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War Weariness and Presidential “Leadership”

Jon Ward reviews divisions in the Republican Party on foreign policy. He quotes former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley:

“This war weariness thing I think is well overstated,” Hadley said. “The American people are always ready to do what they need to do if they have a leader who is willing to step up and explain it to them [bold mine-DL].”

Considering that the U.S. has been at war continuously for twelve years, and U.S. forces have been taking casualties in at least two different countries for most of that time, the extraordinary thing is that there is not even more war weariness than there is. Of course, most Americans are not weary of war because of exertions or sacrifices they have had to make, but they quickly grew tired of mismanaged wars whose goals were unclear or unobtainable. Most Americans have little or no direct connection to the war or its costs. Even without that connection, the public soured on both major wars in a few years, and they turned on the Iraq war sooner because it was bungled so badly. What Americans seem to want is minimal competence in their leaders. Bush was a great one for giving speeches that laid out grandiose, unrealistic ambitions for what U.S. forces in Iraq would achieve, but that didn’t make the war any less of a debacle and it didn’t stop the public from naturally recoiling in disgust from the senseless waste that it obviously was.

If Obama had spent the last four years lecturing Americans on “what they need to do” in support of the war in Afghanistan, I doubt that it would have made much of a dent in opposition to the war. Once the public decides that a war isn’t worth fighting or ought to be brought to an end, it doesn’t matter what the president says or does to try to rally them. The collapsing approval ratings for Bush and the Iraq war when Hadley was working in the administration contradict the claim that war weariness is exaggerated. The public was already sick of the Iraq war over six years ago, and they grew tired of the war in Afghanistan not long after that. There is no appetite for another prolonged ground war, and if Republican hawks actually believe that Americans can be “inspired” to “rise above” their war weariness they are even more cut off from the rest of the country than I thought.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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