbat: Wrong Number

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. And then Wilson got us involved in the biggest war in the world up to that time...

    1. He just needed to get through his election so he would have more flexibility.

    2. And then attempted to commit us to a supra-national world-policing agency.

      Always great when we can start an article with a ridiculously stupid self-defeating example. Woodrow Wilson as libertarian pacifist?

  2. I was under the impression that the constitution gave the power to declare war to congress.

    1. The Constitution don't mean shit if nobody enforces it.

    2. It did; however, the last two presidents wiped their assholes with the Constitution and there are shit stains covering Article 1, Section 8. Thus, the president can do whatever the fuck he wants.

  3. I agree with the conclusion that the two parties in America are both war parties, but then one has to ask the question. If the war parties are always voted in, that does mean that Americans are by a very large majority pro war.

    1. They know what sort of leader they don't like, but the sort that they do like, well, that's not something they can necessarily articulate. So they grab cliches like "strong". Parties then go for the simple analysis: strong leadership = quien es mas macho = who's prepared to kill

      1. SNL spanish game show:
        "Quien es mas macho, Ricardo Montalban o Fernando Lamas?"

    2. If the war parties are always voted in, that does mean that Americans are by a very large majority pro war.

      Not so much, considering that the last two presidents were initially elected on anti-war platforms.

      Obama promised to get out of Iraq now. And scale back the war on terror. McCain ran as the deluded warrior that had starting his own war on his bucket list.

      Bush, in 2000, opposed the idea of nation building and promised a humble foreign policy. Both were ridiculed by his interventionist opponent alGore.

  4. Speaking of the Chinese diplomatic incident, it is a good example where an isolationist approach would be the best foreign policy. Having a foreign nation interfere is the best thing the CCP can get as an excuse to keep itself in power. China must sort itself out, getting entangled in internal Chinese politics will make the Middle East problems, caused by Britain and later USA entaglement, look pleasant in comparison.

  5. War! Uh! Good God y'all.
    What is it good for?
    Getting reelected.

    1. Say it again!

  6. Since it's easy to use drone attacks against countries on the other side of the globe with minimal troop casualties then the American public doesn't seem to mind these endless wars. Besides, it's only bad with TEAM RED does it!

    1. Agreed. As the century progresses we will send our cylon slave bots even further into the corners of the globe.

  7. There was this guy, he actually wrote the Constitution, his last name was Morris.

    He was sure that if we didn't constrain the rich, this would happen.

    "He fears the influence of the rich. They will have the same effect here as elsewhere if we do not by such a Gov't keep them within their proper sphere. We should remember that the people never act from reason alone. The rich will take advantage of their passions and make these the instruments for oppressing them. The Result of the Contest will be a violent aristocracy, or a more violent despotism. The schemes of the Rich will be favored by the extent of the Country. The people in such distant parts can not communicate & act in concert. They will be the dupes of those who have more Knowledge & intercourse. The only security agst. encroachments will be a select & sagacious body of men, instituted to watch agst. them on all sides."

    On the brighter side, the internet, at least until the rich scum start undermining net neutrality, allows the people to act in concert.

    1. You do realize the internet has never had 'net neutrality', yet somehow the people have been able to act in concert. Why would giving the government power over the US connections to the internet make things better than they are now?

      1. Effectively, the internet has always had net neutrality.

        At no time was the cost of moving a packet from Connected-Mega-Corp (e.g. CNN) different than moving a packet from the lone wolf's private weblog.

        Nor was that packet ever routed differently.

    2. Fuck off slaver.

      1. Fuck off, ignoramus.

        Gouvenour Morris was one of the only people at the 2nd Constitutional Convention to speak out against slavery.

    3. Yeah, lack of information and access to collective communication among the proletariat resulting in exploitation by the evil rich is clearly a huge problem in modern America. The Occupy protests attest to this.

      Also, Robert Morris was the 1700's equivalent of a billionaire. And a slave trader. Thanks for that very credible and relevant source of commentary on 21st century America.

      1. The Occupy Protests have accomplished what? Nothing. Thank you.

        However, the Arab Spring was an internet based phenomenon, if what I have read is the truth. Therefore, over the last 220+ years, we've finally reached the point where Morris's comment isn't true.

        I guess you don't know who wrote the Constitution. It wasn't Robert Morris, it was Gouvernour Morris. G. Morris was not a billionaire, he was an employee of Robert Morris (no relation). He gave more speeches at the 2nd Constitutional Convention than anyone else, and he was one of the only people to speak against slavery.

  8. You don't really have to look as far back as 1916 and Woodrow Wilson. In 1940, FDR won by pointing out that he had kept us out of the war in Europe, and by pledging that he would "not send American boys into any foreign wars." In 1964, LBJ won by claiming that "We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."

    1. And like Wilson, both FDR and LBJ went on to break their pledges and get deeply involved in the foreign wars they promised to avoid. FDR won 2 more elections that way. So yet 2 more self-defeating examples.

  9. Gotta support out government, there are things sometimes we don't know about. Remember the troops gotta deal with it face to face, support the country! http://www.airsplat.com/support-gi-troops.htm

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.