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Has the U.S. Ever Had an Anti-War President?

The question might be better phrased can we ever have an anti-war president. Even the notion of an “anti-war” president in a country so notoriously militaristic might strike some as oxymoronic. Still, over the years many such claims have been made, with the 'anti-war' label sticking to a few presidents. That said, when you look at the closest thing the right or left of the United States has ever produced regarding “anti-war” presidents, the more things look the same.

Could foreign policy and international diplomacy (or lack thereof) guided by a myopic view of resource acquisition be to blame? Everyone in the US has heard of the ‘war for oil’ critique and even some of the least critical among us will acknowledge the possibility that our military is guided by that need, in terms of foreign policy. While new, climate change-motivated technology, resource/energy independence, and war are subjects entirely meriting their own expertise and scholarship, their connection is becoming more and more obvious to most, and it’s one issue where there is actually a lot of bi-partisan unity, for a change.

For U.S. presidents, war itself is becoming more of a burden than unifier in recent times, with even the right becoming anti-war in certain factions (often on economic/isolationist terms rather than humanitarian ones or anything of the like). President Biden has already been blasted by all sides regarding war recently – from the center, for pulling out of one too fast (Afghanistan); from the left for not pulling out of one that he promised he would (Yemen); and now from the right for even entertaining one in Ukraine (see Tucker Carlson re: Russia), or not starting one in Iran, Cuba, or China, or something about Afghanistan that’s not particularly coherent since ‘their guy’ started the process of leaving the country in the first place. The right is on all conceivable sides of every type of criticism that can be levied at Biden, a ‘fun’ product of this ‘own the libs’ era that we all live in, apparently.

Meanwhile, anyone who has had the misfortune of not avoiding social media during the last 6 or so years has likely encountered a newly emboldened portion of the online U.S. far-right; those who reflexively defend Trump or anything remotely associated with his online ‘sphere of influence.’ A unique subset of this group that one might encounter is one that seems glued to the notion that Trump was an “anti-war president” (the NYT’s white whale; the oft discussed ‘Obama-turned-Trump voter,’ perhaps?). Even despite the fact that their short-term memory seems to have forgotten his “bomb the shit out of them” comments in the primary run-up to his presidency, there’s still something funny about this group of “anti-war” conservatives. Being old enough to have lived through the Bush eras, and a small part of Reagan’s (or at least its effects), an “anti-war” right sounds farfetched in and of itself, but it also seems clear that many today are unaware of Trump’s actual record regarding war.

Starting in 2011, the U.S. had lightly and unofficially helped ally/former leader of Yemen, Mansur Hadi with tactical support in his largely unsuccessful civil war-effort to stay in power. The U.S. had been in Yemen actively fighting Al-Qaeda and ISIS for years, but as that war winded down, and the U.S. pretext for being there was largely gone, so too was the U.S presence - mostly. What remained was unofficial and largely spearheaded by corporate interests such as Raytheon’s. Proxy drone strikes, which sullied Obama's legacy quite a bit, were carried out in support of Hadi, but even they were on a sharp decline. Until trump stepped into office.

The U.S. ratcheted up its proxy droning campaign in 2017 quite a bit (numbers go down only when Trump strikes down requirements re: reporting drone strikes that Obama had put in place), but they also drop because it wasn’t until May of 2019 that the U.S. government officially involved itself; in the name of defending against “Iranian activity in the Middle East,” Mike Pompeo rushed an “emergency” $8.1 billion in arms sales to “Gulf allies” such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan. Those Gulf nations’ already increasingly harsh military campaigns in Yemen were now extremely well-armed, and in turn were ramped up, resulting in more than 100,000 killed, more than 12,000 of whom were civilians. Those numbers don’t even include the more than 85,000 who have died as a result of famine already, all of which is due to the ongoing war.

To ignore the U.S.’s role in this tragedy would be beyond naïve (the US has even lost a soldier in the conflict), but if that still doesn’t convince, perhaps the fact that Trump increased drone strikes in general by 432% would? Drone strikes have reportedly killed unintended targets at an up to 90% rate – such a bad record that President Obama’s similar claims to having had a 'peaceful’ term as president were punctured by his drone strike numbers. Not only that, the work that President Obama did to look as if he were addressing his issues with drone strikes—making some of them have to be reported with some modicum of transparency—was completely undone by Trump, so it’s possible the latter’s numbers are even worse than what is known.

Still, none of that stopped impeached former President Donald Trump from famously, simultaneously both asking and declaring: “Did ya know? This was the 1st 4 year term with out <sic> a new war since Eisenhower” (via twitter, naturally).

He was wrong on all grounds. Obviously by the ‘new war’ metric that he set, he either forgot about Yemen, or ran with the logic that it was a war the U.S. was already in, or was never officially ‘declared’ to be in. If that were the bar, a number of other presidents among the 45 others in U.S. history would’ve cleared it as well.

The U.S. has only actually declared war four times, despite the knowledge most of us have that we’ve been deploying troops, manning bases abroad, and waging different types of war, with new tools, and in new arenas, since the opportunities to do so were available (forever?)—Trump’s is a hollow definition of ‘war’ or ‘peace.’ As wrong as he was, it did raise the question; what would a truly anti-war president look (or at least sound) like, and have we ever had one?

Some argue that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one, pointing to his famous August of 1936 speech in Chautauqua, NY in which he said “I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line—the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”

Pretty pointed language; the premise of being anti-anything is hating it, so he meets that requirement by his own admission. While it's probably worth noting that he was actually one of very few presidents to formally declare a war (again, only four actually have), it's definitely also pertinent to mention that he declared war on the Nazis & their allies - a war he's hardly blamed for involving us in—nazis remain pretty unpopular. Still, he supposedly famously enjoyed being a wartime president, and certainly excelled at it. He was also at the helm when the U.S. started the Manhattan project, having direct responsibility in establishing the project and everything that lead to it (technologically, financially, and probably most relevantly, philosophically).

So nix that option perhaps, but still, if only four presidents have formally declared war, one might assume that it wouldn’t be so hard to find an anti-war president out of the 46 men to have taken the position. The truth, however, is that even though few presidents have formally declared a war, almost every one has overseen a war, and most have even been involved in starting new ones by proxy or through less ‘official’ channels.

Jimmy Carter once told The Guardian, of his presidency; “We never went to war. We never dropped a bomb. We never fired a bullet.” People often point to Carter’s presidency as the model, as far as an actual anti-war presidency, and yet he actually fell into a similar pitfall as one already mentioned in this article: Yemen. And Saudi Arabia therein.

President Carter oversaw Presidential Determination 79-6, approving the sale of a vast array of weaponry to what was at the time North Yemen, or the Yemen Arab Republic. Similarly to Pompeo’s more recent claims, it was done “in the national security interests of the United States.” At the time, the ‘menace’ was communism, and the threat was not so much losing Yemen as much as losing Saudi Arabia, the U.S.’ new important regional partner. The importance of that relationship was supposedly heightened by the pro-American Pahlavi regime’s fall from power in Iran, but even with roles shifted, the similarities are fairly jarring. If Carter represented the U.S. left’s best foot forward regarding elevating an anti-war candidate, and Trump the right’s, one thing is clear—Saudi Arabia (or whatever it as a nation represents in the bigger picture) is perhaps the one obstacle neither party can clear. Just as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and this latest phase of the ongoing Yemeni Civil War are a stain on Trump and this new wing of the right’s claim to an ‘anti-war president,’ the same two middle eastern nations and the Second Yemenite War were to Jimmy Carter and the left’s similar claims in the 70s and early 80s.

So where does that leave us? Are we permanently beholden to these types of foreign policy interests? Maybe the real culprit isn’t so much the Saudis or Yemenis, but in fact the United States’ need to ‘control’ the region (or any other) more through military funding/weaponry/presence and less on sound ideology, good diplomacy, and material, economic benefits provided via friendship and accord. Perhaps focusing more on the latter type of ‘soft’ approaches and less on weapon sales would also arm less future ‘rebel factions’ when the tides shift politically. Just as the threat of “communism” faded from the region eventually, so might the “threat” of Iran. When this new ‘threat’ can no longer legitimize all of these weapon sales, can we say those folks that Raytheon is now arming won’t be on ‘the other side’ of whatever issue it is that may arise next in the region?

For quite a while, our approach to relationships abroad has been more akin to the classic mafioso gag “Nice country you have here, it’d be a shame to see something bad happen to it [wink, wink]” than anything done in good faith. Our inability to imagine another way of operating abroad certainly raises the question around the world: can the U.S. do things differently? Can we play fair? Can we not afford to operate in a better way? For example, why does the country need a Saudi Arabia-type of ‘ally’ to play the role of regional strongman in order to advance its political and economic causes? Is it truly as simple as oil? Does domestic hesitancy to alternative energy resources suggest otherwise? Surely these anti-environmentalists don’t want to rely on the whim and mercy of a Saudi monarchy when it comes to the U.S.’s autonomy/foreign policy decisions…(?)

More questions are raised than answered by this whole line of questioning, and belying it all is the truth that no president can claim the high road regarding war as long as we are reliant on it for access to cheaper resources.

No doubt our lives today require a lot of oil or whatever we could replace it with, one way or another, but if that is why we act so irrationally abroad… perhaps clean energy and energy independence aren’t only the sole path to a world that isn’t someday largely underwater due to climate crises. Maybe we also need alternatives to oil in order to achieve any semblance of independence regarding foreign policy too, ironically. Not being obliged to wage expensive wars (or worse, ethnic cleansing) on behalf of others is a heck of a perk to couple with energy independence, right!? Even if you don’t care about the children, or the trees, or democracy, or whatever else… right?

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