Monday, July 16, 2012

Andrew J. Polsky's "Elusive Victories"

Andrew J. Polsky teaches political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He served as the editor of the political science journal Polity from 2005 to 2010. In addition to a number of scholarly articles, he is the author of two books, Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War (Oxford University Press, 2012) and The Rise of the Therapeutic State (Princeton University Press, 1991).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Elusive Victories and reported the following:
My book examines the many challenges presidents face as they lead the United States during wartime. A president must accomplish a number of formidable tasks to secure “victory” – which I take to mean achieving the political objectives a president sets in going to war. Often these objectives have been problematic, especially when they involve a peace building agenda that envisions refashioning the international order that the president believes contributed to the conditions that caused war.

Page 99 falls in the middle of my analysis of the war goals that Woodrow Wilson articulated once the United States entered the First World War. In January 1918 he laid out the Fourteen Points that he saw as the basis for peace. His goals were transformative in scope, including justice for peoples who had been denied self-government, some form of self-determination for the subjects of colonialism, and a new international association (with American participation) with the power and responsibility to preserve the independence of all states. In ways he did not foresee, the Fourteen Points contained the seeds of later misunderstanding and tragedy:
Wilson’s program put him on a collision course with the very nations beside which the United States would fight. Rather than join the Entente, the United States chose to wage war as a co-belligerent Associated Power, sharing a common enemy but not necessarily common war goals. Wilson understood that the Allied leaders would want to make Germany pay heavily for the human and material damage caused by the war. The United States, he made clear, would have no part in such a peace. Indeed, where the Allies would want to make certain Germany could not again threaten them, the president stressed his continuing faith in “German greatness” and sought to reassure the German people that his program posed no threat to it.

Moreover, Wilson pledged himself broadly to a principle of self-determination and anti-colonialism – even as the United States had yoked itself to the world’s two leading colonial powers, Great Britain and France. He should have anticipated that they might have reservations about his program, which could complicate peace building. Although he would later claim that he knew nothing of the secret treaties among the Allies that promised postwar territorial gains, his assertion was not credible. Not only did the Bolsheviks publish the agreements to embarrass the Allies, but British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour reported that he had shown the treaties to the president in 1917.
The differences between Wilson and his key war partners would later contribute to his greatest failure as a leader, the crushing disappointment to secure his core goals in the postwar negotiations in Paris and the subsequent rejection of the League of Nations by the Senate. He thus joins the list of presidents who could not translate battlefield success into the kind of political results needed to justify the wartime sacrifices he had asked of the American people.
Learn more about the book and author at Andrew J. Polsky's website.

--Marshal Zeringue