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Does America Require Conservative Leadership to Win A War?

April 15, 2003

Does America require conservative leadership to win a war?

I remember reading several years ago an article by Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick in which she explained that America has more success winning wars with conservative leadership than liberal leadership. Liberals just do not have the principle and insight to win wars.

I have been thinking about her premise lately during my recent work drive time and my Tennessee back roads bicycle time. Especially since the war with Iraq is so successfully near completion and especially since the clear anti-war pessimism of the leading Democrat leaders.

I do not remember Kirkpatrick's specific arguments, but recently I have come to the same conclusions. I realize as a conservative believer, I could easily find support for the point by being blind to facts that would counter the argument. I will try not to do that.

Let's begin with 1898 and the Spanish-American War. It was clearly a war begun and executed by conservative politicians. President William McKinley, elected in 1896 by the largest majority since U.S. Grant in 1868, was a long time Republican who saw the need to stop Spain's old world colonial expansion efforts. Gore Vidal and others have a more cynical explanation: it was all a fabrication of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. In the end, McKinley was right and with Theodore Roosevelt in the field, Spain capitulated after a 19th century version of "shock and awe" by land and by sea. I had a Filipino economist tell me one time that the source of the Philippine's ever present economic malaise is its inherited Spanish culture.

Now let's move on to World War I. Liberal democrat President Woodrow Wilson was the instigator of America's entry into the war. Now this appears to counter my argument. Taken in the context of the time, it does not. Recently I have read much about WWI. The incompetence of Woodrow Wilson was countered by the fact that he willingly turned over the war operations to John J. Pershing, General of the Armies. This was not any great strategic decision by Wilson; it was a necessity because of the separation in geography. Pershing had to have the authority to make decision without awaiting Washington's approval. The strategic and tactical skills of Pershing and his command (which for the most part, he personally selected) clearly shored up the Allied effort and forced the Germans to sue for peace.

So what is your point here, Sam? Pershing was a conservative Republican. How do I know? His closest friend was Charles G. Dawes, later Vice President to Calvin Coolidge. Pershing was endorsed for the 1928 GOP nomination by the Nashville Banner and the New York Sun, both conservative newspapers. His biographer Donald Smythe says that Pershing was disappointed when he lost the 1928 GOP nomination to Herbert Hoover.

On the surface, World War II appears to present less compelling support for Ms. Kirkpatrick's premise. I know of no argument that claims liberal democrat President Franklin Roosevelt was a slacker in prosecuting the war. Further analysis, however, reveals that his top two theater commanders, Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, were both GOP conservatives. (I hear today's liberal pundits refer to Eisenhower as a liberal Republican. Wrong. They find themselves unable to say anything bad about him, so as not to appear nice to a conservative, they label him liberal.)

Another element of conservative leadership during WWII appeared to me in the recent Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Robert Caro's excellent 3rd volume of the biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, Master of the Senate. Caro spends the first 100+ pages of the book explaining the history of the power residing in the U.S. Senate. He makes it clear that FDR got his liberal New Deal legislation passed in the 1932-1934 time frame. After that, conservative senators regained control of the Senate and effectively prevented any further liberal legislation. Caro also goes on to explain that during the WWII, it was the power of conservative southern Senator Richard Russell (D - Georgia) that was one of the keys to the successful building of American military might.

Korea seems to support the premise. General Douglas MacArthur was militarily beating the North Koreans and Chinese when relieved by Truman. Truman was right to do so, but it cost him his presidency. After MacArthur was sent home, the war turned bad. Truman did not even run for a second elected term. Eisenhower was elected on the promise he would end the war and he did after taking office.

Vietnam was a liberal's war from the very beginning. Liberal (though much less liberal than the Camelot screen writers will admit) democrat President John Kennedy got us into it and liberal democrat President Lyndon Johnson got us bogged down in it. They both compounded the mistake by using a liberal democrat Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamera, and a liberal democrat military commander, General William Westmoreland. It took conservative republican President Richard Nixon to extricate us honorably from the mess. (If you do not believe he made a difference, read James and Sybil Stockdale's book Love and War.) The dishonorable fall of Vietnam after Nixon resigned can clearly be placed at the feet of the liberal democrats in Congress. They pulled the rug out from underneath the South Vietnamese when they asked for help.

President Carter's military rescue disaster in the deserts of Iran in 1979 and President Reagan's subsequent several military successes (though his record was not perfect; remember the Marines in Beirut) also reinforce Kirkpatrick's premise.

Conservative republican President George H.W. Bush's Gulf War I is another clear example of supporting the premise. Liberal democrat President Bill Clinton did have some military success: Kosovo. Mostly, however, he avoided conflict or pursued it halfheartedly and unsuccessfully. Point to Kirkpatrick.

Now we are at the present. The Kirkpatrick premise, that American conservative leadership wins wars and American liberal leadership does not, is supported on the newspaper front pages of the past few weeks. The unbelievably pessimistic, how can we win, war just creates bigger problems, why can't we negotiate more, can't we all just get along attitude of the liberal democrat leadership appears to be completely out of touch with reality. Granted, we do not know how Iraq will turn out over the next several years, but it will definitely be better for the Iraqi people and the world, than with Saddam in charge. Granted, we do not know where the war of terrorism is leading us, but we do appear to be winning. I say Ambassador Kirkpatrick has it right: conservative leadership is providing the guts, the stamina, and the principle to win these wars.

Follow up note to last edition's article: "What the media does not understand: How the military works"

A point I made in the article was the lack of military veterans in the embedded reporter corps. Ron Ellingson, Missoula, Montana, rightfully pointed out that I overlooked Ollie North on Fox News. Thanks, Ron. Good catch. In addition, I found another one: Greg Kelly, also on Fox News.


Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.