It is well established that presidents do not gain much of anything when they launch unsuccessful military ventures. However, they generally don’t gain much from successful ones either. The public does not seem to be interested in rewarding—or even remembering—foreign policy success.
The data are now in on the most recent such military venture: the expedition in Libya. The United States and its NATO allies materially supported popular rebels in their ultimately successful efforts to overthrow the decidedly unpopular regime of Muammar Qaddafi, efforts that resulted in the terminal demise of Qaddafi, a certifiable devil du jour in the American mind for decades. And all this at no cost in American lives.
After the rebel success and the death of the dictator in November, CBS News conducted a poll and asked a fairly mild question about the mission. It revealed that the public was quite capable of containing its enthusiasm for the venture, no matter how successful it may seem to have been:
Although it seems unlikely the venture will hurt President Obama’s reelection prospects, it seems equally unlikely it will furnish him with any real bragging rights.
The same thing happened in 1999 during Bill Clinton’s war over Kosovo, a venture that seemed considerably more risky and that inspired much more attention. As the bombs were being dropped there in support of the persecuted Albanian side, quite a few press accounts argued that the presidential ambitions and political future of Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, hung in the balance. From the standpoint of public opinion, the Kosovo venture seems to have been a success, not the least because no American lives were lost. But when Gore launched his campaign for the presidency a few months later, he scarcely thought it important or memorable enough to bring up.
And of course there is the legendary inability of George H. W. Bush to garner much lasting electoral advantage from the Gulf War of 1991. Although the success in that huge and dramatic victory caused even his ratings on the handling of the economy to rise notably, this effect was reversed within days in the polls. His slide continued into electoral defeat in the next year.
Lesser accomplishments seem to have been at least as unrewarding. Nobody gave much credit to Bush for his earlier successful intervention in Panama, to Dwight Eisenhower for a successful venture into Lebanon in 1958, to Lyndon Johnson for success in the Dominican Republic in 1965, to Jimmy Carter for husbanding an important Middle East treaty in 1979, to Ronald Reagan for a successful invasion of Grenada in 1983 or to Bill Clinton for sending troops to help resolve the Bosnia problem in 1995. Although it is often said that the successful Falklands War of 1982 helped British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the elections of 1983, any favorable effect is confounded by the fact that the economy was improving impressively at the same time.
Even Harry Truman, who presided over the massive triumph in World War II, saw his approval plummet to impressive lows within months after the war because of domestic concerns.
And surely the ultimate case is that of Britain’s Winston Churchill. After brilliantly holding the country together during that war—at times, it seemed that the only thing the country had going for it was his rhetoric—he was summarily voted out of office a few weeks after its end. Or, as he put it, “At the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for the five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.”
In his perhaps-ironically titled book Triumph and Tragedy, Churchill recalls that, when the news about his electoral defeat arrived, his wife suggested, “It may well be a blessing in disguise.” Churchill replied, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.” Other victors have had reason to express similar sentiments.