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Perry on Politics: The presidency destroyer

Published by James M. Perry on .

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By James M. Perry

President James Madison took a young, unprepared nation to war -- and his enemy, the British, burned the White House, the Capitol, and the Navy Yard almost to the ground.

Going to war is the most difficult decision a President can make, and it doesn't always end well.

President Obama says he's not thinking about going to war against Syria -- no combat boots on the ground -- just thinking about lobbing some cruise missiles into Damascus in hopes dictator al-Assad will think twice about using chemical weapons against his own people again.

Rebels lobbed a few shells at Fort Sumter and almost before anyone knew it the United States was in the midst of the bloodiest war in its history. When the shooting starts, things tend to escalate.

Not counting any number of incidents, occupations, and skirmishes, Presidents have led us into nine serious wars -- 1812, Mexican, Civil, Spanish-American, World Wars 1 and 2, Korea, Vietnam, and a cluster of mini-wars in the Middle East.

The first, 1812, was started on the basis of faulty intelligence -- that occupying Canada would be a mere matter of marching. It wasn't. There were British troops there, just enough to humiliate several American armies. Faulty intelligence -- the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction -- convinced George W. Bush to launch an invasion of Iraq. Bush's reputation was in tatters by the time it ended.

The War with Mexico, if you set aside the moral implications, was a success. Winfield Scott and his army made a highly professional amphibious landing at Veracruz and marched all the way to Mexico City. Zachary Taylor and his army did their thing. When it was over, Mexico had lost half of its territory, including California, and the United States had gained a third of theirs. Having done all he had set out to do, President James K. Polk, worn out and sickly, retired to Tennessee. His retirement lasted 90 days, shortest in presidential history.

Abraham Lincoln led the North -- he really did lead it -- to victory over the South and then was assassinated six days after Lee's surrender. Casualties, North and South, totaled 625.000.

William McKinley, a major in the Civil War, led the nation into the Spanish-American War, in which the American army, still firing rifles with black powder, seemed to have forgotten most of what Scott should have taught them in Mexico. He, too, was assassinated.

Woodrow Wilson didn't pay a lot of attention to the day-to-day fighting of the American army in Europe (it did better than our allies, especially the French, expected) but worried most about running the world when it was over. He suffered a massive stroke in 1919 and his League of Nations Treaty was defeated in the Senate the following year.

The United States has been led by two great commanders-in-chief, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Unlike Obama's ditheringlbj-vietnam today, neither Lincoln nor FDR had much to dither about. Rebel guns had opened fire on Sumter in 1861 and Japanese planes had attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Wars exhaust the men who run them; Roosevelt, sick and exhausted, died April 12, 1945. He was only 63, but looked years more.

Harry Truman got us into the war in Korea; Dwight Eisenhower got us out. The war is generally thought to have been something of a disaster, but South Korea was saved and soon began producing all those Hyundais and Kias.

The Vietnam War was the biggest military disaster in American history. American casualties totaled 58,000 in a war that should never have been fought. Lyndon Johnson (right) bears most of the blame. It destroyed his presidency. For most Americans, Vietnam is just a passing memory, but it remains a vivid reminder that bad things happen when a nation goes off half-cocked to war.

It should have been a caution to George Bush but he returned to Iraq to complete the job his father had started earlier, insisting to Americans that Hussein had those terrible weapons of mass destruction that threated all of us. There were no such weapons, it turned out, making Bush's decision the most embarrassing of all.

Obama and members of Congress surely worry that the intelligence they're looking at today could be wrong again. So they should dither. Going into war, or even dropping missiles that could lead to war, is serious business.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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