Small Wars Journal

The US Presidency and Small Wars: Genealogy of the Mismanagement of International Conflict

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The US Presidency and Small Wars:  Genealogy of the Mismanagement of International Conflict

Jonathan F. Lancelot

When the founders of the United States were in Constitutional Hall in Philadelphia arguing over how to limit the power of government, specifically the executive branch of which was forged by the first presidency of George Washington, two camps emerged. The Hamiltonians “called for an executive that would be an elective monarch that a life term (elected by an electoral college) would place him above temptation and enable him to act solely in the national interest. They urged that the executive be vested with extraordinary powers, including unalloyed control of the military, enormous authority in the realms of foreign policy and finance, and an ironclad veto" (Ferling). Of course, the Jeffersonians differed. “The officeholders in their plans were to serve for brief terms, the executive was to be a weak official, and a bill of rights was to be included in order to protect the people from their government” (Ferling). The US presidency has taken on traits of both schools as the office evolved over years of succession, yet we can surmise that the Hamiltonians won out since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 gave the President expanded war powers. It could be argued that Presidential war power was significantly reduced by Congress' War Powers Act of 1973, yet today in the post-September 11th, 2001 era, we are dealing with a Presidency that has been allowed to mismanage conflict through successive administrations leaving it to the other to end conflicts started by the former. Herein lies the contradiction of limit and power embedded within the DNA of the Presidency: the limit of time to see a conflict from beginning to end, and the enormous amount of presidential war power to start a conflict without the consent of Congress. This is where mismanagement begins and ends, with the new occupant of the office and their advisors.

It would be simplistic to blame the presidents themselves for the mismanagement of conflict, yet the situation is more complicated than meets the eye. One can assess that the culture of the presidency and political parties contribute to the increasing heavy load of unending small wars that beleaguer the president’s ability to make sound decisions regarding national security, warfare and diplomatic strategies, and the economic wellbeing of the republic. The responsibility of the office is overwhelming, and it has been since the beginning. “The burden of executive leadership wore George Washington down, and it has been the same for every president after him. Washington led a new and imperiled government, and although he faced fewer crises than his successors, the pressures on the first president were already very heavy” (Suri). President Andrew Jackson added to the office with a dictatorial approach to the presidency his predecessors could not have imagined. “Jackson boosted executive power in general and challenged the basic separation of powers between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Despite Jackson’s firm advocacy for the Union, this emphasis on executive power seeded a growing conflict between national and state leaders, which Congress and the courts would struggle unsuccessfully to mediate in the decades before the Civil War” (Suri). This set up a situation where President Lincoln was forced to take on emergency powers unto the presidency to preserve the Union and defeat the Confederacy. “The commander-in-chief of the military, responsible for overseeing the generals, now had to become the chief manager of the war effort” (Suri). This is a role that has remained, especially during the Theodore Roosevelt administration. “His advocacy of the ‘strenuous life’ created a most strenuous presidency. He increased the speed, range, and impact of the nation’s executive as a catalyst for domestic and international change” (Suri). This is before his cousin Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) extended the pressures of the office to the extent we know today. "FDR built the postwar presidency, and he was the last to master it. His successors would find themselves struggling to manage an office that more often managed them. Extraordinary power not only corrupts, but it also encourages distraction, hubris, narcissism, and excess” (Suri, page. 176). From this point on starting with the Truman administration, the mismanaging of international conflicts began.

During the Cold War preceding the end of World War II, President Truman was the first to mismanage a conflict that was passed down to successive administrations until today, the Korean War. "The US military in 1950 was unprepared for a war such as the one in Korea was to be. The effort to raise a force to carry out the dictates of Truman, as well as the United Nations, was far-reaching" (Edwards). The situation came from the mismanagement of international diplomacy from the Teddy Roosevelt administration, yet the complexity of the region was not truly respected until later in the 20th century. The Truman administration also planted the seed of another conflict in Asia that was not ended until the Ford administration, the Vietnam War.

Within this period between the Eisenhower and Nixon Administration, the Vietnam conflict was a thorn in the side of US foreign policy, despite a near nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the never-ending cold war with the USSR. Eventually, small wars involving the US entered the Middle East, Central America, and the Caribbean during the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, the country of Haiti has been the site of small American wars since the Wilson administration. Today, we see continuing conflict in regions where war policy from the White House was mismanaged, the failed nation-states of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. These are major foreign policy problems that will plague future administrations post-Trump.

Given the herculean whirlwind of responsibilities modern presidents have to face where there is not enough time in the day to finish a majority of daily tasks facing the office, and the enormous amount of current and potential conflicts facing the presidency every hour, future president should seek to follow the example of conflict that was starting on a president's watch, and ended by that same president. The first is the Gulf War of 1990-91, and the second is the Kosovo War of 1998-1999. These two wars had clear objectives and were able to achieve jus post bellum. There was also a robust diplomatic presence within these conflicts that allowed for a proper exchange of regional power and responsibility. Being aware that it is easier said than done, the number of international disputes must be narrowed down.  Future presidents must be mindful of the consequences of continuing the tradition of mismanaging warfare, and the implications it has on our ability to maintain the defense of the republic into the 21st Century.


Edwards, P. M. (2006). The Korean War. London: The Greenwood Press.

Ferling, J. (2013). Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged A Nation. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

Suri, J. (2017). The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office. New York, NY: Basic Books.


About the Author(s)

Jonathan F. Lancelot is currently a graduate scholar at Norwich University, a technical consultant at Apple, Inc, and a freelance foreign policy advisor and political activist. He is a former staffer for U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and IT Advisor for Lockheed Martin and Department of Defense. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @lancelotpolitic.


Note:  If one is involved in what properly should be understood as "armed policing operations" (aka: "small wars")  -- this, in the service of empire and imperialism (see my comments below) -- then this, indeed,

a.  Quite often becomes a never-ending program and process (much as "policing" is a never-ending program and process within one's own country) and, thus,

b.  A program and process that no single elected official (especially one with "term limits") can ever hope to accomplish (much as with "policing," and elected officials responsibilities related thereto, here at home).

From Emile Simpson's August 2017 Foreign Affairs article entitled "There is No War in Afghanistan:"


Ever since the Taliban government was toppled in late 2001, the heart of the strategic problem that has confronted the United States and its allies in Afghanistan has been the definition of victory: How does this end? We would all be better off if we first asked what 'this' is. While Afghanistan is a war of sorts, it is not the sort of war in which there is likely to be a decisive moment of victory. Rather, Afghanistan is best described as an armed policing operation. ...

The categorical distinction between internal and interstate war is straightforward. What is surprising, therefore, is how far the distinction is ignored in the expectation that decisive victory is nonetheless available in internal conflict.

In a domestic context, everyone understands that policing is a continual activity. The idea is constantly to maintain order. There is no moment of victory as such but, rather, an ambition to achieve and maintain relative “stability,” which is only ever a provisional state. ... 

To think about the conflict in Afghanistan as an armed policing operation (in my book I call it 'armed politics,' but it’s the same business of enforcing the writ of a government over its own state) makes sense historically. Take for example the British experience of policing the other side of the lawless 'North-West Frontier' between what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan against rebellious Pashtun (then called Pathan) tribes. Virtually not a single year passed between 1849 and 1947 without some kind of large military expedition to quell unrest.



Below I have suggested, and in general I believe, that:

a.  Small wars

b.  Must be viewed from the perspective of empire.  And, thus,  

c,  From the perspective of imperialism.  Which, itself,

d.  Often entails necessary and significant "policing."  These being necessary so that:  

e.  The "civilized" nations of the world might (by way of exploiting other peoples and other regions) adequately provide for their influence, economic growth and other needs. 

In this regard, consider the following from Henry Kissinger's "Diplomacy" (1994, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York)

BEGIN QUOTE (Beginning on Page 36)

But by 1868, President Andrew Johnson was back at the old stand of justifying expansion by the Monroe Doctrine, this time in the purchase of Alaska:

"Foreign possession or control of those communities has hitherto hindered the growth and impaired the influence of the United States.  Chronic revolution and anarchy there would be equally injurious." ...

(Page 39)

(Theodore) Roosevelt started from the premise that the United States was a power like any other, not a singular incarnation of virtue.  If its interest collided with those of other countries, America had the obligation to draw on its strength to prevail.

As a first step, Roosevelt gave the Monroe Doctrine its most interventionist interpretation by identifying it with imperialist doctrines of the period.  In what he called a "Corollary" to the Monroe doctrine, he proclaimed on December 6, 1904, a general right of intervention by "some civilized nation" which, in the Western Hemisphere, the United States alone had a right to exercise:" ... in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrong-doing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power." ...

.... "More and more, the increasing interdependence and complexity of international political and economic relations render it incumbent on all civilized and orderly powers to insist on the proper policing of the world." ...


(Items in parenthesis above are mine.)

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

So:  If a nation -- so that it might compete and survive over the long term -- must do imperialism, expansion and policing -- and these, it appears, on rather a frequent, continuous and/or even an indefinitely basis, 

(From President Trump's National Security Strategy and, therein, re: Africa: 

ECONOMIC: We will expand trade and commercial ties to create jobs and build wealth for Americans and Africans. We will work with reform-oriented governments to help establish conditions that can transform them into trading partners and improve their business environment. We will support economic integration among African states. We will work with nations that seek to move beyond assistance to partnerships that promote prosperity. We will offer American goods and services, both because it is profitable for us and because it serves as an alternative to China’s often extractive economic footprint on the continent.)

Then one cannot expect a single president or prime minister to:

a.  Start and finish their  small wars (or, might we say, "imperial endeavors;" which, of necessity, often include "policing actions"); this,  

b.  During only their own term(s)? 

(Empires are not made -- and they certainly are not maintained -- like that/by way of such a short-sighted approach?)

As C.E. Callwell tells us: 

"Small wars are a heritage of extended empire, a certain epilogue to encroachments into lands beyond the confines of existing civilization, and this has been so from early ages to the present time. 

The great nation which seeks expansion in remote quarters of the globe must accept the consequences.

Small wars dog the footsteps of the pioneers of civilization in the regions afar off." (See Section II:  Causes of Small Wars.)

Joseph Schumpeter is even more specific as to what "small wars" (and follow-on "colonization") -- undertaken by "empires" -- are, or should be, all about:  

"Where cultural backwardness of a region makes normal economic intercourse dependent on colonization, it does not matter, assuming free trade, which of the civilized nations undertakes the task of colonization. 

(Or "nation-building" today?)

(The item in parenthesis above is mine.)

Based on these such descriptions of "small wars," we can easily see and understand that what we are really talking about here is:  

a.  Via empires (Callwell), 

b.  Overcoming the "cultural backwardness" of other states and societies.  (Schumpeter)

(To wit: their alternative ways of life, their alternative ways of governance and/or their alternative values, attitudes and beliefs; "cultural backwardness" matters, thus, which tend to stand directly in the way of optimum capitalism, foreign investment and free trade, and which tend to stand directly in the way of the optimum utilization and exploitation of the human and other resources of these countries/these regions toward these ends.) 

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:


a.  Once one comes to understand "small wars" in this way (the mission is for the empires devoted to capitalism, foreign investment and free trade to "transform" the outlying states and societies of the world; this, so as to better accommodate the wants, needs and desires -- not of populations of these outlying states and societies -- but, rather, of these foreign empires),  

Then one can easily see and understand that this is not a mission that any single president -- or any single prime minister -- can hope to accomplish. 


a.  The "generational war" that we have heard so much about of late

b.  Properly understood

c.  Being one that extends all the way back to C.E Callwell's time  -- and, indeed, well before?

What about the Old Cold War? 

Small wars then -- at least from the U.S./the West's perspective -- related to the threat that the Soviets/the communists posed to our way of life, to our way of governance, to our values, etc. -- and to our determination to advance same to the outlying states and societies of the world. 

Thus, the Old Cold War being: 

a.  A single "battle;" this in  

b.  A long twilight struggle/a long "generational" (or, indeed, a "civilizational?") "war."  A "war" that, properly understood, 

c.  Goes back to a time even before the existence of the United States?

("Mismanaging of battles [or, if you prefer, "wars"], thus to best be considered, determined and understood only in the context I offer above?  And, thus, in a context which finds such conflicts as Kosovo and the First Gulf War as being "odd-ball"/"non-representative?")