How Presidents Sell War: Part 1

Introduction

Eight years ago, the President of the United States stood behind a podium in Oslo City Hall. Speaking to a crowd of royalty, diplomats, guests, and those who just presented him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, he outlined the premise of his nation’s foreign policy — a premise some might call paradoxical.

“Make no mistake,” President Obama said. “Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history.”

Without a hint of irony while accepting the world’s foremost prize just eight months into his presidency, Obama lectured on the necessity of military strength to halt the advance of malevolence. The only thing that can stop a strong Evil is an even stronger Good. It’s Us vs. Them. Civilization vs. Barbarism.

Europeans must have recognized similar language from their own history as leaders of the Western world. After the Second World War, however, Europe passed that baton to the United States. America accepted it and quickly accelerated to a full sprint, a pace which has since rarely slowed.

As leader of the world’s most famous republic, however, Obama and his predecessors could not act unilaterally. Unlike the European autocracies of eras past, he needed the support of the American people and their proxies in Congress. For that reason, the art of “selling” a war to the public was as essential as waging it.

To buy it, the American people needed convincing arguments. American presidents have justified war — including its milder euphemistic cousin, “intervention” — as grim but necessary work, and necessary for a variety of reasons. Those reasons have evolved over time.


The omnidirectional reverberations of Donald Trump’s Syria strike have been fascinating. Some people link its primary cause to his Russia “scandal,” others to North Korea, and still others to China. Many wonder what it means for Trump’s popularity, the pecking order of his advisers, and his foreign policy in general. Most entertainingly, the attack has also made some strange sets of political bedfellows. Republican and Democratic leadership were generally supportive, even if Democrats hedged by demanding Congressional oversight. Also applauding was the group that Trump once called the enemy of the people: the “failing,” “fake news,” mainstream media, though its support largely stemmed from their general fetishizing of American warfare. Most prominently, President Politics for America — which generally disdains Trump, both major parties, and the mainstream media — offered its tepid support of responding o Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Did you think we’d ever see a development in his administration that rallied together President Trump, Democrats, Republicans, the mainstream media, and PPFA? Neither did I.

At the same time, an even weirder alliance emerged between his harshest progressive critics and the vocal, non-interventionist base that helped get him elected. Bernie Sanders and Milo Yiannopoulos, on the same side! Huffington Post and Info Wars, two websites in a pod! It was as if our American political spectrum became so long and mangled that it passed through the nexus of the universe and met somewhere on the other side. Wild times in American politics.

One reason why Trump’s base feels so betrayed is that he had run most of his campaign as someone who was sick of Middle East intervention, and back in 2013 he specifically spoke out against military action in Syria. He was particularly critical of throwing missiles and money at quagmires while American roads crumbled and unemployment was at roughly, he just heard the other day from this guy that he was talking to, 800 percent. He wanted to stop funding the world and instead focus on the U.S. He had a series of speeches and tweets that supported such positions. That “America first” message clicked with millions of voters, and many of his biggest supporters and advisers hoped to guide him through a more isolationist presidency.

But then, as Ann Coulter sardonically tweeted, he saw pictures on TV.

I’m sure it wasn’t that simple, but it perhaps speaks to an ideological evolution once campaign Trump transitioned into President Trump. Once you’re in charge — once you have responsibility — you see the world in a different way. This can apply to the micro sense — new parents, for example, quickly recalibrate their worldviews — but also in the more macro responsibilities of world leaders. Is it a coincidence that, save Syria and her allies, world leaders supported Trump’s action while partisan writers or leading candidates for office came out against? I don’t think it is.


What remains to be seen is if the Syria strike signifies that Trump is now one of the dreaded globalists his base decried and worry he’s becoming.

If President Trump is evolving, he’ll want to be armed with knowledge of how past presidents have talked about foreign interventionism. Since we all know he avoids reading books, I’m hoping PPFA can be emailed to him by one of his advisers. (But not Steve Bannon. Please not Bannon.)

Over the next couple posts, I want to look at some of our chief executives’ trademarks when asking the American people to go to war. Ultimately, Obama’s speech in Oslo did not say much that was new. He was merely the latest in a long line of American presidents who argued that America is an agent of good, and not only does it have the ability to make the world a better place — it is responsible to try. It’s responsible to help when it can, responsible to export American values, and responsible to police the world in case criminal states want to ruin the planet for the rest of us. (Insert climate change snark here.)

It’s a far cry from our first President’s hallowed Farewell Address, when he urged us to stay untangled from overseas alliances. The evolution of American foreign policy from isolationist to interventionist is a fascinating progression. (To be fair, that strange Sanders-Coulter alliance might call it more of a regression.)

So how did we get from there to here? With Part 2, we’ll turn the clock way back and start to find out. See you then. (And don’t forget to sign up for email updates!)

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7 thoughts on “How Presidents Sell War: Part 1

  1. I look forward to this historical analysis. Americans need to be aware that they are the target of sales campaigns that can result in a lot of people getting killed for usually dubious “reasons.”

    g

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