Tuesday, November 03, 2009

History Informs The Present---What Polk Could Teach Obama About Handling Generals In The Midst of An Unpopular War

James K. Polk Could Offer Military Advice to Obama, Robert W. Merry, Houston Chronicle, October 24, 2009.

Late on the evening of May 14, 1846, President James K. Polk met with his top general, Winfield Scott, to discuss strategy and troop requirements for the looming Mexican War, authorized by Congress just two days earlier. The two men agreed the army should capture northern Mexico and hold it until a peace could be negotiated. When Scott said he would need 20,000 volunteer troops to do that, Polk nodded his assent.

The president's nod did not reflect his private thoughts, however, as he revealed later that night to his diary, the one destination for Polk's observations that stirred in him a tendency toward candor. “I did not think that so many as 20,000 volunteers … was necessary,” wrote the president to himself, “but I did not express this opinion, not being willing to take the responsibility of any failure of the campaign by refusing to grant to Gen'l Scott all he asked.”

This tiny slice of presidential history is worth pondering in today's America. One reason is that this period of American history, between the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, seems to have faded from the country's collective consciousness. Polk's war is the lost war. And Polk's era, characterized by an explosion of American expansionist zeal exploited by the president to expand U.S. territory by a third, is the lost era. That's unfortunate because this period, like all history, offers its own particular object lessons for our own time.

And some of those lessons are particularly pertinent to the profound military decisions confronting President Obama today in Afghanistan. The president's man in charge of the Afghan effort, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, insists his military strategy in that turbulent country requires another 40,000 troops. Otherwise, he says, his counterinsurgency effort can't work and the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban likely will capture the country.

The fundamental questions facing Obama are the ones that engulf every president contemplating or already locked in a war: Is the requested troop strength the right number? Is the strategy the right strategy? How can events be kept under control? History tells us that no president ever manages to get all this right with anything approaching smooth efficiency.

Back in Polk's day, the president's instinct on the troop question reflected his congenital caution and tendency toward self-protection. He knew, seemingly without thinking about it, that he couldn't ask his generals to do a job with fewer resources than the generals said they needed. That would place the burden of potential failure squarely upon himself. Similarly, within any context of political prudence, Obama can't reject McChrystal's troop request without rejecting his strategy — and perhaps the general himself.

But, as Polk's war unfolded, it became clear that his fundamental strategy — capturing northern Mexico and holding it pending peace negotiations — was seriously flawed. By the fall of 1846, just a few months after the Mexican war began, the president concluded he would need an entirely new war strategy. True, General Zachary Taylor had managed to push back the Mexican enemy with brutal efficiency, defeating it handily at three major battles near the Rio Grande. What's more, America's ragtag western forces had subdued the vast Mexican territories of New Mexico and California. But those victories generated no Mexican inclination to treat for peace. Polk had sent a peace overture to Mexico City on July 27, and by Sept. 19 he got word it had been roundly rejected. Worse, it was becoming clear that Polk had been snookered by Mexico's wily former leader, Santa Anna, who had promised to push for peace in Mexico if Polk aided his efforts to get back into his country from an imposed exile in Cuba. Polk had allowed the man through America's naval blockade, whereupon Santa Anna promptly turned belligerently anti-American.

So now he would have to ask Congress for loan authorizations totaling some $23 million and for ten new regiments of regular troops. He would have to devise a new military strategy encompassing an amphibious landing at Vera Cruz and a long, arduous march to Mexico City, stirring ever greater hatred in the hearts of those with whom he wished to negotiate a peace. He would have to absorb far greater expenditures than he had anticipated and the loss of far more blood. And he would have to quell the agitations of an increasingly uneasy and unruly Congress. In short, by the time Polk's war had reached its seventh month, the president had lost control of events. He wasn't master of the war; the war was master of him.

All this has relevance for our own time. Even if McChrystal gets his 40,000 additional troops for Afghanistan, it won't avail much to himself or his president if the strategy is faulty. Then they will face the decision of either doubling down on the troop commitment, with all the political havoc that will generate in Congress and country, or revising the strategy, with all the uncertainty and risk that would entail. Either way, the war would be controlling events, not the president. For Polk, a war he had hoped would last three or four months actually dragged on for two years. But in the end he got what he wanted — a negotiated settlement that ceded to the United States lands that later would encompass California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico. That proved to be a big victory for an expansionist nation bent on straddling an entire continent, positioned to dominate the commerce of two oceans.

In our time, President Obama faces the question whether the military adventure he is contemplating will yield benefits to his country in proportion to the cost in treasure and blood that will be assessed by events. The stakes are high and the calculus highly complex. But one thing is clear: Whatever the benefits, the costs almost inevitably will slip beyond his control.

Merry, a former Washington correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and CEO of Congressional Quarterly Inc., is the author of three books, including A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent, which is due from Simon & Schuster on Nov. 3.

Text Source: Houston Chronicle, October 24, 2009

First and Second Image Source: Latin American Studies.Org

Third Image: CrazyDemocracy

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