Friday, December 2, 2011

Winning wars is OK. Waging wars is better.

At The National Interest, John Mueller suggests that Obama won't get much electoral lift from winning the Libya war—we're still talking about that?—because presidents rarely do:
Nobody gave much credit to Bush for his earlier successful intervention in Panama, to Dwight Eisenhower for a successful venture into Lebanon in 1958, to Lyndon Johnson for success in the Dominican Republic in 1965, to Jimmy Carter for husbanding an important Middle East treaty in 1979, to Ronald Reagan for a successful invasion of Grenada in 1983, or to Bill Clinton for sending troops to help resolve the Bosnia problem in 1995. Although it is often held that the successful Falklands War of 1982 helped British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the elections of 1983, any favorable effect is confounded by the fact that the economy was improving impressively at the same time.
Right: Americans expect to win wars, so you don't really get special consideration as president for getting the job done. There's really only two war-related situations that seem to make much of a difference to a president's standing:

• Losing wars is bad. Think LBJ, of course, but even the relative success of the surge in Iraq wasn't enough to overcome Americans' (entirely correct) belief that George W. Bush had mostly prosecuted the war very badly. That led to Democrats' electoral success in 2006 and 2008.

• Going to war, on the other hand, is tremendously good in the short-term. George HW Bush saw his tepid popularity skyrocket when he led the U.N. coalition against Saddam in 1991; his son saw a similar boost after 9/11. A lot of that depends on the perceived justness of the cause; Obama didn't get a boost, most likely, because A) Americans barely cared about the war there, B) American military involvement was mostly kept out-of-sight, and C) his administration didn't do much in terms of rallying around the flag.

And a president has to show himself to be willing to go to war. Every president is scared of looking weak, and certainly political opponents are always willing to scream "appeasement" if a rival country gains an inch anywhere else in the world.

The lesson? Be willing to go to war. Make sure you win it. Losing is really the only part of the equation that is for ... losers.

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