It’s clear that the conflict in Syria is now an issue in the American presidential campaign, largely at the insistence of Mitt Romney’s Republican supporters. Most notable among the interjections was an emotional speech recently delivered on the Senate floor by Senator John McCain, in which he demanded to know why the White House was abetting Bashar al Assad’s murdering of innocents. There is, of course, much to quibble with in this characterization: Far from doing nothing to oppose Bashar, the Obama administration has supported the U.N. ceasefire proposal sponsored by Kofi Annan and put pressure on Moscow and Beijing to assert their influence.
But in another way, it is only fitting that the White House’s response has become a campaign issue. After all, it’s very likely that electoral considerations have been among the things on President Obama’s mind as he has crafted his Syria policy.
I don’t mean this pejoratively. Foreign policy—dealing as it does with the most charged political subjects of all, the safety and dignity of the nation—will always be political terrain particularly vulnerable to distortion and demagoguery. And so presidents are always mindful of the shifting national consensus about the exercise of military power, especially in election years. Indeed, history shows that, particularly at times of conflict, one doesn’t usually earn the job of commander-in-chief unless one is prepared to finesse the inherent tensions between public opinion and the national interest.
Take Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example. Running for an unprecedented third term in 1940, at a time when Great Britain stood alone in its conflict with a Nazi Germany that had conquered Poland, defeated France, and was planning to invade the British Isles, FDR faced an American electorate unwilling to see in Europe any direct threat to the United States. Sympathy for Britain in America was almost universal, but it conflicted with a traditional isolationist belief in standing apart from Europe’s wars, as the neutrality laws of the 1930s made abundantly clear.
Despite an unqualified understanding that U.S. national security was inextricably bound up with Britain’s survival, FDR knew that his reelection in part rested on the hope that he would keep the country out of war. Unwilling to acknowledge that he saw America’s safety dependent on assuring Britain’s victory in the fighting, even at the risk of war, he promised that we would not enter the conflict unless attacked by a foreign power—even going so far at the end of the campaign to give a blanket promise of preserving the peace. In December 1941, Pearl Harbor was clearly a tragedy, but also a sort of godsend. It broke the isolationist mood and allowed Roosevelt to unite the country behind an all-out war effort—one that would cost the nation over 400,000 lives and billions of dollars, but ultimately defeat Nazi Germany.
Challengers vying for the presidency have often used the same logic to excuse a certain degree of duplicitousness in their foreign policy platforms. Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican nominee in 1952, made a strong public commitment to ending the war in Korea, where fighting had reached a stalemate. But Ike’s positioning himself as the peace candidate in his contest with Adlai Stevenson was cynical. He never had any intention of losing South Korea to the Communists. Indeed, upon taking office, he secretly threatened China with the use of atomic bombs to force a truce in the conflict. (It’s also worth noting that Eisenhower played both sides of this issue in the 1952 campaign: He dispatched his running mate, Richard Nixon, to attack Stevenson for having earned a Ph.D. from “Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of Communist containment.” No effort was made to reconcile Eisenhower’s commitment to peace with his implicit endorsement of a rollback of the Soviet Union.)
John Kennedy was no less cynical in 1960 when he campaigned against Nixon as responsible for a non-existent missile gap and as weak on allowing Castro’s pro-Soviet regime to take hold in Cuba. Kennedy’s actions upon taking office—his assertion that the United States advantage over the Soviets in nuclear arms had persuaded him to sign a test ban treaty; his caution in not providing reinforcements to the Bay of Pigs operation, thus allowing it to fail—demonstrated that his statements in the run-up to the election were mostly motivated by the prospect of gaining electoral advantage.
Lyndon Johnson’s manipulation of concerns about Vietnam in his 1964 presidential campaign against Senator Barry Goldwater is another striking case in point. Johnson’s exploitation of an alleged North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. destroyer to extract the Tonkin Gulf Resolution from Congress was as much a means to outflank Goldwater in the competition to convince voters that he was a forceful defender of the national interest as it was to warn Hanoi against reckless attacks on U.S. forces or to give himself future backing for an escalation of American military action in South Vietnam.
The daisy field ad in the campaign—the most famous commercial ever used in a presidential contest—seized on Goldwater’s reckless comments threatening military strikes against the Soviet Union. “We should think about lobbing one into the men’s room of the Kremlin,” he joked. The ad pictured a young girl in a daisy field picking the petals off a flower while the voice over counted down from ten to zero when a mushroom cloud appeared behind her. The message: Vote for Lyndon Johnson. Secure her future. Bumper stickers during the campaign aimed to stir additional fears of a nuclear war if Goldwater became president. Playing on a Republican campaign slogan, “In your hearts you know he’s right,” the Democrats countered with, “yes, far right,” or “In your hearts, you know he might.” Combined with warnings that Goldwater intended to dismantle New Deal social programs, Johnson’s foreign policy messaging—reinforced by his actual foreign policy—helped him win one of the greatest landslides in presidential history.
This year, both Republicans and Democrats are obliged to try to manipulate the events in Syria to the same end: winning the election. And so Romney and McCain have denounced the White House’s reliance on economic sanctions to alter the behavior of the Assad regime, suggesting that Obama doesn’t have the fortitude to resolve the crisis and protect U.S. interests in the region. But what they don’t always articulate is what is implicit in that critique: namely, that they are essentially proposing American military intervention in Syria, whether in the way of a no-fly zone or the deployment of ground troops. Needless to say, for an American public weary of fighting wars in the Middle East, this is not a popular course of action. Here, Obama’s more cautious policy clearly has the upper hand.
The point is that it should not be considered a badge of dishonor if it’s suggested of President Obama that he is considering the prejudices of the public in crafting a foreign policy. To do so is not necessarily to suggest that he is cynical, or devoid of conviction, or without substantial concern for the national security. Instead, it should be a sobering reminder that our commanders-in-chief aren’t ever just policymakers; they’re also politicians.
Robert Dallek's latest book is The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945–1953.