Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Democracy, deception, and war

In my inbox today was an e-mail from the journal International Security containing links to a podcast and to a recent article by John Schuessler. The podcast is a conversation about the article between Schuessler and the journal's editor, Sean Lynn-Jones. (Links below.)

The article, which I have only looked at quickly, examines the ways in which FDR (allegedly) tried to "manufacture" public consent for entry into WW2 by deceiving the public about some of his actions and intentions. Schuessler concludes that this is one case in which deception of this sort was in the national interest. (Note: For a better summary of the article's argument, see the link at the end of this post, which will take you to the abstract; you can also download the pdf of the article for free.)

From a theoretical standpoint, what is going on here, as I understand it from the podacst and a glance at the article, and put in an oversimplified fashion, is this: Dan Reiter and Allan Stam have argued that democracies tend to win the wars they fight, in large part because leaders, constrained by the necessity of obtaining public consent, generally choose to enter wars where victory is likely to be easy. Schuessler says: Hang on a minute. What about those cases where the leader thinks that, for security reasons, a war is necessary, but the war does not promise to be quick and easy? In those cases the leader may resort to deception rather than take his or her chances with trying to persuade the public directly of the war's necessity. America's entry into WW2 and the way FDR approached it, Schuessler argues, was such a case. (Obviously, the reference here is to the period before Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. declaration of war against Japan was a foregone conclusion, and Germany's declaration of war on the U.S. brought it directly into the European war, thus fulfilling FDR's original aim, at least according to this argument.)

Now, this argument may be right, but how often are such cases likely to arise? Schuessler himself suggests in the podcast that WW2 was exceptional. If it was an exceptional case, then it may reveal some interesting things about when and how a leader resorts to deception, but it can't pose a severe challenge to the Reiter/Stam thesis. The most it can it do is present an addendum to the thesis, i.e.: yes, leaders of democracies generally choose "easy" wars, but in rare cases 'realist' reasons will incline them to "non-easy" wars and then deception may come into play. Of course one has to add a couple of other complications: (1) wars that most people think are going to be "easy" but turn out not to be (e.g., Iraq 2003); (2) wars that leaders believe mistakenly are necessary for security reasons (I would be very inclined to put the Vietnam War in this category).

So, deception -- accepting for the sake of argument the claim that FDR did engage in it -- may have been in the national interest in the run-up to U.S. entry into WW2, but more often, or so I would argue, deception will not turn out to be in the national interest (Vietnam, Iraq). When in doubt, then, the rule of thumb for a leader in a democracy should probably still be: Go directly to the people, explain your case straightforwardly, and hope they agree with you that the costs -- even if they promise to be high -- are worth bearing. (Whatever you think about the "Afghan surge," for example, it is clear that this is basically the approach Obama took when explaining why he ordered it. Admittedly the example is not on all fours since it involved an ongoing -- i.e., inherited -- war, and an undeclared one.)

Links: podcast; article.


T. Greer said...

The problem with such deception is that the President, acting solely on his own judgment, is not the best man to determine the national interest. The merits of a free press and expansive legislative system is it allows more voices - for caution and attack - into the decision making process.

Betting the house on one man's perceptions strikes me as extremely dangerous.

LFC said...

In general, I agree.

Perhaps we should say, given that Hillary Clinton, e.g., almost became President: "one man's or one woman's perceptions...."