The Politics of American War

One aspect of American Politics which deserves discussion this election cycle, is the way that wars are treated as leading issues. The United States has been at war in various forms for most of its history, and so it is hardly surprising that the course of a given war will be a factor in elections, especially of the President. This article is necessarily only a brief overview, with consideration of the record focused on the 2008 Presidential election.

From the political perspective, wars with regard to American politics fall into one of three broad categories; minor successful wars with little perceived risk, major wars of consequence, or costly wars which should have been avoided, in the sense of the common opinion. Examples of the first type include the Spanish-American War, Grenada, and Desert Storm. Examples of the second type include the War for Independence, the Civil War, and World War 2. Examples of the third type include World War 1, Korea, and Vietnam. I am not saying that one of these wars is more just or worthwhile than the others, but noting the political spin on the war.

For the first group, it is worth noting that the Spanish-American, Grenda, and Desert Storm actions did not significantly hurt or improve the political fortunes of the President in office at the time. The quick decision of each conflict led to the perceived message that the conflict was insignificant, and quickly faded from public interest. For the second group, the wars were controversial at the time they were fought, but in later generations the conflict elevated the image of the President in office, although it must be emphasized that the President does not appear to have gained immediate political advantage. In the third case, the war’s unpopularity took its toll on the President’s support. World War 1 effectively convinced Americans to put Republicans back in the White House, as did Korea, and Vietnam led to deep mistrust of both parties. Consequently, while no political party should expect to make gains from a military conflict in the short-term, the danger of political cost from a war must be considered.

In this context, the constant effort by the Democrats to cast the War in Iraq as the same as Vietnam is understood. The Democrats claimed that their 2006 midterm election gains were the result of a ‘referendum’ on Iraq. It must noted, however, that before the 2002 and 2004 elections, Democrats made the same claim, so the claim may properly be regarded with a large degree of skepticism. It is valid, however, to note the effort to tie the Iraq war with Vietnam, well into its sixth year (the propaganda by the Left actually began several months before the resumption of hostilities) has undoubtedly swayed opinion in various places, and fractured national unity along party lines. For this discussion, it is not necessary to reach a specific degree of influence by such rhetorical efforts, but it is relevant to the present election to consider how this spin is likely to influence future military decisions by the next Administration.

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