Do We Need a Wartime President?

George W. Bush is fond of describing himself as a "war president." And he has made many decisions involving soldiers and battle. But does this make the description an appropriate one? For many people the answer is obvious. We're engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, after all. But Bill Clinton initiated hostilities in the Balkans twice, George H.W. Bush invaded Panama and Iraq, and neither president ever described himself as a "war president."

For a superpower, being involved in a military conflict somewhere is more the norm than the exception. Since 1945, only one president has not presided over combat that engaged American troops—Jimmy Carter. (Between the Bay of Pigs operation and the American "advisers" in South Vietnam, John F. Kennedy doesn't make the cut.) America remains the world's dominant military-political power, so local crises often engage American allies or interests. Britain was in a somewhat similar position in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a result, British forces were fighting someone, somewhere for most of that period. But Britain did not think of itself as "at war," nor would British prime ministers have described themselves as "wartime" leaders. (In fact, Tony Blair has never described himself as such, even though he presided over British military involvement in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.)

America (and before it, Britain) has felt it was "at war" when the conflict threatened the country's basic security—not merely its interests or its allies abroad. This is the common-sense way in which we define a wartime leader, and by that definition the politicians in charge during World Wars I and II—Wilson, Lloyd George, Roosevelt, Churchill—are often described as such. It's not a perfect definition. The United States has been so far removed from most conflicts that even World War I's effects could be described as indirect (incorrectly in my view). But it conjures up the image of a threat to society as a whole, which then requires a national response.

By any of these criteria, we are not at war. At some level, we all know it. Life in America today is surprisingly normal for a country with troops in two battle zones. The country may be engaged in wars, but it is not at war. Consider as evidence the behavior of our "war president." Bush recently explained that for the last few years he has given up golf, because "to play the sport in a time of war" would send the wrong signal. Compare Bush's "sacrifice" to those made by Americans during World War II, when most able-bodied men were drafted, food was rationed and industries were commandeered to produce military equipment. For example, there were no civilian cars manufactured in the United States from 1941 to 1945.

Of course, there are people, including Bush, who would argue that we are at war even in this deeper sense. In its June 23 issue, Fortune magazine asked Sen. John McCain what the gravest long-term threat to the U.S. economy was. He took a while to answer—an 11-second pause, by Fortune's count—but then said, "Well, I would think that the absolute gravest threat is the struggle that we're in against radical Islamic extremism, which can affect, if they prevail, our very existence."

It is by now overwhelmingly clear that Al Qaeda and its philosophy are not the worldwide leviathan that they were once portrayed to be. Both have been losing support over the last seven years. The terrorist organization's ability to plan large-scale operations has crumbled, their funding streams are smaller and more closely tracked. Of course, small groups of people can still cause great havoc, but is this movement an "existential threat" to the United States or the Western world? No, because it is fundamentally weak. Al Qaeda and its ilk comprise a few thousand jihadists, with no country as a base, almost no territory and limited funds. Most crucially, they lack an ideology that has mass appeal. They are fighting not just America but the vast majority of the Muslim world. In fact, they are fighting modernity itself.

The evidence supporting this view of the threat was already growing by 2003. Scholars like Benjamin Friedman, Marc Sageman and John Mueller collected much of it. I've been making a similar case in columns and a book since 2004. James Fallows wrote a fine cover essay in The Atlantic in September 2006 arguing that if there was ever a war against militant Islam, it was now over and the latter had lost.

These writings never really changed the debate because they fell into a political vacuum. The right wanted to argue that we lived in scary times and that this justified the aggressive unilateralism of George W. Bush. And the left was wedded to the idea that Bush had screwed everything up and created a frighteningly dangerous world in which the ranks of jihadists had grown. But these days, the director of the CIA himself has testified that Al Qaeda is on the ropes. The journalist Peter Bergen, who in 2007 wrote a cover essay in The New Republic titled "The Return of Al Qaeda," recently wrote another cover essay, "The Unraveling," about the group's decline. The neoconservative Weekly Standard finally recognizes that "the enemy," as it likes to say ominously, is much weaker now, but quickly notes that Bush deserves all the credit. Terrorism is down in virtually every country, including ones that took a much less militaristic approach to the struggle. (Ironically, the two countries where terrorism persists and in some cases has grown as a threat are Iraq and Afghanistan.)

The administration does deserve some credit for its counterterrorism activities. The combined efforts of most governments since 9/11—busting cells in Europe and Asia, tracking money, hunting down jihadist groups—have been extremely effective. But how you see the world determines how you will respond, and the administration has greatly inflated the threat, casting it as an existential and imminent danger. As a result, we've massively overreacted. Bush and his circle have conceived of the problem as military and urgent when it's more of a long-term political and cultural problem. The massive expansion of the military budget, the unilateral rush to war in Iraq, the creation of the cumbersome Department of Homeland Security, the new restrictions on visas and travel can all be chalked up to this sense that we are at war. No cost-benefit analysis has been done. John Mueller points out that in response to a total of five deaths from anthrax, the U.S. government has spent $5 billion on new security procedures.

Of course, this is actually what Osama bin Laden hoped for. Despite his current weakness, he has always been an extremely shrewd strategist. In explaining the goal of the 9/11 attacks, he pointed out that they inflicted about $500 billion worth of damage to the American economy and yet cost only $500,000. He was describing an LTA, a leveraged terrorist attack. But by the same token, the 9/11 attacks caused an economic swoon because of their scope, and because they were the first of their kind. Since then, each successive terrorist attack—in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Britain—has had a much smaller effect on the world economy.

We are in a struggle against Islamic extremism, but it is more like the cold war than a hot war—a long, mostly peacetime challenge in which a leader must be willing to use military power but also know when not to do so. Perhaps the wisest American president during the cold war was Dwight Eisenhower, and his greatest virtues were those of balance, judgment and restraint. He knew we were in a contest with the Soviet Union, but—at a time when the rest of the country was vastly inflating the threat—he put it in considerable perspective. Eisenhower refused to follow the French into Vietnam or support the British at Suez. He turned down several requests for new weapons systems and missiles, and instead used defense dollars to build the interstate highway system and make other investments in improving America's economic competitiveness. Those are the kinds of challenges that the next president truly needs to address.

In a sense, the warriors are pessimists. In the old days they were scared that communists would destroy America. Today they rail that Al Qaeda and Iran threaten our way of life. In fact, America is an extremely powerful country, with a unique and extraordinary set of strengths. The only way that position can truly be eroded is by its own actions and overreactions—by unwise and imprudent leadership. A good way to start correcting the errors of the past would be to recognize that we are not at war.