The war in Iraq took center stage with many voters during the recent midterm elections. No surprise there. Democracies debate how, why and when they wage war, and they do it before, during and long after the wars are over. Of these debates, though, the ones that occur at election time are often the least satisfying. In fact, politics, war strategy and elections often make for bad strategy and bad politics.
Wars are not like other political issues. Elections are about choices. The people get to decide on all kinds of things — what kinds of judges they want, for example, or how much they care to be taxed. If politicians get elected and do what they campaigned on, then — for better or worse — the republic gets what it voted for.
Wars are different. In wars, the enemy gets a vote. And often, it’s the enemy’s vote that counts most of all.
Wars are dynamic — contests of action and counteraction between determined foes. Using an election debate to offer a more nuanced strategy, a change in tactics, or a new approach that promises a different course of action is either disingenuous or dumb.
If newly elected politicians veer from their agenda as soon as they’re sworn in because they realize what they proposed is unrealistic, they quickly lose constituent confidence. On the other hand, if they hold to a campaign promise on how a particular war will be fought, they court disaster. That telegraphs to the enemy what will be done regardless of the conditions on the ground. It gives the enemy the option to adapt, while politicians stick to polling data — and that is a prescription for failure.
What most politicians opt to do instead is avoid that trap by arguing that their decisions will be much smarter — and the outcomes, therefore, more favorable. It is, of course, impossible to judge the value of such vague promises; the “trust me” strategy offers cold comfort. But it’s probably the best and certainly the most realistic option a politician has.
That is not to argue against holding elections in wartime. In fact, that is the most important time to hold them. Wartime elections demonstrate the resiliency of a democracy, the strength of a civil society that has the freedom to be self-critical even at times of national peril. It is certainly appropriate to debate the conduct of the war and the leadership and resolution of our leaders. It’s just a really bad idea to believe the strategy and tactics to be used in a war should be decided by popular mandate.
What does a vote in wartime represent? First, it is a reaffirmation of the purpose and meaning of democracy — that the right of the governed to determine how they are governed is sacred and inviolable in peace and war. Second, it is a vote of confidence in those we believe would best make our laws and run our governments.
Voting for a strategy to fight a war during a war, however, is a bad idea. We should expect that strategy will still be made by the president, who is empowered by the Constitution to serve as the commander in chief, working in concert with the generals and admirals who direct our forces in the field. We should expect them to take the best actions to defeat our enemies and safeguard our citizens — not make war by polls or elections.
James Jay Carafano is senior research fellow for national security and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation and author of the new book “G.I. Ingenuity.”