The U.S. presidency is the most powerful office in the world, but it is set up to fail. And the power is the problem. Beginning as a small and uncertain position within a large and sprawling democracy, the presidency has grown over two centuries into a towering central command for global decisions about war, economy, and justice. The president can bomb more places, spend more money, and influence more people than any other figure in history. His reach is almost boundless.

Reach does not promote desired results. Each major president has changed the world, but none has changed it as he liked. Often just the opposite. Rising power elicits demands on that power, at home and abroad, that exceed the capabilities of leaders. Rising power also inspires resistance, from jealous friends as much as determined adversaries. Dominance motivates mounting commitments, exaggerated promises, and widening distractions – “mission creep,” in its many infectious forms.

Despite their dominance, modern presidents have rarely achieved what they wanted because they have consistently overcommitted, over-promised, and overreached. They have run in too many directions at once. They have tried to achieve success too fast. They have departed from their priorities. And they have become too preoccupied with managing crises, rather than leading the country in desired directions. This was the case for presidents as diverse as Lyndon Johnson, burdened by a war in Vietnam he did not want to fight, and Ronald Reagan, distracted during his second term by the Iran-Contra Scandal.

Extraordinary power has pushed even the most ambitious presidents to become largely reactive – racing to put out the latest fire, rather than focusing on the most important goals. The crises caused by small and distant actors have frequently defined the presidents. The time and resources spent on crises have diminished the attention to matters with much greater significance for the nation as a whole. Presidents frequently lose control of their agendas because they are too busy deploying their power flagrantly, rather than targeting it selectively. This happened with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom spent much of their presidencies fighting wars abroad that did not make the country safer.

Unmatched capabilities and ambitions encourage undisciplined decision-making, followed by stubborn efforts to make good on poor choices. These are the “sunk costs” that hang over the heads of powerful leaders determined to make sure nothing sinks, except their own presidencies. As much as they try, presidents cannot redeem the past nor control the present. Their most effective use of power is investing in future changes defined around a limited set of national economic, social, and military priorities. Priorities matter most for successful leaders, but presidents forget them in the ever-denser fog of White House decision-making.

Thomas Jefferson anticipated these circumstances two centuries ago. Although he valued virtue and strength in leaders, Jefferson recognized that these qualities were potential sources of despotism as much as democracy. The virtuous and the strong often try to do too much and they adopt tyrannical practices in pursuit of worthy, now corrupted, purposes. Machiavelli’s prince, who promotes the public good through ruthless policies, was a warning for eighteenth century American readers against centralized power run amok.

Like other founders steeped in the history of empires, Jefferson wanted to insure that the United States remained a republic with restrained, modest, and cautious leaders. He envisioned a president who embodied wisdom above all – a philosopher president more than a warrior president or a businessman president. For Jefferson, the essential qualities of leadership came from the intellect of the man who occupied the office.

The checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution divided power to prevent presidential tyranny, but they did not guarantee the election of presidents with intellect, prudence, or personal restraint. Fragmented authority could be just as flagrant and misguided as centralized authority and it could franchise its despotism in multiplying offices and agencies with similar effects to the dictatorial prince. According to Jefferson, powerful democracy ultimately required wisdom and self-denial in its leaders, more than constitutional barriers. Democratic leaders had to remain introspective and ascetic as their country grew more dynamic and prosperous.

Writing on the eve of the country’s first burst of expansion, Jefferson warned that the nation’s leaders may one day “shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of them tremble.” Restrained use of power and disciplined focus on the national interest were the only antidotes to excess, despotism, and decline. “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power,” Jefferson wrote, “and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

Jefferson’s heirs did not heed his words. By the mid-twentieth century the rapid growth of American power made frequent misuse unavoidable and effective leadership nearly unattainable. The United States strayed from its democratic values more than any elected president could correct, despite repeated public hopes for a savior. Leaders pursued goals – for wealth, influence, and security – that undermined the democracy they aimed to preserve. Too often they sacrificed democratic procedures – supporting dictators abroad and increasing secrecy at home – for these other goals.

The widening gap between power and values produced President Donald Trump, elected to promote raw power above all. He is the final fall of the founders’ presidency – the absolute antithesis of what they expected for the office. President Trump was not inevitable, but the rise and fall of America’s highest office had a historical logic that explains the current moment, and how we might move forward.

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Memorial Day is a day when Americans remember those who died in the service of our country. The men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice did so to preserve our security and freedom. We owe them more than periodic remembrances and statements of gratitude. We owe them an unshakeable commitment to ensuring that current and future soldiers are sent into harm’s way only when the nation’s interests are clearly at stake.

Too often our leaders have sent Americans to die in response to vague threats or in pursuit of unclear purposes. Memorial Day should remind us all to demand better foreign policy leadership.

Our nation’s founders opposed large standing military forces in peacetime because they feared it would encourage leaders to use them frequently. Powerful armies are a temptation for ambitious politicians. The founders also intended for Congress to act as a check on presidential war-making, requiring a majority vote for declarations of war. President George Washington articulated this wisdom in his farewell address of 1796, calling for America to avoid permanent alliances, enmities and foreign wars.

These assumptions dominated American policy for most of the nation’s early history. But after World War II, and with the onset of the Cold War, the United States took a very different course. To contain communist aggression, Americans supported the largest peacetime military in the nation’s history—more powerful than nearly any other. To enable crisis decision-making, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Congress ceded war-making to the president.

Many of these policy changes were necessary. They made our country and our allies safer. Nonetheless, since 1945 it has become easier for American presidents to deploy forces abroad, often without clarity of purpose or strategy. In Vietnam, almost 3 million Americans served, and more than 58,000 died. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were never clear about why Vietnam mattered and what we were fighting for.

The same can be said for Iraq, where more than 1.5 million Americans served and 4,474 died. Why were American forces sent to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein? Where were the alleged “weapons of mass destruction?” Where was the connection between Saddam and the Al Qaeda terrorist organization?

The men and women who served in Vietnam, Iraq and other wars showed courage and patriotism. They followed orders. But they deserved better. Their missions were noble, but they failed because the wars were not clearly connected to national interests. Our soldiers did not know why they were fighting, and it was therefore almost impossible to formulate an effective strategy. How can you win if you do not know what winning is?

Perhaps these wars had worthwhile purposes, and perhaps they could have been conducted more successfully. The absence of a clear definition of interests by civilian leaders – Presidents Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush and others – made it impossible to set appropriate and consistent battlefield priorities. This was particularly true in difficult counterinsurgency conflicts where the native resistance had a clear goal (expel the occupier), and the American occupation army was uncertain whether and why it wished to stay.

Today, more wars similar to Vietnam and Iraq are likely. We face a series of potential conflicts around North Korea, the South China Sea, Syria, Ukraine and Iran. The spread of the Islamic State group and other terrorist groups also draws intensive American military attention. The inexperienced and understaffed foreign policy team around President Donald Trump is increasing the size and aggressive posture of the military, while at the same time cutting tools for diplomacy, multilateral cooperation and international aid. When confronted by its first major foreign policy crisis, which will happen soon, the current administration will turn to the military and deploy troops. The numbers will start small, and they will grow as threats metastasize and the expectations for quick American victories escalate.

This is our history. It is also our present and our future. As a global power, we cannot turn back to a time of small armies and infrequent American wars abroad. Let us instead use this Memorial Day to prepare for the foreign policy challenges we have recently neglected by asking our leaders to clearly articulate our national interests and define our priorities. We can then demand that future service members are sent into battle only when their efforts are truly vital for the nation’s security and freedom. This does not require isolationism, but instead a more deliberate, careful and well-planned use of American force. We owe those who have already given their lives for our country nothing less.


This article originally appeared in Psychology Today and various newspapers.

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.