Barack Obama rode into the presidency on a wave partially propelled by revulsion against the Iraq War. In his June 4, 2009, speech in Cairo, called “A New Beginning,” he pledged to wind down America’s fighting presence in the Middle East. “Events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.”
Yet a little more than four years later, in August 2013, President Obama came close to bombing Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad was locked in a two-year civil war with insurgents. If the United Nations (as expected) had not sanctioned strikes, Obama seemed ready to act with the help of a few allies.
Peace presidents have changed to war presidents before in American history. They justify their change of heart by pleading changed circumstances. The change from peace-making to war-making is often fitful, however; old habits are hard to break.
The losers of the election of 1800, John Adams and the Federalists, had fought a naval war with revolutionary France and expanded the army in case the French invaded the United States. The winners, Thomas Jefferson and the first Republican Party, had run on a peace platform. They condemned both the fighting and military spending. James Madison, Jefferson’s secretary of state, had even predicted that in a new world of republican governments there might be “UNIVERSAL AND PERPETUAL PEACE” (his emphasis), since only kings lusted for war. Jefferson, in his first inaugural address in March 1801, explained that America could be peaceful thanks to its geography: “Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe,” we could look forward to “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.”
America was indeed entering a period of peace, thanks not to the prevalence of republican government or geography, but to diplomacy. At the end of his term Adams had managed to negotiate an end to his naval war with a treaty signed in September 1800. By the spring of 1802, peace had come to Europe: Revolutionary France, now led by Napoleon Bonaparte, and its monarchical enemies declared a time-out after a decade of conflict.
America and the Republican Party reaped a peace dividend. Military spending had meant high taxes; frugal Jefferson cut them. American merchants, meanwhile, got rich on the carrying trade between Europe and its colonies in the West Indies. As profits trickled down to crews, thousands of English sailors deserted their ships and enlisted on American vessels to partake of the bonanza.
Napoleon, it is true, intended to give us an unpleasant surprise: The Louisiana Territory, which he had acquired from Spain in 1800, was meant to be the foundation of a new French empire in North America. But when he decided to focus instead on Europe, he sold it to us for a mere $15 million.
Peace, prosperity and the Louisiana Purchase gave Jefferson a triumphant reelection in 1804.
The world, however, was already becoming a more dangerous place. The European powers went to war again in 1803, and the belligerents cared little for the neutral United States. In 1805 Britain’s High Court of Admiralty ruled that the British navy could seize American ships trading with France and its colonies. A year later Napoleon decreed that no ships, even neutral ones, sailing from Britain or its colonies could land in European ports.
Meanwhile, British captains stopped American ships on the high seas to search them for deserters. In 1807, cruising off the Virginia coast, the HMS Leopard asked to board the USS Chesapeake, an American frigate. When permission was denied, the Leopard poured three broadsides into the Chesapeake, forcing it to strike its colors. The British then came aboard and took off four suspected deserters; one would be hanged, the others imprisoned.
Americans raged at the Chesapeake affair. There was an anti-British riot in Norfolk, Va., and protest meetings in New York and Boston. “Never since the Battle of Lexington,” wrote Jefferson, “have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation.” Representative John Randolph called for “instant retaliation….I would have invaded Canada and Nova Scotia, and made a descent on Jamaica.”
Then, as now, it was hard for a political party to change direction. Jefferson himself had come to believe that the United States needed to take a firmer line, once the world war between Napoleon and his enemies resumed. There was “an opinion in Europe,” he wrote, “that our government is entirely in Quaker principles, and will turn the left cheek when the right has been smitten. This opinion must be corrected.” But how?
In 2013 Obama considered bombing Syria not because it attacked the United States, but because it attacked its own people. In August Assad’s forces used poison gas on a Damascus suburb, killing more than 1,400. Obama’s ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, took the lead in expressing outrage: “Reports devastating,” she tweeted. “100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons….Perps must face justice.” But could the administration retreat from its insistence on diplomacy over direct military action?
In 1807 Jefferson shrank from war. He let the anger over the Chesapeake affair burn itself out. For the next four years (1807-11) he and Madison, who succeeded him in the White House, tried to use commerce as a weapon, experimenting with a variety of policies that either kept American ships off the high seas altogether, or allowed them to trade only with countries that were not mistreating us at the moment. These policies confused and impoverished American merchants without producing any real change in British or French attitudes.
The Obama administration, after rounding up allies for a punitive strike on Syria, began to temporize. It sought congressional approval. Secretary of State John Kerry downplayed the scope of the actions it proposed to take, at one point calling them “unbelievably small.” When Russia offered a deal to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons rather than pulverize them with air strikes, the administration grabbed it.
The presidency confers great power, as well as the temptation to use it. On the eve of Jefferson’s first inauguration, his old rival Alexander Hamilton made a shrewd prediction: Despite the perception of Jefferson as a zealous opponent of strong central government, he would uphold the power of the presidency because, like the beneficiary of a will, he would want to come into “a good estate.” Once Jefferson became president he felt the sting of foreign bullying. But “Mr. J.,” as Hamilton called him, was “as likely as any man I know…to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems.”
When Barack Obama was a senator he opposed the Iraq War even though Saddam Hussein had gassed his own people. President Obama, after a full term in office, was pushing for military intervention in Syria for the same offense.
James Madison and Congress finally decided in 1811 that Britain’s behavior was insupportable, and they banned trade with England, but not with France. A year later Madison asked Congress to declare war, which it did.
As of early autumn 2013, the Obama administration was still relying on diplomacy and international consensus in the Middle East. Every president has his own temperament, which is not malleable, and his own record, which he likes to think is consistent. Even when circumstances change, it can take a long time for presidents and their parties to catch up, if they ever do.
Peace Presidents on a War Footing originally ran in the February 2014 issue of American History magazine.