The Magazine

A War President and His Party

Will Democrats be able to keep from criticizing Obama on Afghanistan?

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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President Obama faces the unprecedented challenge of being a war president in charge of a peace party. His emergence in this new role less than a week before he picks up his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo has been some time in coming. It was one thing for Obama to speak of Afghanistan as the good war during his presidential campaign, when the military situation appeared stable, or even during the first months of his presidency, when there was hope that adding more troops, as he did last spring, could bring the situation quickly under control.

All the early signals of the administration, from the hasty promise to close Guantánamo to the jettisoning of the term "war on terror," were calculated to make Obama into a peacetime president and leave the lingering difficulties of continuing military activity to be blamed on his predecessor. But reality came knocking in the form of mounting opposition from the enemy in Afghanistan. Forced to decide between losing a war and embracing a surge of his own, Obama finally chose the military option. He is now, openly and explicitly, a leader at war, and war exerts a logic of its own. It is no friend to reluctance or nuance. If war is to be waged, it must not be done half-heartedly, but, to use the president's words, with "resolve unwavering." The greater part of Obama's problem may be prosecuting it from within the modern Democratic party.

Americans sometimes forget how often our wars have been contested politically, but one thing that all war presidents could traditionally count on was support from their own party. In the nation's first three wars--the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War--Presidents Madison, Polk, and Lincoln each faced enormous pressure from the opposition, but their own party stood firmly behind them. There was much greater bipartisanship, at least once war broke out, in the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and Korea, although the opposition party was sometimes open in challenging how the war was being conducted. Again, the president's party would generally rally to his side.

The Vietnam war broke this pattern. Both political parties signed on to the war, with Republicans initially seeming to adopt the usual role of the opposition party of raising questions about how it was fought. But by 1967, a growing peace movement with connections to parts of the Democratic party began to turn on the war, and President Johnson, seeing the writing on the wall, withdrew from the 1968 nomination contest. The Democratic party then emerged as a peace party, opposing President Nixon and trying to force a withdrawal. Justifying this change, many Democrats claimed not just that they had reassessed the situation, but they experienced a fundamental change of heart and philosophy.

It was now a new Democratic party, with a new view of the world and of the character of international relations. Democrats would prove remarkably true to their new "peace" orientation, compelling an exit from Vietnam, imposing severe limitations on the intelligence services, and calling for new restrictions on presidential authority in foreign affairs. Jimmy Carter entered office in 1977 decrying the nation's inordinate fear of communism, and Democrats during the Reagan years openly scoffed at the president's hard line against the Soviet Union--labeling him a warmonger. The peace movement reached its apex in the vote on the Gulf war in 1991, when a strong majority of Democrats in both houses of Congress voted against approving it. The pressure was so great that even many reputed moderates, like Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, went with the party.

President Clinton in his second term seemed to begin to move his party away from its peace position, and Democrats willingly backed him in a war against Serbia over Kosovo. For a time, Democrats even floated a new doctrine, known as humanitarian intervention, which would sanction the use of force in instances of the most egregious tyranny and abuse. Tellingly, however, Clinton fought for Kosovo from the air alone, not risking any troops on the ground. It may have been his calculation that Democrats would support a war only as long as there were no American casualties.

The attacks of 9/11 opened a new phase. As with the assault on Pearl Harbor, Democrats and Republicans joined together almost unanimously in support of military action. The Democrats' backing of the Afghan war resolution must be taken at face value; at the same time, given the party's history, it is impossible not to wonder whether Democrats would have "stayed the course" under a Republican president if the Afghan war had proven to be as hard and as bloody as many predicted. In the event, a quick initial victory in Afghanistan mooted this point. President Bush followed the success in Afghanistan with a policy designed to eliminate the threat posed by Iraq, which led to the fateful decision to launch a second war in the region. Republicans supported the president, while Democrats were split, with a majority of Democrats in the House opposing war and a majority in the Senate in favor.

When the Iraq war turned out to be far more difficult than expected, another peace movement emerged with strong roots inside the Democratic party. Just as the presidential nomination campaign of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 showed where the heart of the Democratic party resided, so the campaign of Howard Dean in 2004 did the same thing. Under the pressure of this campaign, Democrats who had supported the Iraq war began to peel away. Some, like John Edwards, asked for penance, while others, like John Kerry, the eventual nominee, adopted the undignified pose of claiming that they had never really voted for war. Only a few, like Joe Lieberman, stayed the course, the penalty for which in Lieberman's case was being chased from his party.

Today the character of the Democrats is again being put to the test. The party nominated a candidate who, though he ran as a dove in regard to Iraq, must be described as a hawk in regard to Afghanistan. Whatever Democrats themselves have thought of the Afghanistan war, or whatever some may have cynically surmised that Obama really thought about it, the party gave Barack Obama its nomination and backed him overwhelmingly in the election. Is it possible even to imagine that Democrats would, in large numbers, turn once again on their own president? Obama may not think so, but he undoubtedly knows enough about the character of the peace movement--many of its members are, or soon will have been, his closest friends and most ardent supporters--to have his doubts. Perhaps with this thought partly in mind, he offered a strategy in his address that looked more like the artful threading of a needle than a preparation for the rough and tumble of history: enough force to win a quick war coupled with a public deadline (subject to revision) for pulling out.

Will Democrats in fact "hold" if events prove to be more difficult than the best estimates now expect? Obama could of course try to fight the war by relying mainly on Republican support, with a part of his own party added on to make up a majority. It would be a cross-party coalition similar to the one President Clinton put together for some of his greatest achievements, including the passage of NAFTA. But no president in American history has ever fought a war on this basis, and if Obama ends by going this route, it will entail some serious changes. The president cannot expect to dismiss a party whose support he will desperately need, and Republicans will rightly demand a greater voice in setting the nation's affairs, which they may earn in any case over the next year. But with this challenge might also come an opportunity for Obama to become by necessity what he promised he would be by choice: a -postpartisan president.

During the last administration many in the media adopted the peace movement's rhetorical ploy of referring to the Iraq war as "Bush's war," despite its full legal sanction by a vote of Congress. For consistency's sake, a few newspapers--the Washington Post among them--began this spring to refer to Afghanistan as "Obama's war." This is a most unfortunate, and inaccurate, characterization. It is time to call the war what it is: America's war.

James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia.