Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War

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Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. Polsky believes the "two presidency thesis" that presidents address domestic and foreign policy separately is false, because presidents do not have more leverage in foreign than in domestic affairs. The book has an avowed "distinctly conservative cast" ; while liberals say presidents have too much power, Polsky's analysis "suggests … that presidents have too little power, not too much" —not due to lack of resources but lack of time and the need to rely on subordinates.

To defend this "too little power" thesis, Polsky presents secondary-source case studies of men who occupied the White House during wars they started, continued, or tried to end. These studies show that no outcome of a war has fulfilled a wartime president's aspirations. So be it. But do they show that more power might have been the difference in solving or avoiding any president's problems? Such queries remain on the periphery of Polsky's account. Unlike some professional political scientists, he does not limit his evaluation of presidential candidates to, say, electability, but he does generally avoid moral issues.

For example, he says next to nothing about how a president's financial backers are "succeeding" during any given war, apart from the more political concerns of the White House occupant see, however, 15—16, —62, —56, n This shortcoming aside, the book is valuable in other respects.

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The classification and discussion of the problems each president faced and solved or not are pedagogically helpful and make fascinating reading. Before laying out the problems, Polsky first articulates some pertinent "puzzles" in need of solution: why are there no political restraints on presidents' exercise of power at the outset of hostilities? To deal with these puzzles, Polsky identifies six challenges each war president faced: first, to decide whether to go to war or accept it as inevitable; second, to lay the foundations for a successful war; third, to identify the nation's political objectives; fourth, to ensure that the military had a strategy to attain those objectives; fifth, to advance political goals diplomatically; and, sixth, to sustain domestic political support for the war 22— Bush and Barack Obama Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lincoln scores highest for his performance on the first five challenges. Bush scores lowest on all counts. In between, most of the others get passing marks for challenges 1—5, subject to nuances for Johnson and Nixon and for Obama regarding the first. None dealt particularly well with the sixth. Polsky bases these evaluations on the judgments of historians or regarding Bush and Obama journalists and political insiders.


With an asterisk after insider information, he seeks to be objective by political science standards. Yet he fails to mention the constraints that derive from obligations to funding sources. Nor does he specify the sort of mental acumen, fund of knowledge, and moral character a commander in chief should possess. This silence is problematic, for four reasons.

First, none of the evaluated presidents had any military training or experience unless Bush gets points for his nominal Reserve service ; nor did they all have qualified military advisers. Second, Lincoln and his successors had to adapt to the use of new, ever more destructive military technology of which they had no great understanding.

In this regard, Obama is almost a caricature, skeet shooting at Camp David while expanding his remote-controlled drone attacks.

Third, although some presidents had considerable military experience during the period Polsky covers—namely, Ulysses S. Some examination of these crossover individuals might have furnished a kind of control group to ensure some degree of scientific objectivity, [1] since fourth , the target presidents all had political motives for seeking and holding on to the White House and hoped their war would further those objectives. So, as Polsky indicates, whatever they did or did not do regarding wars waged on their watch, they always took into account what they and their advisers felt to be politically, including electorally, advantageous.

Polsky The long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have prompted a number of politicians and pundits to recommend a return to conscription. On several occasions Charles Rangel, the Democratic representative from New York City, has introduced bills to revive the draft. Stanley McChrystal, former military commander in Afghanistan, has urged that the country not fight another war without a draft. His call was the point of departure for noted journalist Thomas E. Ricks, who proposes a law mandating universal service for all year-olds, with an option for either military or civilian public service.

Polsky With Mitt Romney's trip abroad to visit Israel, Poland, and Great Britain, the focus of the presidential campaign shifts briefly to foreign policy. The Romney people hope to project the image of their candidate as a credible head of state and commander-in-chief, as well as to score some political points at home.

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The visit to Israel, a nation President Obama hasn't visited during his first term, seems designed to stir doubts about the incumbent among American Jews, long one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs. This is all pretty standard fare for presidential candidates.

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Polsky From time to time, political commentators bemoan the fact that we don't debate the war in Afghanistan in our political campaigns. Back in , Tom Brokaw complained that in the heated mid-term elections neither party showed any interest in arguing about the best course to pursue in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He chalked this up to the fact that most Americans could opt out of military service, so the wars touched few families.

Polsky Money is a main subtext of the elections: how much will be spent, who donates and spends it, how quickly it may be exhausted and whether campaigns have enough. Before November, we may spend as much time talking about campaign spending as the issues and the candidates. Polsky Pain has no political constituency.

This fundamental rule of American politics and democratic systems more generally points up the difficulty of enacting or sustaining public policies that leave large numbers of citizens worse off. Politicians dread casting votes on legislation that will impose costs on any significant group of constituents, lest the opposition seize on the issue in the next election. Austerity policies typically spell defeat for the political party or coalition that imposes them. Polsky No Easy Day , the new book by a member of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden on 30 April , has attracted widespread comment, most of it focused on whether bin Laden posed a threat at the time he was gunned down.

Another theme in the account by Mark Owen a pseudonym is how the team members openly weighed the political ramifications of their actions. Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya on 11 September serves as a vivid reminder that unexpected events often intrude on presidential elections. Sometimes these events have a significant impact on how voters view the parties and the candidates. But often the electorate shrugs off breaking news.

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Polsky Three recent developments in Afghanistan underscore the difficulty that will confront the next American president, whether he is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. First, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced, the last of the 33, additional troops sent to Afghanistan by President Obama two years ago to quell the revived Taliban insurgency have now returned home.

Polsky As the first presidential debate recedes in the rearview mirror, we may be able to gain clearer perspective on what it means to the presidential race. For starters, the clear winner was the news media. No one likes a one-sided presidential campaign, and that was the direction of the contest over several weeks prior to the debate. By Andrew Polsky During the first two presidential debates, Mitt Romney repeatedly invoked his business experience as a key qualification for the White House.

Elusive Victory

He uttered phrases such as 'I know how to make this economy grow' and 'I know how to grow jobs' at least a half dozen times in his second debate with President Barack Obama. The notion that a business leader would bring to the presidency a uniquely useful skill set, especially in a period of sluggish economic growth, has a certain appeal.

Polsky The third presidential debate made clear why Governor Mitt Romney has chosen not to wage a campaign based on foreign policy: there is simply no political gain in it. On issue after issue, he took stands effectively indistinguishable from those of President Barack Obama. Romney quibbled over details of timing or emphasis, asserting he would have taken action sooner or more forcefully.

But on a wide range of questions -- no military intervention in Syria, withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of , use of drones, sanctions on Iran -- the challenger's positions are substantively the same as the president.

Polsky When Barack Obama won reelection last week, he became the third consecutive president to win a second term. The last time that happened was at the beginning of the 19th century, when Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe benefited from Democratic-Republican dominance at the presidential level. Indeed, by the time Monroe ran for reelection in , the opposition Federalist Party had collapsed. Find a copy in the library Finding libraries that hold this item Reviews Editorial reviews.

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Publisher Synopsis "In this provocative and incisive study of six presidents as wartime commanders in chief, Andrew Polsky demonstrates that it is much easier to start a war than to bring it to a successful conclusion. User-contributed reviews Add a review and share your thoughts with other readers. Be the first. Add a review and share your thoughts with other readers.

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Andrew Polsky, Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War

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