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The Presidency in Wartime-a Symposium

David Brooks, Kenneth R. Weinstein, Jay Winik & William A. Galston

The following discussion took place on Friday, October 26, 2001, at the Hudson Institute’s Washington, D.C., office. The panel examined the traditional presidential role of commander in chief, once thought to have been eclipsed by post-Cold War peace and prosperity, but now clearly paramount in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Debate focused on the divide in America between those who enthusiastically support an increase in presidential authority and those who are wary of it, and on the appropriate historical analogies to this uncertain period in American life.

Kenneth Weinstein, vice president and director of Hudson Institute’s Washington, D.C., office, moderated the discussion. David Brooks is senior editor of The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor to Newsweek, a commentator for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, a contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, and author of the bestseller Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. He is currently at work on a book on the National Greatness movement. William Galston is a professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland. He is one of the prime architects of the New Democratic approach to public policy and served as deputy assistant on domestic policy to President Clinton. Jay Winik is an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute and is the author of the bestseller April 1865: The Month That Saved America. His book was read by President Bush and Vice President Cheney in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, as well as by key administration staffers.

DAVID BROOKS: The most untrue truism about American life is that there are no second acts. There is a second act for George W. Bush, and, hopefully, there will be for the rest of us. Both Bush in particular and American politics in general have been fundamentally and dramatically changed since September 11. Bush came into office, judging by his speeches, with a generational view of politics. He said at the Republican convention that his father’s generation had fought the great global causes, but that his generation, blessed with peace and prosperity, was called on to fight a cause for neighborhoods and for localities, through what he called “small, unnumbered acts of caring, courage, and self-denial.” The emphasis was on the smallness. In his inauguration address, continuing the language of compassionate conservatism, he said, “Every day we are called upon to do small things with great love.” Again, the emphasis was on the small, nurturing, caring virtues of compassion, inclusion, and local, neighborhood involvement.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 changed all that. In his September 20 speech to the joint session of Congress, Bush immediately, decisively changed. Most important of all was his statement, in ripping language, “In our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment.” He seemed transformed, stunningly so. That is exactly what the Founding Fathers, or at least what Alexander Hamilton, envisioned-that the presidency, by giving someone the vista of these global responsibilities, would elevate the person who held the job and lend him a more presidential, more imperial stature.

Bush has said that his presidency will be defined by foreign conflict, not the nurturing governorship we imagined. And this accidental, quite unforeseen effect of September 11 fundamentally changes the Republican Party, which is made up of two distinct groups: conservatives and free-marketeers. The free-marketeers really have no explanation for Osama bin Laden. He’s not acting in self-interest, nor are the people fighting him. Some of the hard-core free-marketeer explanations of bin Laden are, in fact, absurd. My friend George Gilder wrote an editorial in what now passes for The American Spectator, titled, “Osama bin Luddite,” stating that what bin Laden really hates is technology, and that terrorism is his way of expressing that. Steve Hanke, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Forbes magazine columnist, was quoted in The New Republic essentially saying that we should not look at Osama bin Laden as a terrorist or as an agent of violence; we should see him as an anticapitalist, someone who’s envious of the rich. Which, like Gilder’s formulation, is totally beside the point of what Osama bin Laden is.

The social and religious conservatives also have an inadequate explanation for bin Laden. They have a much deeper understanding of what motivates him, but you can’t fight a holy war of Christianity versus Islam against Osama bin Laden. Religion is both too sectarian and too broad a motivation upon which to base our response to terror. Thus, both of these movements, which were at the core of the Republican Party, have been pushed off to the side by the effects of September 11.

It seems to me that the main effect of September 11 is the realization that-contrary to the presumption of the 1990s that Microsoft and the Internet would expand harmony, understanding, and capitalist communication around the globe-we are now living in an age of conflict. And the central issue in this age of conflict is the revitalization of central institutions. We now are forced, merely for our own safety, to rely on central institutions such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the military, and the ultimate central institution, the presidency. The crucial debate in the coming months will be over the public’s relationship to these central institutions-how to judge them, and how much to trust them. This is a problem for both the Left and Right because each has antiestablishment elements which are instinctively hostile to the nation’s central institutions.

On the Left, there’s an interesting split between the political liberals, who are very supportive of Bush, and the literary leftists, who are largely antagonistic toward him (such as Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, and Eric Foner). The latter are more academically oriented, less political. I think that the essence of the distinction is one’s relationship to power. Political liberals and political leftists want power and appreciate it. The academic and literary leftists, by contrast, have made a creed out of powerlessness: they believe that virtue adheres to the victims of oppressive colonialism. They have sanctified powerlessness. Therefore, although they may hate the Taliban, to respond by embracing power, especially American power, would be to annihilate their self-appointed role as the voices of the powerless.

There’s a similar split on the Right, between (I think this is a Machiavellian distinction) the lions and the foxes. The lions believe in forthright use of authority. They want the federal government to crack down on domestic terror even if it infringes on our civil liberties, and they want to go after Baghdad because they believe in the assertion of central authority. The foxes, on the other hand, want authority to be expressed in clever ways, in subtle ways. They don’t want to go after Baghdad, because they don’t want to endanger the international coalition against terrorism. They don’t want a more aggressive use of power domestically. They worry about the fabric of our civil liberties.

This is the fundamental divide in America today, between the lions in both parties, who appreciate central authority and are the vast majority, and the foxes, the outright anti-establishmentarians, who don’t appreciate central authority and the aggressive exercise of power. The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, and, to some extent, the Washington Post editorial page are virtually indistinguishable in their approval of increased central authority. On the other side are Robert Novak, Jack Kemp, Barney Frank, the New York Times editorial page, and Hillary Clinton. This is a fundamental political reorientation around the question, “Do you trust central authority?” And Bush, by and large, has been more lion than fox in reasserting the importance of the presidency and central authority.

WILLIAM GALSTON: I will begin with three quotations from Alexander Hamilton: one exceedingly familiar, the other two somewhat less so. Hamilton, during his discussion of executive power in Federalist 70, remarks that “energy in the executive” is a leading characteristic of good government. The very next sentence is, “It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks.”

We are now living through the quintessential case that Hamilton believed called for energy in the executive. Hamilton goes on to talk about four characteristics of the energetic executive in times of emergency: decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch; from which we may infer that contrary actions such as excessive deliberation and breaches of secrecy will be unacceptable in our current circumstances. It is no accident that the administration successfully threatened Congress with the withdrawal of normal briefing processes if leaks continued. And they stopped.

The second relevant quotation is from Federalist 8. Hamilton wrote, “It is of the nature of war to increase the Executive at the expense of the Legislative authority.” A more prescient sentence, I believe, was never penned. In Federalist 74, Hamilton explains exactly why that expansion of executive authority occurs: “Of all the cares and concerns of government, the direction of war most peculiarly demands those qualities which distinguish the exercise of power by a single hand. The direction of war implies the direction of common strength. And the power of directing and employing the common strength forms a usual and essential part in the definition of Executive Authority.”

Now, what are some of the implications of this constitutionally contemplated and inevitable expansion of the executive authority? Let me make three points. One: it means the expansion of the president’s discretionary authority. And if the president does not seize expanded discretion, it will be handed to him by the legislature. Those of you who watched the very quick construction of the post-September 11 New York bailout and recovery package will note the extraordinary powers that the president has been given to determine the time, place, manner, and division of these very substantial sums of money. I can assure you that under no other circumstances would the Congress of the United States have handed over that kind of discretionary authority to the president.

Second point: war means an expansion of presidential responsibility. This is Mr. Bush’s war. Not only can he not back away from it, he cannot distance his presidency from the outcome of the war. Not only is this Mr. Bush’s war, but this war is Mr. Bush’s presidency.

Point number three: these circumstances mean a greater focus on ends as opposed to means, and on the successful exercise of power rather than restraint. A number of liberal Democrats who voted for the antiterrorism bill said that, absent the events of September 11, they never would have voted for it. They have suspended some of their morally grounded objections to the goal-oriented exercise of power. That’s the good news for the president. The bad news for him is that this enhanced focus on ends will also apply to his conduct overseas, not just at home.

In this regard, I commend to your attention an editorial by Senator John McCain published in the October 26 edition of theWall Street Journal. McCain wrote, “We cannot fight [this war] without casualties. And we cannot fight it without risking unintended damage to humanitarian and political interests.” Three paragraphs later, he writes, “It is clear that to destroy bin Laden and his associates we will first need to destroy the regime that protects them. To achieve that end, we cannot allow the Taliban safe refuge among the civilian population. We must destroy them, wherever they hide. That will surely increase the terrible danger facing noncombatants, a regrettable but necessary fact of war.”

In other words, because President Bush has dedicated himself to victory, for which, according to McCain, “there is no substitute,” he must accept all the means required for that end. Hence, to be a lionlike executive, Bush will have to overcome his tender heart and exercise executive power assertively in the current circumstances.

As Jay Winik noted in the Wall Street Journal, I know of many wars that have been fought to safeguard the cause of liberty and have actually succeeded in doing so. But I know of no war that has preserved the liberties of those fighting it, at least for the duration of the conflict. And perhaps that’s what the author and pacifist Randolph Bourne meant when he famously said, “War is the health of the state.” By that he seems to mean that war enhances the powers of the state; but in fact, he goes on to make a different point, stating that “only when the state is at war does the modern society function with that unity of sentiment-simple, uncritical, patriotic devotion and cooperation of services-which have always been the ideal of the state model.”

The philosopher William James once urged us to seek out the “moral equivalent of war.” Modern history, however, has taught us that there isn’t one. If you want that kind of unity, devotion, and sense of connection to the government and your fellow citizens, then war, whether you acknowledge it or not, is what you want.

JAY WINIK: As the grim day of September 11 wore on, at one point ABC News anchor Peter Jennings asked, rather plaintively, and I paraphrase here, “Where is the president? We need to hear from him, and soon.” I think that Jennings was only reflecting what most Americans felt they needed most as this crisis first unfolded: their president. And therein lies a truth about the presidency and war. If there is any doubt about how crucial the presidency is during wartime, conjure up again the events of September 11. Despite the fact that we are the oldest, most established, and most durable democracy in the world, a sense of near panic ripped through the nation. One had the sense that, as the terror played itself out, time seemed almost to be standing still. Recall the feeling of horror that arose felt as first one plane, then a second, then a third hit their targets, and as a fourth crashed into Pennsylvania. There was a sense of rampant fear that the White House itself-unthinkably, implausibly, and perhaps undeniably-was a target.

In this light, Jennings’s call for the president seems more comprehensible, more understandable. It has always been a fact that in crises, in war especially, the president, as commander in chief, as chief executive, is crucial to the leadership of the nation. Never has this seemed to be more true than now.

Both the American people and this administration can glean several crucial lessons for the conduct of this war from previous conflicts, especially the Civil War, the last time the battlefield was largely synonymous with the homefront. I will briefly discuss four lessons concerning (1) the need for ongoing presidential leadership, (2) the role of public opinion, (3) the need to make tough choices (and we may be there sooner rather than later), and (4) the question of civil liberties.

We have learned from history that there is no substitute for the firm hand of the president, and we will need it for the duration of this war. Abraham Lincoln started the Civil War by calling up a paltry 75,000 volunteers for a mere three months’ enlistment. The war would drag on for four long years and take 620,000 lives, dwarfing any other conflict in this nation’s history. We couldn’t have been any less prepared. For the war’s first great battle, at Manassas, members of Congress and their wives came out with their finest clothes, fine picnic lunches, and good china to watch the events of the day, as though it were a sporting event. By the day’s end, they, along with the Union army, were hotly retreating.

The early mistakes made by Lincoln and the Union are instructive today as we watch this administration develop its sea legs on the home front and abroad. Day in and day out, as Lincoln mulled over his ocean of troubles, as he hauled his tired bones to the War Department to read the latest dispatches, he was anything but the picture of a confident or seasoned commander in chief. He had generals who wouldn’t fight, couldn’t fight, failed to press the advantage when they did fight, or simply got whipped. He even checked out, if you can believe this, books on war strategy from the Library of Congress. It was almost frightening how many people in the nation’s leadership had to be brought up to speed.

But as the war ground on, Lincoln pressed on despite the continuing tornado of blood. He always kept his eye on the great goal-the Union, which he knew, and knew passionately, could only be saved by force of arms. He pursued that goal with dogged tenacity, even when there were opportunities to end the killing, to strike a deal, even when he could have grabbed the easy way out, as would have been so tempting to a lesser president. He was a rock. In this conflict, George Bush will also have to be a rock, to show dogged tenacity, to weather mistakes, and never to lose sight of his goal: eradicating terrorism and its sponsors. At all times, Lincoln maintained an almost mystical attachment to the Union. Though he did not want war, he accepted it as necessary. Likewise, Americans did not seek the current war on terrorism, but it has found us. George Bush wisely recognizes that.

The second lesson past wars can teach us concerns public opinion. President Bush cannot run this war according to public opinion, even though his numbers are at an all-time high. Americans are enormously resilient, and it was unwise for the terrorists to bet against the American people, but public opinion of the war effort will probably wax and wane. Hence, Bush should do what Lincoln did-always govern as though public opinion were at an all-time high, or, for that matter, an all-time low. We forget how difficult managing public opinion during the war was, how unclear it was that the public would persevere with Lincoln. After Gettysburg, a key turning point in the Civil War, America experienced the worst riot in its history: the four-day New York City Draft Riots of 1863, in which at least 105 people were murdered, including blacks who were hung from lampposts. A year later, as casualties rose, the North was indeed in a foul mood, literally crying out for peace: a storm of antiwar protests ripped through the Midwest; the Democrats’ presidential platform called for an immediate cessation of hostilities; and, as journalist Horace Greeley wrote, “Our bleeding, bankrupt country, our almost dying country, longs for peace.” In May of 1864, during the Battle of the Wilderness, President Lincoln scarcely slept for four days, wandering the White House corridors, muttering, “I must have some relief from this terrible anxiety or it will kill me.” Union general-in-chief U. S. Grant lost some 50,000 men in just six weeks alone, nearly as many as we would lose in the entirety of Vietnam. Lincoln declared that “the heavens hung in black.”

But even as a deathly weariness settled over Lincoln and public opinion sagged, he persevered. Consider some of Lincoln’s dispatches to Grant: “Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke;” “Stand firm;” “Hold firm as with a chain of steel. Watch it every day, and in every hour.” And when the country began to call for Grant’s head after his terrible losses-even Mary Lincoln was calling for his dismissal-Lincoln cried out, “I can’t spare him. He fights.”

A third lesson for today’s leaders has to do with the tough choices of warfare that a president confronts. After the midway point of the Civil War, the body count mounted; Grant was stalled against Robert E. Lee; the antiwar movement reached a fever pitch; Lincoln’s own former top general, George McClellan, challenged him for the presidency; and, most ominously, it looked as though the South might not succumb. The great question loomed: “What next?” It was a question for the Union, for history, and ultimately for us to ponder. What did Lincoln do? The toll of time on the president was evident in the deep lines crevassing his face; the thick, black rings around his eyes; and his gaunt figure, resulting from the thirty pounds he had lost. But Lincoln understood that only tough measures could win this war and save the Union. He and Grant embraced the concept of total war, an escalatory measure that had been unthinkable at the outset, and unleashed General William Sherman. Sherman announced that he would “cut a swath through the sea, and make Georgia howl.” In fact, he would batter and burn Atlanta beyond recognition, sending long lines of innocent civilians trembling in flight. In Georgia as a whole, he laid waste to a vast corridor stretching 285 miles, felling everything in his way under a cloud of destruction. Nor did he stop there. After ripping through Georgia, he undertook a similarly fearsome march through South Carolina, slashing out 425 miles of death and destruction, all the way to the burning of Columbia.

The Union did this with few regrets. “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it,” boomed Sherman. “We can make war so terrible and make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.” He also said, “We must make this hostile people feel the hard hand of war.” And to Lincoln, he sent this jaunty wire: “I beg to present to you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.”

There may come a time in this current conflict, perhaps soon, when the president and Congress will face a decision comparable to Lincoln’s, whether it be to widen the war, triple the troops, escalate the campaign, or some other measure not yet foreseen. A side note here: Lincoln, after having waged total war, was free to wage a generous, magnanimous peace that did much to heal the country and knit it together in the war’s perilous final days. Another side note: the South refused to engage in this type of total warfare, and paid dearly for it.

Now, on the matter of civil liberties, the historical lesson is that in virtually every major conflict, our most distinguished wartime presidents-Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and even John Adams (who didn’t fight a war but feared one) did not hesitate for a moment to undertake harsh, even draconian, measures to ensure the nation’s security. They thought nothing of suspending habeas corpus; closing down newspapers; imprisoning, for great durations and without even charging them, legislators and ordinary people alike purely for their political views; defying court orders, including from the Supreme Court; interning some 110,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom were deeply loyal to the nation; or restricting the mail, free speech, or free assembly.

Remarkably, they did this even when the magnitude of the threat to the American people was nothing like that of today. Indeed, the new antiterror law, with its sunset provisions, pales in comparison with what these previous presidents enacted, often unilaterally, by their wartime authority. The lesson is this: if, as this grim conflict marches on, President Bush and Congress decide that there is a need to restrict civil liberties even further, history tells us, fortunately, that our democratic institutions and traditions of civil liberties are sufficiently robust and resilient to withstand these temporary measures. When the threat finally ends, wartime fears fade and civil liberties invariably re-emerge stronger than ever. The president and the American people can take comfort in some of these lessons from the past.

QUESTION: Is America prepared for this war?

BROOKS: I’d say that we’re still in the Manassas picnic phase of the war, and the country will have to be barbarized and toughened, as people who lived through World War II tell me they were changed during the course of that war.

I was up at Yale recently, and I spoke to approximately twenty-five students and several faculty members. I’d earlier done a piece on Princeton for The Atlantic Monthly [“The Organization Kid,” April 2001], and the kids I interviewed then were incredibly hardworking and industrious but not interested at all in foreign affairs or even domestic affairs. They were, in fact, not interested in matters other than their own career prospects.

Yale, at least, has changed dramatically since then. Many of the kids there told me about furious arguments in the dining hall, which is something that nobody remembers happening before. Another thing that struck me about Yale was that faculty members-middle-aged Baby Boomers, former ’60s generation people-looked at these kids with real curiosity. Their attitude was not simply, “I want to know how these kids think,” but included an admission that “the way I approached life during Vietnam is not quite applicable, and maybe they know something.” The kids responded in an interesting way: “You never prepared us to think, to come to moral conclusions. You only told us how to deconstruct, and now we live in this fog of relativism. We don’t actually know how to construct arguments so that we can come to a conclusion, and now we need to reach a conclusion.” That’s something I heard everywhere.

WINIK: I suspect that what David is hearing is a slice of what is going on across the country. We’ve seen this in previous wars, where the faculty is out of step with events, yet students want to enlist or otherwise participate in great droves. A war is unlike any other time. It changes society and puts everything at peril. It has always been this way, and it should be no surprise that things change so dramatically. Were such changes not to occur, we would probably be in great trouble.

GALSTON: This war looks like parts of lots of different wars to me. On the one hand, if you look at Afghanistan, there are substantial elements of a traditional war. But there are portions of this that are going to be a lot like the Cold War: a long, twilight struggle through unconventional as well as conventional means, against a wide range of foes, with a wide range of unsavory friends. For most of the Cold War, victory was defined as containment, and we may now be in a situation where, for the foreseeable future, we will be working merely to contain the enemy.

I think that there are some resemblances to what we are talking about now in the War on Drugs: we’re talking about the homeland now, not just overseas; we will have to use a wide range of legal techniques to get at an embedded problem, techniques that are not very popular among civil libertarians; and because our opponents draw no distinction between combatants and noncombatants, we may wind up in a situation where we don’t either.

QUESTION: Does that mean all is fair in this war?

BROOKS: I’m not at all certain that we can, should, or will barbarize. If barbarism is necessary to win, it is still not really consistent with what has always motivated Americans to win, which is an idealistic sense of global mission. And if we become as barbaric as the enemy, we may no longer be able to see ourselves as having a noble cause, which we need to do in order to fight this war. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to be simultaneously barbaric and moralistic, and like a lot of people, I find myself going back to the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, saying that we have to fight this cause because it is just. But fighting it is a morally hazardous occupation because you have to do horrible things; therefore, you have to ask God’s forgiveness while you’re fighting it. You cannot stop fighting it, but you do have to be conscious of the moral pitfalls. You have to be a humble hawk.

WINIK: I disagree with the notion that our prosecution of the war will become barbaric. We are not deliberately targeting innocent civilians-in fact, quite the opposite. And I think that what Senator McCain meant in his article was that if innocent civilians are unintentionally injured in a war, that is unfortunately the nature of war, of what happens in wars. He was not telling us to target innocent civilians.

We don’t know how this war is going to play out. It may be like a world war. I get unnerved thinking that, but over time it may take on those elements. I’m not sure that this war is going to drag on for decades, like the Cold War. I think that if it ends up escalating, it will be over within four to eight years, one way or the other.

If it ends up like the War on Drugs, then I think that there’s no doubt we will probably have failed. But if it ends up like a conventional war, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, we’ll find in the final analysis that we will not only succeed in our military objectives but will also avoid the moral pitfalls mentioned here. Even if we end up fighting a tough war that is far tougher than we now imagine, I can never see this country targeting innocent civilians. I believe that in the end America will, as always, show enormous generosity and magnanimity, working with others to reconstruct the world and to rebuild the good things that were consumed by the conflict.

GALSTON: But there are international standards for the conduct of war, and those standards revolve around the definition of classes of forbidden means. When people are hauled before war-crimes tribunals, the point of the charges brought against them is not whether the aim of the conflict was justified; it is whether the means employed were permitted or forbidden. And there is no escape clause.

WINIK: To which one could arguably express relief that Abraham Lincoln didn’t have Michael Walzer [the noted political theorist and coeditor of Dissent magazine] on his senior staff counseling him about this, because they looked at this and they totally rejected it. On a more serious note, people do have the right of self-defense; that is enshrined in every international code. Weapons of mass destruction are already being used against America-including biological warfare. What’s happened in New York City and the Pentagon-massively targeting innocent civilians-was almost unthinkable, and would probably have been just the beginning if America’s military response had not been so successful. (And there may well, of course, be more surprises to come.) No one is talking about America targeting innocent civilians, but at a certain point, war does have its own organic logic, as General Sherman once famously reminded us, no matter what we may try to say morally about it.

GALSTON: I am very much-and this will end on a note of slight discord-I am every bit as much in favor of prosecuting this war vigorously and successfully as Jay is, I believe. But I have a somewhat darker reading of the historical record. Hiroshima was not a military target. It was a target with diplomatic and political significance, but it came about as close as we ever have in American history to selecting a civilian target and destroying it in order to bring a military conflict to a political end. I could also cite examples from Vietnam and other wars where this line Jay is trying to draw between collateral damage and deliberately targeting civilians was crossed by us for reasons that we regarded as sufficient at the time.

WINIK: Well, it’s not going to be simple, at least we agree on that.

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