Home / "give me some leads that don't come out of a phone book" / A Conversation With Andrew Polsky, Author of <i>Elusive Victories</i>, Part II

A Conversation With Andrew Polsky, Author of Elusive Victories, Part II


[Part I]

We pick up our interview with Andy Polsky, whose terrific and timely new book about the American presidency at war, Elusive Victories, is available at fine online booksellers everywhere.

LGM: In our last round, Rob argued in comments that Jefferson Davis is unfairly maligned as a military commander.  A Fabian strategy, he argues, would have fatally undermined the goals of the Confederacy by allowing the north to emancipate slaves in huge areas of Southern territory.  Is it possible that, while it didn’t work, Davis’ general strategy (as opposed to some of his other choices) was the best one?

It takes a brave soul to defend Jefferson Davis as a strategist. But, no, I do not agree that Davis adopted the only viable course for the South.  He had better choices and failed to pursue them.

To begin with, as a general military proposition, a cordon defense is poor strategy—an adversary, especially one with a significant conventional advantage, can always concentrate more troops at a given point and rip open a linear defensive line.  Union forces did this in early 1862 in Tennessee.

The larger issue, though, is why Davis was reluctant to surrender territory.  All the available evidence points NOT to his fear about Union forces emancipating slaves across the South.  Rather, he worried about the loyalty to the Confederacy of white southerners.  He suspected that once Union troops moved into an area, his fellow countrymen would dessert the cause of Southern independence.

As I point out in “Elusive Victories,” the trans-Mississippi West after Vicksburg provides an excellent case study of whether white Southerners would remain faithful to the Richmond government after they were cut off by Union advances.  The record is quite clear:  unless Union armies were present in strength, whites continued to obey local Confederate authorities and support the rebel armies still in the field.  Indeed, these regions were the last to surrender in 1865.  Davis showed too little confidence in his fellow Southerners.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that a pure guerrilla strategy was the best course for the South.  Instead, it would have made sense for the Confederacy to combine irregular warfare and conventional.  By using guerrilla tactics, the South would have compelled Union armies to devote a much larger percentage of their strength to defending extended lines of communications.  The Northern forces would have been drained and demoralized by a protracted campaign among a hostile population.  Note, too, the South had a history of this kind of warfare dating back to the Revolution.  So long as Richmond maintained armies-in-being, capable of fighting conventional battles under favorable circumstances, the combination promised excellent results.

Finally, as to the slaves, the white Southerners showed little fear that emancipation was irreversible.  Up the very last days of the war, they offered peace terms based on a revocation of the Emancipation Proclamation.  (Lincoln briefly entertained such a proposition in summer 1864, at a low point in Union fortunes.)  We need only look to the restoration of white dominance across the South during and after Reconstruction to appreciate that so long as whites enjoyed a near-monopoly on force in the region, they were confident in the ability to reassert supremacy.

LGM: I assume you’re familiar with the recent work on executive power by Eric Posner and Adrian Vermuele.   My basic take, to oversimplify, is that they’re probably right empirically (legislative checks on military affairs, like those proposed by Bruce Ackerman, are unlikely to work in large part because Congress doesn’t really want the responsibility) but are on much shakier grounds normatively when they argue that executive dominance is also probably the best arrangement.   How do you assess these claims?

I see no possibility that Congress will assert itself to check the president when it comes to waging war.  No matter what mechanisms Congress tries to set in place, wars happen amid national security crises (real and manufactured by presidents) in which legislators won’t stand up to a president’s definition of the threat and won’t curb presidential discretion to respond.  I have steered clear of the normative debate because it is an empty, intellectual exercise.  We are stuck with this distribution of power and responsibility.

That said, we should engage the question of whether the system works well.  I argue in my book that presidential assertiveness often serves both the president and the nation badly.  Yes, presidents can drag the United States into war with no effective check.  But the results have often been poor.

If we look at the record of major military conflicts in the postwar era, the argument that executive branch hegemony yields positive results is hard to sustain.  Vietnam and Iraq, conflicts fought at the behest of presidents, proved to be disasters; Afghanistan has been badly managed almost from the outset, with no clear political outcome in mind, too few resources when it might have made a difference, and no coherent strategy during the entire Bush administration.

From the standpoint of presidents themselves, the record is probably worse.  The stalemate in Korea helped destroy Truman’s reputation (though it has since recovered); Vietnam ruined two presidencies (Johnson and Nixon); the 1991 Gulf War, though a military success, could not be leveraged into a second term for George H.W. Bush; and the 2003 invasion of Iraq contributed to the Democratic victory in the 2006 midterm elections and thoroughly undermined the reputation of Bush 43.

We have a system, then, that allows presidents the freedom to become their own worst enemies.  Why anyone would celebrate such a development escapes me.  I don’t see an effective alternative, either.  The best I have to offer is that the system contains a self-correcting mechanism—the American people do recognize when wars go badly, protest enters the mainstream, and the collapse of popular support for military intervention eventually forces the next president to seek an exit strategy.

3) Erik and I recently discussed this post on retrospective voting in presidential elections.  From a foreign and military policy perspective, what elections (if any) do you see as having an underrated effect on the future direction of the country?

What a wonderful, mischievous question!  We could spend weeks going back and forth on this one.

Let me start with a definition of “agency” that I’ve used elsewhere.  We can speak of agency as being exercised if we can imagine another actor who might realistically have held a position at a given point in time might have made different decisions that would have has significantly different consequences.  It makes no sense, then, to speculate on how a Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich, or Ron Paul would approach the challenges of presidential leadership because none of them would ever have been elected under any reasonable scenario.

So, to take an obvious example, if Al Gore were president at the time of 9/11 (and many would argue, of course, that he should have been sworn in the previous January, instead of Bush 43), I believe he would have engaged in military action in Afghanistan, but he would not have invaded Iraq in 2003.  Gore would have sent a much larger American force to Afghanistan, too, because he would have had little interest in Rumsfeld-style military transformation.  It is anyone’s guess, of course, whether this would have resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden at an earlier date or prevented the resurgence of the Taliban.  But Iraq would not have been on the table, at least in the short run.

On the other side of the coin, I doubt whether the outcome of the 1964 election altered the likelihood of American intervention in Vietnam.  I suggest in my book that almost any American president, Democrat or Republican, would have regarded the preservation of a non-communist South Vietnam as an essential American interest.  Yes, you could point to a few American political leaders who did not support intervention, but none of them could have been elected president in 1964.  I want to point out that scholars disagree over this point.  Some insist that Johnson exercised significant discretion in his actions.  So this is a point about which we could argue.  And we also can debate whether Barry Goldwater would have waged a different kind of war had he been in the White House.

Given the focus of “Elusive Victories” on wars, I naturally tend to focus on wartime presidents and how other potential chief executives, but it is interesting to speculate about situations in which a particular incumbent avoided war.  Let’s consider Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.  Eisenhower held office during an extremely dangerous period of the Cold War.  The United State might easily have found itself at war or engaged in a significant military intervention at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 or in the disputes over Quemoy and Matsu.  Because Eisenhower had extraordinary credibility as a wartime military leader, he knew how to call the bluff of his military advisors when they urged military action.  He also had such strong military credentials that he could withstand criticism when he refused to back the French in Indochina.  I doubt strongly that a President Stevenson would have been able to do the same, especially as the Democrats had been subjected to such withering attacks about their alleged loss of China.

In the end, of course, most of the counterfactuals about alternative presidential outcomes can be debated endlessly.  I invite your readers to chime in, and I freely admit in advance that their “what ifs” may at least as persuasive as the few I’ve suggested.

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