By Sanjay Yadav
President Barack Obama's landmark speech on May 23 is seen as a reflection of his deep reservations about how the US lurched into two wars under his predecessor George Bush.
However, there is an instructive historical backdrop to US presidents who inherit wars.
No American president has yet won a war that he did not himself initiate or that did not begin under his own incumbency. The wars that were won were presided over by the same leader, from commencement to conclusion. The wars that were lost began under one leader and closed under another. This pattern holds true for over two centuries of American history. It is a striking but little known characteristic of American military history.
In reaching this conclusion we may disregard the Second World War, which was overseen by two presidents, because for all intents and purposes the war was over when Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12,1945. We may also disregard the innumerable Indian wars and interventions in the Caribbean and Central America. The Indian wars were in the nature of sporadic clashes and the Caribbean and Central American interventions have been of a routine nature, somewhat akin to peace-keeping operations.
This is not to say that the leadership of a single president ensures victory. The War of 1812 occurred entirely under President James Madison, yet it was a stalemate. The Bay of Pigs intervention was overseen entirely by President John F. Kennedy; yet it was a setback. President Jimmy Carter’s expedition to Iran failed, as did President Ronald Reagan’s engagements in Lebanon. The incumbency of a single leader is thus not a sufficient condition of victory, but it does seem a necessary one because a change of guard has yet to bring victory. The Korean War was spread over the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Victory eluded the United States. The Vietnam War saw presidential leadership change from Lyndon B. Johnson to Richard Nixon. Defeat was the outcome. As America changed presidents, from Bush to Clinton, even pipsqueak Somalia discomfited the United States. In contrast all victories, big or small, were the accomplishment of a single presidential leader.
A clear pattern of behaviour characterizes presidents who electorally succeed to wars initiated by their predecessor. During their presidential campaign, such presidents take positions critical of the conduct of the war. On assumption of office they announce a time-table for withdrawal. Once in office they put in place plans for the extensive training of indigenous forces, who they say would increasingly be entrusted with all security responsibilities. Following attainment of office they escalate military operations in order to show that their nation has not been defeated. However, the enemy does not submit to such actions, probably seeing them as bargaining tactics intended to secure better terms in a negotiated settlement. Eventually all forces are withdrawn without the attainment of the objectives present at the commencement of the war.
So the facts are apparently clear. Why do they have this pattern? Perhaps the answer lies in the extremely individualized nature of American politics. Presidents see wars largely in terms of their personal legacy. There is a conception of national interest, but this interest is interpreted entirely through the prism of one’s personality. Perhaps a successor president sees any given war as a peculiar result of his predecessor’s predilections. He does not believe that a positive outcome is his business, his prestige is not tied to such an outcome. If he did not initiate a given war, its outcome does not impinge upon his legacy. Small wonder there has been a tendency to label wars with the presidents’ names. Thus there have been “President Madison’s War”, “President Truman’s War”, and so forth. These seemingly glib appellations may indeed reflect accurately a deeper reality. Alternatively, it may also be said that success requires the continuation of the same party in power. If a different party assumes office then again prospects of victory diminish.
The implication of that pattern to the war in Afghanistan is clear. It is obvious that our predictions will be dire. As the Bush presidency concluded, so probably ended the prospects of victory. The policy declarations made since President Obama’s assumption of office appear to adhere closely to the path followed in the previous unsuccessful wars.
In December 2010, President Obama announced a 'drawdown' plan for the withdrawal of troops. The plan is intended to conclude in December 2014. Beyond 2014, it was initially suggested, some troops would remain. However, it now seems that such presence is not certain. The likelihood is that all American and other international forces would be gone by 2014. Side by side, a stepped-up campaign of drone strikes has been instituted.
These steps are a facsimile of the policies of the Nixon White House which, barely a week into office, announced that steps would be taken to hand over responsibilities for defence to South Vietnamese troops. In May 1969, a schedule for planned withdrawal of forces was presented to the public. At the same time a massive bombing campaign was initiated.
Are we back to the future? The similarities are so striking as to be unmistakable! The Afghan war seems doomed to follow the path of the previously unsuccessful conflicts. The Taliban are waiting in the wings. There is no evidence of their extinction. There is no evidence to show that the object of the war, a democratic Afghanistan, has been fulfilled. And yet, plans for a full-fledged withdrawal have already been announced. This is nothing short of flight! The moment the foreign forces withdraw, the Taliban’s triumphant return seems almost certain.
Precedents are not everything of course. There is always a new beginning. Presidents Obama’s ascension to office, as the first Afro-American president, is itself evidence of the possibility of new developments. But precedents do suggest probabilities. We must therefore remain sceptical of the prospects of success. The United States has yet to win a war clearly spread across two presidencies. The problem lies not in the limits of military power, nor in the absence of political solutions, nor indeed in the intractability of the enemy. It lies in absence of motivation right where the buck stops. Presidents who succeed to wars appear to lack motivation to finish their predecessors’ business.
(Dr. Sanjay Yadav is a Delhi based security and foreign affairs analyst. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)