On April 4, 1864, Abraham Lincoln made a shocking admission about his presidency during the Civil War. “I claim not to have controlled events,” he wrote in a letter, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Lincoln’s words carry an invaluable lesson for wartime presidents, writes Andrew J. Polsky in this seminal book. As Polsky shows, when commanders-in-chief do try to control wartime events, more often than not they fail utterly.
In Elusive Victories, Polsky provides a fascinating study of six wartime presidents, drawing larger lessons about the limits of the power of the White House during armed conflict. He examines, in turn, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, showing how each gravely overestimated his power as commander-in-chief. In each case, these presidents’ resources did not match the key challenges that recur from war to war. Both Lincoln and Johnson intervened in military operations, giving orders to specific units; yet both struggled with the rising unpopularity of their conflicts. Both Wilson and Bush entered hostilities with idealistic agendas for the aftermath, yet found themselves helpless to enact them. With insight and clarity, Polsky identifies overarching issues that will inform current and future policymakers. The single most important dynamic, he writes, is the erosion of a president’s freedom of action. Each decision propels him down a path from which he cannot turn back. When George W. Bush rejected the idea of invading Iraq with 400,000 troops, he could not send such a force two years later as the insurgency spread. In the final chapter, Polsky examines Barack Obama’s options in light of these conclusions, and considers how the experiences of the past might inform the world we face now.
Elusive Victories is the first book to provide a comprehensive account of presidential leadership during wartime, highlighting the key dangers that presidents have ignored at their peril.
About Andrew J. Polsky
Andrew J. Polsky (Ph.D., Princeton) is professor of political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of two books, “Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War” (Oxford University Press, 2012) and “The Rise of the Therapeutic State” (Princeton University Press, 1991). In addition, he has written numerous scholarly articles and chapters on the American presidency, wartime presidential leadership, political parties, business in American politics, and American political development. From 2005 to 2010, he served as the editor of “Polity”, ranked among the ten best-known political science scholarly journals.
“Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War” by Andrew J. Polsky
The Washington Post Book Review – August 4, 2012 (Excerpt)
One of the little-recognized but distinguishing attributes of the U.S. Constitution is the absence of any specific provision for emergency powers. The French national charter, by contrast, has Article Sixteen, which confers on their president the authority to take whatever measures are required when “the independence of the Nation [is] . . . under serious and immediate threat, and where the proper functioning of the constitutional public authorities is interrupted.”
Although the Constitution does contain scattered provisions that deal with insurrection and war, nothing specifically designates responsibility for crisis leadership. Here history has largely decided what the framers did not.
As the union fell apart in 1861, Abraham Lincoln claimed the “war power” as his own, relying on a constellation of Article II clauses including the president’s role as commander in chief and the presidential oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” In subsequent wars, Lincoln’s precedent has generally prevailed. Today, it is axiomatic that war empowers the president.
The constitutional ambiguity on this point, however, makes for endless debate, especially in times like ours, when waging war is controversial. Indeed, much of the critique of wartime governance typically involves judging aggressive presidential behavior against a set of fuzzy constitutional standards.
Andrew Polsky, a professor of political science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, writes that he undertook his book, “Elusive Victories,” in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, expecting it to take “its place on the bookshelf of liberal laments about excesses of executive authority.” Instead, he has written a very different book, one that moves beyond the constitutional arguments often put forward to contest presidential war powers; consequently, it may have a distinctive impact. [Read the full article...]
THE BLEEDING HILLS A Novel by Wilfried F. Voss
I have fought a good fight,
I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith. - 2 Timothy iv. 7
The Irish War is officially a part of history, but not for Finnean Whelan, an IRA veteran of almost 40 years. British Intelligence has produced evidence that he is the mastermind behind a conspiracy to assassinate the First Minister of Northern Ireland. For Whelan this is not only a mission of revenge, but marks the beginning of a journey into the past and the return to the one true love: Ireland. [More...]
We are the only country that makes guns, including military-style assault weapons, available to anyone who wants to buy them. This is not freedom. It is a tyranny of death and destruction — a tyranny of which the National Rifle Association is proud. The Washington Post
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