Who was the last American Presidential candidate to campaign on a pro-war platform?

No major party candidate, in my lifetime, explicitly campaigned to lead the military into an offensive war. Interventionists from the left and right always argue that the wars of the United States were reactions to threatening advances by foreign powers. However, the objective observer of America’s history of war can identify that presidents are not merely reactors to circumstances; they are agitators for war.

Presidential historians often rate presidents from best to worst on a variety of topics.[1] Let us examine the war and peace records of a few presidents to see if their promises for peace match their actions while in power.

The Peace Candidate

Then-Senator Obama and his team of adviser bureaucrats initially boasted an anti-war position. In 2008, he campaigned on his opposition to the Iraq war:

[T]here was no hard evidence that Iraq had those stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. There was not any evidence that Iraq was responsible for the attacks of September 11, or that Iraq had operational ties to the al Qaeda terrorists who carried them out. [President Bush launched] a war based on faulty premises and bad intelligence. So did Congress when it voted to give him the authority to wage war.

However, President Obama’s rhetoric became more militaristic when he came to power. In 2011 President Obama assured Americans that a military solution was necessary to the economic, political, and humanitarian stability in Libya. According to President Obama, when Qaddafi’s grip on power began to weaken,

Qaddafi chose to escalate his attacks, launching a military campaign against the Libyan people.  Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked.  Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted, and killed.  Supplies of food and fuel were choked off.  Water for hundreds of thousands of people in Misurata was shut off.  Cities and towns were shelled, mosques were destroyed, and apartment buildings reduced to rubble.  Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assaults from the air.

Based on the president’s statement, it might have been easy to conclude that there was a humanitarian disaster in Libya, specifically the city of Misurata. That’s why he invoked the dubious international legal principle of Responsibility to Protect.

But the evidence suggests that the concerns over a growing genocide were exaggerated, if not outright lies. Alan Kuperman, Associate Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, has effectively rebutted the genocide narrative propagated by President Obama and his bureaucracy. Kuperman, citing evidence by Human Rights Watch on the city of Misurata, wrote,

Moammar [Qaddafi] is not deliberately massacring civilians but rather narrowly targeting the armed rebels who fight against his government…. Libya’s (i.e. Qaddafi) air force, prior to imposition of a UN-authorized no-fly zone, targeted rebel positions, not civilian concentrations.

Professor Kuperman’s work shows that there was no genocide anywhere in Libya; not at all similar to Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, for example.

The Humble Conservative

Whereas President Obama campaigned on mistakes of the Bush administration, then-Governor Bush campaigned for the presidency on a foreign policy of restraint. During the presidential debates, Bush sounded more like a libertarian than the neoconservative interventionist that he would reveal himself to be. During a debate against Al Gore, Bush stated:

I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say ‘this is the way it’s got to be.’ We can help. Now, I want to empower people… I want to help people help themselves. Not have government tell people what to do. I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, ‘We do it this way, so should you.’ Bush continued, “Maybe I’m missing something here. Are we going to have a national building corps from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win war. That’s what it’s meant to do. And when it gets over extended, moral drops. I’m going to be judicious as to how to use the military. It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear and the exit strategy obvious.”

That statement isn’t perfect, of course. But the majority of the anti-war right, left and libertarians would probably be pretty comfortable with it.

Bush moved from that classically American position to offering a binary choice for the wars that would follow the attacks on September 11: You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.

It is possible that he was always an interventionist and his campaign played politics with the war/peace issue. Like his brother, Jeb, and his father George H.W., G.W. Bush was raised to believe that America must lead, all throughout the world.

Alternatively, there were some of the most influential neoconservatives on his foreign policy team: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dov Zakheim, Elliott Abrams, and Douglas Feith just to name a few. This F Troop of advisers is responsible for America’s disasters abroad and weakening the country’s security at home. Maybe, Bush meant what he said in the presidential debates and the neo-conservatives simply outmaneuvered him. But in the end, does it matter?

Then-Governor Bush was no doctrine non-interventionist, but his campaign rhetoric did not reflect his presidency. The shift from campaign rhetoric emphasizing peace to a presidential administration of war is not new to the American Republic. Nearly all Presidents violated the Constitution and centralized power into the executive once Commander in Chief.

The Administrator 

The archetype for the rhetoric of peace but a foreign policy of war is President Woodrow Wilson.

As Europe came closer to war in 1914 President Wilson asked Americans to be “impartial in thought as well as in action.”[2] His peaceful restraint was so popular with the American public that during the 1916 election his supporters cheered him on with the chant “he kept us out of war!” The American public re-elected him in part due to his “America First” foreign policy rhetoric.

But, according to presidential historian Dr. Ivan Eland, Wilson consciously created opportunities for Germany to attack Americans and the American Navy; arranging a pretext for greater American involvement in World War I.

For example, when Congress denied Wilson’s request to arm U.S. merchant ships, Wilson ignored their will and ordered the arming of merchant ships anyway – a clear violation of Congress’s Article 1, Section 8 power to “provide and maintain a Navy.” Furthermore, Wilson publically argued, “that U.S. citizens had the right to travel on armed merchant ships of belligerent nations (in this case England) through the European war zone around Britain.”[3] When German U-boats sank the British ship, Lusitania, that was transporting arms and ammunition, in addition to 128 Americans, Wilson used this as another pretext for a congressional declaration of war.

Reining in the Executive

The history of American Presidents, from Washington to Obama, is the centralization of power in the Executive under the veiled threat of imminent danger. The economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) wrote that as a society moves to a totalitarian system, “the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful.”[4] Unlike the businessman who gains by providing a service in response to consumer demand, the politician must centralize his power in order increase his influence.

What are we to do?

Checking federal politicians in the current constitutional system means staying as local as possible. States have unique tools at their disposal to keep presidents to the position espoused during their campaign:

The Defend the Guard legislation is one way for state legislatures to push back against unconstitutional federal overreach. This legislation would require a State’s Governor to withhold or withdraw the use of that State’s National Guard by the federal government unless there is a lawful declaration of war under Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, or it called into service under the situations prescribed in the Constitution.

Presidents can concentrate power once behind the iron gates that shield the White House. But, we have the tools to stop and reverse that by engaging with the mission of the Tenth Amendment Center.

[1] The best and most concise work on the presidents’ record on war is: Eland, Ivan, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity and Liberty. November 18, 2008, Independent Institute

[2] http://www.woodrowwilson.org/education/for-students/world-war-i

[3] Eland, Ivan, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity and Liberty. P. 215. Independent Institute .2008.

[4] F.A. Hayek, Road to Serfdom, University of Chicago Press, 194


P.A. Deacon