Bill Clinton: War Leader or "Indolent Prince?"

Mackubin T. Owens

June 1, 1999

It is no secret that President Clinton is concerned with his “legacy.” According to Leon Panetta, the president’s former chief of staff, “Clinton wanted to establish his presidency as one that history would look at as having made a difference as the world moved from the Cold War to a new century.” Speaking shortly after the president’s acquittal by the Senate of the charges for which he was impeached by the House, Mr. Panetta continued, “Now he faces the possibility that while history will reflect his accomplishments, his impeachment will still be a headline, not a footnote.”

Observers noted at the time that repairing his damaged legacy would not be easy during a period of peace and prosperity. “He needs a crisis to rise to,” Lyn Nofziger, a Republican consultant claimed back in February. The subsequent chain of events has led cynics to suggest that Bill Clinton manipulated if not manufactured the crisis in Kosovo in order to divert attention from the shame of impeachment and to help him burnish his damaged legacy.

Mr. Clinton would not be the first ruler to manufacture an international crisis for domestic political purposes. As Shakespeare’s dying Henry IV admonishes his son Hal, soon to be crowned Henry V: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/ with foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out/ may waste the memory of the former days.”

But Mr. Clinton long has sought a grander milieu for his presidency, one that would permit him to rise to a “Churchillian” level of statesmanship. In his 1998 book, Behind the Oval Office: Getting Re-elected at All Costs, Dick Morris, President Clinton’s former political consultant recounts an August 1996 conversation in which Mr. Clinton lamented the apparent fact that only presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt who serve during war or other moments of crisis reach the “first tier” of history.

Several of Mr. Clinton’s aides have suggested that he has come to view Kosovo as a “defining moment” of his presidency. The president’s rhetoric, which appears to constitute a raid on Winston Churchill’s wartime eloquence, supports this view. Appearing with Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel in April, he claimed that Kosovo was a test of whether civilized nations “remain awake to the warning signs of evil” in time “to act before it is too late.” In a speech that same month to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Mr. Clinton claimed that NATO was engaged in “a great battle between the forces of integration and the forces of disintegration; the forces of globalism vs. tribalism; of oppression against empowerment.”

The inescapable conclusion is that the president who consciously avoided military duty as a young man now wishes to be taken seriously as a war leader. Fair enough. But we are entitled to measure him against war leaders who have gone before. How does Mr. Clinton compare to those democratic statesmen who have reached history’s first tier by virtue of leadership in war, e.g. Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt? (Of course, despite the president’s assertion to Dick Morris, not all war leaders reach the first tier. James Polk and George Bush come to mind.)

Churchill’s entire life can be seen as preparation for his great trial as Britiain’s Prime Minister during World War II. Unlike Mr. Clinton, Churchill sought military glory as a young man. He was “mentioned in dispatches” for his performance in action on India’s Northwest Frontier. He took part in the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman during the war against the Dervishes of Sudan. He was First Lord of the Admiralty in the years leading up to the Great War, and when forced to resign over the failure of the Dardenelles campaign in 1915, he led an infantry battalion on the Western Front. He returned to government in 1917 and served as Minister of Munitions. He returned to the Admiralty on the eve of World War II.

He made himself an expert on military affairs and was a tireless advocate of military innovation. Long before most others, he understood the nature of Hitler’s Germany and the threat that it posed to European peace. He was a vociferous critic of British policies of appeasement. As Prime Minister, he rallied the British people on behalf of total commitment to Hitler’s defeat, played a major role in developing the Anglo-American strategies that achieved victory, and never shied from the cost of achieving victory.

Lincoln’s military experience was limited to service as a militiaman in the Black Hawk War. In this conflict, he once joked on the floor of the House, his exposure to combat did not extend beyond “charges upon the wild onions” and “bloody struggles with the mosquitoes.”

As a member of Congress Lincoln, like most Whigs, opposed the Mexican War on the basis of the idea that the blessings of liberty should be expanded by example, not force. Many Whigs feared that territory acquired from Mexico would be opened to slavery. But while abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison openly prayed for the defeat of the US, Lincoln and most other Whigs, despite their opposition in principle to the war, always voted in favor of appropriations for the armies in the field.

As president during the Civil War, Lincoln, like Churchill, used his substantial rhetorical skills to shape public sentiment in favor of evolving Union war goals. He also played a major role in the development of Union strategy, ensuring that the military instrument was properly linked to the political ends of the war. He held firm in his objectives and strategy in the face of criticism form by Radical Republicans and Democrats alike. He did not subordinate strategy to personal electoral considerations. Indeed, he thought he might lose the 1864 election. Had Sherman not captured Atlanta when he did and had Grant not pinned down Lee in the trenches of Petersburg, Lincoln may well have lost.

Because of his polio, Roosevelt had no military experience as a young man. But he did serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy after World War I. As president, he and Churchill led the most powerful coalition in history, the objective of which was “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers. Like Churchill and Lincoln, he never shied from the cost necessitated by the Allied strategy.

What of Bill Clinton? As a young man, he not only avoided military service, he consciously manipulated the system to achieve his goal. He not only opposed the Vietnam War, he organized protests against his government’s policies while a student in Britain. As Governor of Arkansas, he initially opposed the Gulf War (as did most Senate Democrats), but reversed himself when the magnitude of the Coalition’s military victory became apparent.

But the greatest difference between Mr. Clinton and the statesmen who have led democracies successfully in war is his approach to war itself. For Mr. Clinton, strategy is merely a subset of domestic politics. Thus unlike the first tier leaders, he always has subordinated strategic imperatives to electoral concerns.

Kosovo is only the latest case in point. His stated goal in Kosovo was to stop Milosevic’s killing of Albanian Kosovars. To accomplish this would have required an air campaign of overwhelming power and the commitment of ground troops. But domestic considerations have led Mr. Clinton so far to reject the use of ground troops, while the conduct of the air campaign has been shaped by the imperative to avoid aircraft losses. Mr. Clinton’s war rhetoric is intended to evoke comparisons with Churchill. But unlike Churchill, he will not employ a strategy that can achieve the ambitious goals he has established. He seeks victory on the cheap.

By explicitly subordinating strategy to domestic politics, the American war leader Mr. Clinton most resembles is Lyndon Johnson. But as Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute has noted in a new book, there is another, older description of a certain type of “war leader” that fits Mr. Clinton to a tee. It comes from the 16th century Florentine writer, Niccolo Machiavelli.

Machiavelli wrote of “indolent princes” who when they send a general into the field believe “the wisest order…they can give him is never to risk a battle, and above all things avoid a general action…”

In The Art of War, Machiavelli wrote that such indolent princes “thought…that it sufficed…to think up a sharp reply, to write a beautiful letter, to demonstrate wit and readiness in saying and words, to know how to weave a fraud…to keep many lascivious women around, to conduct [themselves] avariciously and proudly, to rot in idleness, to give military rank by favor, to be scornful of anyone who shows them a praiseworthy path.” These “no-accounts” did not “realize that they were preparing themselves to be the prey of whoever assaulted them.”

Why pay attention to Machiavelli? After all, the popular view of Machiavelli is that he was a teacher of evil. But Machiavelli was also concerned with the survival of the Florentine Republic. For him, the key to the survival of a republic was vigorous leadership of a virtuous citizenry.

Machiavelli was certainly instrumental in overturning the classical conception of virtue. But he believed that Florence had been defeated because it lacked even his truncated form of virtue, becoming in the process an “effeminate republic.” This state of affairs was the result of Florence’s corruption, especially the corruption of its leaders. These leaders were contemptuous of military virtue, encouraged vices that undermined such virtues as discipline and valor, and saw military power as a means of enhancing their own political appeal rather than advancing the interests of the state.

Bill Clinton resembles these “indolent princes” far more than the great democratic war leaders of the past. This does not bode well for the security and interests of the American Republic.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense. His e-mail address is