Care about presidential power? Stay out of quagmires.

Jonathan Bernstein nails it: the biggest danger to Obama’s credibility and future power is a *disastrous war.*

It was posted ages (a day) ago, but amidst all the double-bank-shot, speculative gaming of the political situation regarding Syria, I think this simple, strong insight from Jonathan Bernstein is well worth noting:

[T]here’s one permutation that absolutely, no question about it, would destroy the rest of Barack Obama’s presidency is: a disastrous war. Ask Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush. Or Harry Truman. Unending, seemingly pointless wars are the one sure way to ruin a presidency.

Now, I’m not saying that’s in the cards; in fact, I don’t think it is. I’m just saying: that’s the kind of thing that really does matter a lot to presidencies. And if you do believe that the administration is going down a path that winds up there, or a path that has a high risk of winding up there, then you should be very worried about the health of this presidency.

If not? None of the other permutations here are anywhere close to that kind of threat to the Obama presidency. Presidents lose key votes which are then mostly forgotten all the time. They pursue policies which poll badly, but are then mostly forgotten, all the time. There are important things to say about all of that, because “mostly” isn’t completely. But the first thing to get right when considering the effects of Syria policy on the rest of the Obama presidency is that the scale of a Vietnam or an Iraq (or a Korea, for that matter) overwhelms everything else we might talk about.

When it comes to Syria commentary, there are plenty of foxes tearing each other to pieces. But Bernstein has recalled us to a crucial piece of hedgehog wisdom. Big, endlessly escalating, unwinnable wars not only kill people (something Serious People not supposed to think about). More to the pundit’s point, they kill presidencies.


Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

52 thoughts on “Care about presidential power? Stay out of quagmires.”

  1. Looks as though Obama will come out of this looking very, very good. No war, no chemical weapons in Syrian government hands.

    But, the point about endless war is well taken.

    This post reminded me of Pete Seeger’s famous tune Waist Deep in the Big Muddy (famously censored on the Smothers Brothers; show).

    1. Perhaps he has managed to set up a set of conditions in which Putin begins to conclude that his client state is getting to be more bother than it is worth. Certainly Russia is acting out of self-interest, and if the Syrian regime is becoming a headache, that self-interest would include expediting an end to an inconvenient state of affairs in that country.

    1. While I suppose the line of argument could be run against what Mark said, in all honesty I put up this post in response to about fifty different opinions I’d seen across the web in the previous 24 hours or so. I didn’t have Mark’s post (which, if I recall, was not about the President’s domestic situation but rather about the international implications of not following through on credible commitments) in mind. If I have a beef with Mark, I’m not afraid to say so and trust I know how to do so civilly.

  2. I’m not really sure how would you define a dead presidency. I mostly like Obama,
    but let’s be honest, there’s really no chance that he’ll pass any significant
    legislation the rest of his term. The midterm elections, with the Dems defending
    many vulnerable seats, are likely to leave the already-paralyzed Senate even
    more evenly divided; and the probability of winning back the House is small.

    So at this point it’s just about getting the least-worst economic policy
    you can manage faced with a Tea-Party dominated House, getting as many
    judicial appointments as possible through the Senate, and political positioning
    for a landslide win in 2016. A successful war isn’t going to end Republican
    obstructionism; an unsuccessful war can’t make it any worse than it already is.

    The best reason for not starting a war is that killing people is bad.
    I don’t think it has to get much more complicated than that.

  3. “When it comes to Syria commentary, there are plenty of foxes tearing each other to pieces.”

    But what does the fox say?

    (Sorry. As you were.)

  4. “… an unsuccessful war can’t make it any worse than it already is.”

    It can make 2014 and 2016 worse.

    1. On 2014, I don’t think it can make the difference between winning
      and losing the House. It might make the difference between narrowly winning
      the Senate, and narrowly losing the Senate; and that has implications for
      the next 6 years, but IMO doesn’t make much difference to Obama’s
      ability to get anything done in 2013-2016, since the Tea-Party-dominated
      House is the bigger obstacle, both on spending and on immigration.

      The result in 2016 doesn’t affect Obama’s presidency (though of course
      setting things up for Dem landslide should be a goal).

  5. So I’ve been ruminating on this advise that presidents should avoid disastrous wars and theres one thing that’s bothering me. Because your advice to avoid quagmires lacks guidance about identifying in advance which wars are likely to become quagmires, , it seems to be no more practical as advice for a president than is the admonition to a businessman that the secret to success is to buy high and sell low.

    1. “guidance about identifying in advance which wars are likely to become quagmires”

      The time-tested and remarkably accurate rubric is, of course, “land war in Asia” —
      so much so that Hollywood used it in a joke,
      where the humor depended on the audience recognizing its essential truth.

      Would that our political elite had adopted it around 1955 or so …

      1. Although one of the ‘classic blunders’ is to never get involved in a land war in Asia, that really was specific to the US in the latter half of the 20th Century (Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea). Or going back a bit further, you could say it was the blunder of the Japanese to pick a fight with the US in the Asian theater.
        But if you ask the boys of the East India Company, getting involved in land wars in Asia was generally wildly successful and profitable. As were the Opium Wars. although the Afghan expeditions…not so much.

        1. Agreed, although it seems to me that the Afghan situation falls more under the heading of why empires should be very, very reluctant to fight expensive wars on their not very valuable peripheries.

        2. The East India company fought its wars mostly with Indian “sepoys”. How the British used Indian soldiers to garrison India and other possessions is a forgotten lesson.

          1. Well trained and equipped, but led by British officers. Without these, they were defeated by smaller forces of loyal sepoys (such as Sikhs) with a smattering of British regulars. See The Last Mughal for an account of the fighting round Delhi. As fresh waves of rebels arrived, they were thrown piecemeal into frontal attacks on a thin British defensive line outside the city. Thin, but the defenders had accurate breech-loading rifles (remember the Mutiny was sparked by their introduction). Women reloaded the rifles.

          2. Yes. They may be *wrong* to decide that they can push you out. But in any
            case they can often cause a massive amount of trouble. MacArthur had a
            similar rebellion in the Philippines in the 20s.

          3. After the suppression of the Indian Mutiny, the army was restructured so that there was
            a higher ratio of British to native forces, and artillery, the main force multiplier of the time,
            was largely kept in the hands of British units. Of course that approach doesn’t get you
            to the point where you can bring your troops alone and leave an all-local force capable
            of full-spectrum independent action. Some similarities to the way the US has set up the Afghan
            and Iraqi armies.

      2. As I think back on our many wars, I can’t agree that “don’t get involved in a land war in Asia” has been good advice (unless one is simply determined to fight no wars of choice under any circumstances and possibly no wars at all). On balance, I think the United States has done reasonably well in its Asian wars. Indeed, I think we done better in Asia than anywhere outside of Europe.

        Vietnam, of course, was a debacle but the more important war against Japan was an outright win.

        The Huk rebellion in the Philippines that was needlessly provoked and nearly lost by the clownish, incompetent buffoon Douglas MacArthur was ultimately put down and we were successful in creating some space for a Philippine government of sorts. So a qualified success.

        The Korean War initially was an unqualified military, diplomatic and political win and would have ended quickly, victoriously and with limited casualties had we not been saddled, yet again, with Douglas MacArthur. Even so, once we were able to rid the military of MacArthur, the Korean war produced a stable, prosperous and democratic South Korea, although at a tremendous cost in blood and treasure. One outright win plus two qualified successes against only one outright loss is a very good track record, especially considering that for several of these wars we were terribly handicapped by having MacArthur in our army.

        Which is a long winded way of saying that “don’t get involved in a land war in Asia” doesn’t really help us identify a principle for determining which wars are likely to produce quagmires and which are likely to burnish a president’s reputation and national security credentials. Indeed, since we seem to do better fighting war in Asia than almost anyplace else, it may be counterproductive advice. Yet without such a principle, it’s difficult for me to say that anyone can tell a president how to avoid quagmires short of saying to never fight a war of choice (which actually does seem like good advice in terms of avoiding quagmires, although, as I been commenting in earlier posts about Syria, likely to be fairly disastrous once Assad is in a position to apply the Hama Rules to his opposition). So, we’re back to “buy low, sell high” which is to say that we’re nowhere.

        1. he more important war against Japan was an outright win.

          How can you characterize the WW2 Pacific theater as “a land war in Asia”? I’ve always understood the “land war” part of that phrase as a way of hiving off WW2 & our various Phillipine ventures from all our subsequent wars involving various parts of Asia. That is, the outright win and one of the qualified successes do not contradict that advice.

          In addition, it was more than a generation before one could say that the outcome of the Korean War (a stable, prosperous and democratic South Korea) was a good one.
          Perhaps the Chinese have a horizon that long: the US is generally not credited with that trait.
          I imagine that if any Americans had been asked back in 1950, “Are you willing for the country to go to war, and lose about 36,000 American lives and 8000 MIAs [I cannot find numbers for US wounded] so that the southern part of the Korean peninsula is stable, prosperous and democratic in about 40 years?” the answer would have been “No”! (But that is just me).

          What we are left with as far as land wars in Asia (I feel like I am overlooking some, please correct me):
          Korea: a success roughly 2 generations after the war ended
          Vietnam/Indochina (including Cambodia): a debacle
          Afghanistan: an even longer quagmire than Indochina (shall we say 1964-1973, 10 years?), though considerably less bloody overall
          Iraq: an even longer quagmire than Indochina (though considerably less bloody for the US, less so sure for a comparison of Iraqi vs. Vietnamese casualties)

          The “no land wars in Asia” advice is looking pretty good to me.

          1. WWII had a pretty significant land war in Asia mainland component through Burma and parts of Malaysia. And that’s ignoring the gigantic meatgrinder in China.

          2. As richardc and Dennis point out, the rubric isn’t US-centric.

            Japan’s WWII adventure in China turned out rather badly for Japan.

            And I kinda think that the US experience in Korea qualifies as a “quagmire”,
            despite the current brilliance of the South;
            after fifty years, we still have 28,000 service men and women in country.

            I’ll bet Russia regrets both its Afghanistan and Chechnya experiences.

        2. “clownish, incompetent buffoon Douglas MacArthur”

          I’ll admit MacArthur’s career was a mixed bag, but his role in the reconstruction
          of Japan in 1945-48 was a brilliant success, creating a stable, peaceful, and friendly
          nation which went on to be a startling economic success and a key ally. And the
          planning and execution of the Inchon landings was one of the greatest strategic
          moves in history, without which South Korea (itself a mixed bag, but undoubtedly
          much better than North Korea) would not exist.

          As for the Philippines in WW2, MacArthur may have made mistakes but I’m skeptical
          that anyone could have mounted an effective defense for long after Pearl Harbor
          had given Japan temporary naval superiority.

          1. Made mistakes?

            Dugout Doug should have been courtmartialed for dereliction of duty. He had nearly six hours warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor and continued his poker game.

          2. Yes, that wasn’t his best moment. But I’m unconvinced that his modest
            force of not-particularly-great airplanes and inexperienced aircrews could
            have inflicted much damage on Japan’s very good (at that time) forces.

            As the war progressed, Japan’s aircrew got much worse from attrition and
            inadequate training of replacements, and their airplanes didn’t improve;
            whereas the USA built more and better airplanes, and more and better-trained
            aircrew. But at the time of Pearl Harbor, Japan was just very very good
            at carrier operations.

          3. MacArthur had about 71 effective fighter airplanes in total (P40’s). The
            first wave of Japanese attacks was covered by 84 Zero’s; the second had
            34 Zero’s. Japan had better airplanes, pilots with far more combat experience,
            and substantially larger numbers. MacArthur’s decisions that morning were not
            good, but it would have taken a combination of good decisions plus a lot
            of luck to overcome the disadvantage in quality and numbers of forces.

          4. … add in the fact that the attack was originally planned to be simultaneous
            with Pearl Harbor, and it was only fog which caused it to be delayed (and
            that fog would have hindered any attempt to bomb the Japanese airfield).

            And then in the alternate universe where the USAAF survived the initial
            attack, the 350+ carrier-borne airplanes used at Pearl Harbor could have
            dealt with the Philippines fairly soon after.

          5. But at the time of Pearl Harbor, Japan was just very very good at carrier operations.

            Which had nothing to do with the Philippines campaign. The Japanese air units were stationed on Taiwan (then called Formosa).

            MacArthur’s decisions that morning were not good, but it would have taken a combination of good decisions plus a lot of luck to overcome the disadvantage in quality and numbers of forces.

            MacArthur’s incompetence in the Philippines starts well before the Japanese actually attacked. In the two years leading up to December 7, 1941 he completely changed the operational plan for defense of Luzon. The original plan had been to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula and defend that while the U.S. Navy fought its way across the Pacific. He altered it so that it involved defending Manila. That included dismantling all of the supply dumps on Bataan and moving them to the Manila area.

            Then, when the Japanese invaded, he realized what a lot of people had been telling him all along: Manila simply wasn’t defensible. (Yamashita realized that in 1944, too, and planned better.) So he ordered the retreat to Bataan anyway and when the American and Filipino troops got there, there wasn’t any food or ammunition for them. All of the stories about how woefully unsupplied they were can be laid directly at MacArthur’s feet.

            In the end it would have changed the outcome, but MacArthur’s performance in the Philippines wasn’t any better than Percival’s at Singapore.

            . . . and it was only fog which caused it to be delayed (and that fog would have hindered any attempt to bomb the Japanese airfield).

            False. There was fog over the Philippines, which prevented the Japanese from being able to attack, but the skies were clear over Taiwan. It would have complicated take-offs and forming up initially, but the targets were clear.

            And then in the alternate universe where the USAAF survived the initial attack, the 350+ carrier-borne airplanes used at Pearl Harbor could have dealt with the Philippines fairly soon after.

            The Japanese needed the carriers and their planes for other operations. Had they been required in a campaign that was supposed to be conducted with land-based aircraft it would have been a serious blow for them. That’s before you get to the issues involved with the almost complete inability of the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy to coordinate anything with each other. The attack on Luzon was an IJA operation with very little naval participation.

            MacArthur’s performance was a complete disaster. It’s doubtful that anyone could have led the American and Filipino forces to victory in 1942 but that doesn’t detract from the fact that he was grossly incompetent.

            The funny thing about MacArthur is that his career blends campaigns in which he was brilliant with plenty where he was useless. Inchon was one of the former, as was the later stages of his leapfrogging the length of New Guinea. His defense of the Philippines and the early stages of the New Guinea campaign, where he tried to force his way across the Owen Stanley Mountains, were the latter.

      3. Stay out of Afghanistan. It was bad news for Alexander the Great,
        the British in the 19th C, the Russians in the 20th, and the USA
        in the 21st century.

        More generally, taking a modern army, highly dependent
        on supplies of fuel and food, and designed around
        mechanized transport, into a region with long distances,
        no good roads or railways, far from any ports, is
        almost always a bad idea. Doubly so if your opponents
        are the locals, defending their own turf.

        1. Consider perhaps saying “even” a modern army … thinking of all the historical examples as well. Cornwallis, Napoleon.

          1. Yes, it’s definitely a problem as soon as you have firearms and cannon, since
            then, even if you can forage for food, you need constant supply of ammunition and
            gunpowder to remain effective.

            When it was just down to human muscle and edged weapons, a small disciplined
            force could go a long way living off the land, e.g. Xenophon’s Anabasis.
            Though a big force, like Alexander’s army, needed a lot of logistical support,
            and the time and overhead involved in transporting the food for a large army with
            mules and oxcarts, over distances of hundreds of miles, were almost impossible.

            It’s all about logistics.

            The fans of new technology often think they can overcome this arithmetic.
            But resupply by air failed horribly for the Germans at Stalingrad, and the
            French at Dien Bien Phu, and really don’t seem to have helped all that
            much with Afghanistan, even with the USA’s phenomenal air capabilities.
            Ships and trains are great; trucks on good roads are ok. Beyond that it
            gets expensive and dangerous.

          2. Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.

            That’s one military aphorism, although the truth is that company grades (Captains and Lieutenants) study tactics and logistics. Field grades (Majors and Colonels) study logistics and tactics. Flag officers study logistics.

        2. To your point: Eisenhower wasn’t chosen as Supreme Allied Commander because he could teach the boys to fight; he was chosen because he could feed them.

  6. Brian Schmidt says:
    September 11, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    “WWII had a pretty significant land war in Asia mainland component through Burma and parts of Malaysia. And that’s ignoring the gigantic meatgrinder in China.”

    IIRC (too lazy to Google), the US took ~22K KIA in the Pacific Theater, out of 350K in the whole war – 6%. And that includes some serious naval losses.

    The Pacific Theater was as much as possible an air/naval war, which was why the US won it (the Japanese hoped that the US would fight for each and every island, maximizing the ground war aspect). The gigantic meat grinder in China was somewhere around 99% Chinese vs. Japanese.

    1. The SE Asia component of the Pacific Theater was primarily a British show. China, as you state was primarily Chinese vs. Japanese vs. Chinese. No, that’s not an error: the two big Chinese groups (Mao’s and Chiang’s) had an uneasy truce that lasted almost to the end of the war.

      1. The Burma campaign is fascinating. Slim’s operations first at Imphal/Kohima and then in the race to Rangoon were brilliant.

    2. Correction (if you trust Wikipedia…).

      According to fn 3 of this article, Pacific War, US dead in the Pacific Theater came to ~106K, about 26% of total US war dead in WW2 (using 400K as the total)

    3. Applying the rule of “never get involved in a land war in Asia” to WWII, I made two adjustments:

      1. Rule doesn’t apply to Asian countries period, because that’s not fair, man. Why should countries on all the other continents get to slaughter each other but not Asians?

      2. The Pacific Theater war against Japan doesn’t count as a land war in Asia except on the mainland, so Burma and parts of Malaysia count but not island hopping in the Pacific. The war in China mostly doesn’t count because of Adjustment 1, although there was some Western support for the Chinese over the Hump.

      Not part of the above, but as someone else noted, you could absorb half of the rule pretty well just by never putting boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

      1. The two campaigns over Luzon should probably be considered to be land combat as well and possibly also Okinawa.

      2. China vs Japan involved massive numbers of troops, took place in and almost entirely on or over land. Which demonstrates why I say MacArthur’s advise to JFK was situational and limited to American involvement in SE Asia. Now, it’s certainly true that Japan’s land war in Asia ultimately worked out badly. But in geopolitical terms (disregarding the costs of Japan’s brutal and inhumane occupation), China came out of the war victorious over its traditional rival and free to expand it’s influence back into its traditional sphere of influence with little interference from the Western colonial powers or Japan. So China was clear wise to fight a land war in Asia (not that it had much choice, anyway).

        I agree about Afghanistan.

        1. I don’t think that there’s any way to categorize China as victorious in the war with Japan. They happened to be fighting against a foe that was beaten by someone else. Even towards the end of the war, the Japanese could pretty much advance at will whenever they wanted. Witness Operation Ichi-Go, which captured air bases the USAAF was using to bomb Japan as late as December, 1944. The Chinese army had some success in 1945, but nothing that could be categorized as war winning.

    4. That doesn’t make the war in the Pacific any less of a land war. The Allies simply played to their strengths to neutralize Japan’s more powerful armies in the Pacific by what was essentially a series of giant flanking maneuvers that threatened Japan’s supply lines, etc. What difference does it make that much of the effort to turn Japan’s flank was carried out by naval forces instead of infantry?

  7. A couple of small clarifications of what I meant in previous posts are probably in order.

    1. When I addressed the vacuity of the “never get involved in a land war in Asia” trope, I was using the term in the way that I have always assumed MacArthur intended, namely, a war fought by mainly Americans in Southeast Asia. The logic of excluding Asians from this maxim seems obvious, just as the geographic limitations seem equally obvious from the context in which he supposedly made these remarks.

    2. The success of the Inchon landing should not blind us to the fact that something so risky became necessary, in no small part, because of MacArthur’s abysmal prewar planning; which was only to be expected give his even more abysmal planning for the defense of the Philippines.

    The success of the landing was hardly preordained and (to borrow from a much better general) Inchon was very much “a near run thing.” Moreover, there was an utter failure to follow up on the success of the Inchon campaign. Everything MacArthur said and did from Inchon forward proves him to be the absolute worst general in American history.

    I think a much better rule of thumb would have been to never get involved in a war if you’ve got Douglas MacArthur in your army.

    3. Yes, the land engagements in the Pacific were dwarfed by those in the European and African theaters. In part this was dictated by geography and because the Allies need to gain control of the Pacific Ocean as a prerequisite to their land campaigns. Then, too, the Allies lacked the manpower to fight large land engagements so it was necessary to formulate a strategy that would force Japanese withdrawal while minimizing invasions in China, Indochina, etc. Nevertheless, the war in the Pacific was very much a land war since Japan had occupied most, if not all of Southeast Asia. That the allies successfully maneuvered to minimize the necessity of directly engaging superior Japanese forces doesn’t change that.

    4. If, however, we broaden the geographic scope of the discussion to include Iraq then the vacuity of the maxim become apparent: By almost every standard, the First Gulf War would have to be counted as a successful war. Every one of its declared objectives was achieved with minimal cost to the US and its allies. More importantly for the present discussion, it was the exact opposite of a quagmire.

    The Second Gulf War, by contrast, was a catastrophic failure at every level. The political, military, diplomatic and human costs were immense. What was the essential difference? Simple. Scrub leadership, including having selected the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks and a host of other total incompetents.

    So wouldn’t it be more accurate to simply say not to get involved in a war if your government and military are lead by a bunch of total morons? I don’t see and nobody has explained the mystical nature of Asia that makes land wars than similar wars fought elsewhere.

    1. I don’t see and nobody has explained the mystical nature of Asia that makes land wars than similar wars fought elsewhere.

      Clearly, you have never seen The Princess Bride, for otherwise would not have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders.

      1. Yes, well, you will notice that the man who thought this was brilliant advice ended up dying in a battle of wits.

    2. What’s mystical about it is that the Asian land mass is really big,
      has lots of areas which are far from useful seaports or navigable rivers,
      and has some areas with quite large population. So a “land war in Asia”
      is tricky if it involves taking a large body of troops, needing a lot of
      supplies, into territory far from ships, railways, or good roads.

      The islands in the Pacific obviously don’t pose the same kinds of
      logistical problems, as long as you have ships, and air power to
      protect them.

      And no, it mostly isn’t about Americans (some things aren’t, y’know)
      and it isn’t necessarily about South-East Asia.

    3. Well, Iraq is technically in Asia. But if your shipping can use the Gulf,
      it doesn’t pose the same logistical difficulties as somewhere like Afghanistan.
      Also the Tigris is navigable up to Baghdad (and in some seasons, further
      upstream), and has always served as a major transport route.

      Second, let me dispute your contention that the Second Gulf War was a catastrophic
      failure at every level. On the contrary, as a military campaign, it was a brilliant
      success: a large country, with a large army, was conquered very rapidly, and with
      very few casualties, with absoluite dominance in technology, training, tactics,
      maneuver, generalship. The problem came later, from the utter lack of a plan for
      how to deal with it after the victory. I thought the invasion was a really stupid
      idea, and the aftermath has been a disaster for everyone (except maybe the Kurds),
      but I can acknowledge the brilliance of the military campaign.

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