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.