Peace and prosperity: Ask an American what an ideal president would achieve, and these are the likeliest responses—we want someone who keeps us safe and secure, who prevents American deaths and encourages economic growth. Or so we say.

The truth—at least historically—is more complicated, as Bruce Bueno Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith recently demonstrated. When the politics professors compared how historians rate presidents against the number of Americans who died in wars fought during those presidents’ terms, they noticed a troubling pattern: The presidents held in highest esteem turned out to be the ones who presided over more, not fewer, American deaths. Many of our most beloved leaders—like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and James Polk—led the nation into costly wars. And still others—such as George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Andrew Jackson—were famous generals who presided over many deaths before becoming president. A comparison between presidential ranking and economic growth, by contrast, showed that having increased prosperity had no consequential bearing on how history regarded a given president.  

book cover: The Spoils of War

These observations became the launching point for Bueno de Mesquita and Smith’s new book The Spoils of War: Greed, Power, and the Conflicts That Made Our Greatest Presidents, which reexamines several American conflicts to show how often the choice to enter (or stay out of) a war has been driven more by electoral politics than by honest, impartial cost-benefit analysis. “We like to think a president gets into a war to further the interests of ‘we the people,’” Smith explains, “but we found many cases in which wasn’t really about ‘we the people’ as much as about ‘him the president,’ or the candidate who wanted to become president.”  

Take Abraham Lincoln, for example: Bueno de Mesquita and Smith argue that, far from something the president viewed as a last resort, the Civil War resulted in part from Lincoln having deliberately “maneuvered the country to the brink of dissolution” on his path to the presidency. An opponent of slavery who’d been content to stay quiet on the issue until the 1857 Dred Scott decision upset the delicate balance between slave and free states, they suggest, Lincoln made his stirring 1858 “House Divided” speech to accept the Republican nomination for the Senate —arguing that the country would survive by being all slave or all free—with the knowledge that in addition to advancing his political career, it would also heighten the threat of war. In their telling, the president who claimed to value the preservation of the union above all else was actually willing to sacrifice it in service to his own ambition—a move that ultimately cost the lives of 700,000 Americans (about 2.4 percent of the population). Bueno de Mesquita and Smith also cite research suggesting that Lincoln was a poor commander-in-chief; by some calculations, the Civil War should only have lasted six months, and they suggest that slavery could’ve been ended without it.

Needless to say, their unabashedly cynical approach—described in the book as an effort to “correct the folklore behind America’s wartime presidents”—is bound to ruffle some feathers. A chapter on George Washington suggests that our founding fathers went to war not so much out of disgust for King George III’s tyranny or righteous outrage about taxation without representation, but because Britain’s policies threatened their extreme wealth—a concern the average colonist wouldn’t have been fortunate enough to share. Another focusing on conflicts just short of war compares John F. Kennedy’s actions in the Cuban missile crisis with President Barack Obama’s 2013-14 standoffs over chemical weapons in Syria and Russia’s expansion into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. “They each drew a line in the sand,” Bueno de Mesquita says. The difference was that whereas JFK stood by his boast that offensive missiles in Cuba would be met with dire consequences—in fact he risked what he estimated was a 1/3 probability of nuclear war to stand by his word—Obama waffled in the face of compelling evidence that Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. Why? Smith and Bueno de Mesquita argue that both presidents were just doing what would appeal to their core constituents: In JFK’s case, that meant appearing tough on communism; in Obama’s, avoiding military entanglements abroad. Both presidents did what their voters wanted, and in so doing, subjected the nation to danger—JFK by risking nuclear annihilation, Obama by signaling weakness to Vladimir Putin and other international rivals eager to exploit the United States.

That’s not to imply that either president was unusually short-sighted or self-serving. Rather, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith show that even the most apparently principled presidents tend to act in their own self-interest: James Madison, who said that “all men having power ought to be mistrusted” and warned of presidents’ inevitable “ambition, avarice, and vanity” ended up caving to political pressure that led the nation into the War of 1812, which cost about as much as George W. Bush’s Iraq war (in terms of GDP) and, the authors argue, accomplished just as little. “Democratic-Republicans wanted to expand west,” Smith explains. “They wanted to take land in Canada and expand the frontier. And they had leverage, because they controlled the nomination procedure. Basically they said to Madison, ‘if you want the nomination for a second term, you’re going to fight this war for us.’” Ultimately Madison capitulated and secured the nomination. “But for a completely and utterly useless war,” Smith insists. “Nothing changed at all.”

The exception to the rule, in Bueno de Mesquita and Smith’s view, is Lyndon B. Johnson, whom they describe as an unlikely hero who committed political suicide in the name of doing what he thought was best for the country. In signing the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, he famously lost the support of Southern Democrats (a sacrifice still being felt by the party today). And in raising taxes and instituting draft lotteries for the war in Vietnam, he distributed the costs of the war equally among all Americans, meaning that even his supporters were made to pay—with their dollars, and in some cases even with their lives or those of their children. (Madison and Bush, by contrast, took a “credit card” approach to war financing, leaving the opposition party to foot the bill.) “I think of him as a great man because he absolutely took one for the team,” Smith says of LBJ. “From our perspective, he's an extraordinarily unusual figure,” Bueno de Mesquita adds. “All of our work is grounded in the assumption that people want to stay in power. He obviously made a decision to sacrifice the prospect of staying in power long enough to accomplish what he believed in.”

Because their analysis reveals such heroic figures to be rare, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith have some concrete suggestions for how to curb excessive American militarism without assuming that tomorrow’s presidents will be any less selfish than those of the past. Make no mistake: “Anybody who is a serious candidate to be the leader of a country is vain,” Bueno de Mesquita says. “We’re not into studying personality characteristics—just assume it’s hardwired into just about everybody to be self-centered. What we want them to do is come to the belief that the structure of our government makes doing what’s good for us in their best interest too. That’s why we need some procedural changes.”

Chief among the changes they propose would be the creation of “independent agencies to estimate the expected financial costs of war and peace,” an “independent panel to estimate the expected human costs of war and peace,” and the levying of “war taxes that ensure that all citizens pay at least some of the cost of conflict if the nation goes to war.” Independent estimates of the real costs of war would allow Congress (and voters) to make informed decisions without having to rely solely on a particular leader’s rhetoric. In that way, Smith says, “making the expectations of the conflict transparent, clear, and well publicized has the goal of making it harder to pursue military action unnecessarily. And should the conflict take place, the estimates encourage leaders to fight as efficiently as possible—even if this might mean incurring costs on their own supporters—because they don’t want to go over budget, kill any more people than they said they would, or have the war go on longer than expected.”

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith also support the elimination of the Electoral College and the establishment of an independent commission to set electoral boundaries—the better to ensure that presidents are accountable to large groups of voters rather than beholden to small coalitions of backers—but acknowledge that these will be much more difficult to achieve.

In an especially contentious election year, their vision for a more reasoned, fact-based approach to discussing potential conflict carries special resonance. “These are procedures that anybody should be willing to live with,” Bueno de Mesquita says, adding that whatever their respective approaches to foreign policy, neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has so far “spent much time speaking to the costs and benefits associated with the use of the military and what role the public should have in shaping such discussions.” He’s hoping that the book might change the way the candidates—and future presidents—talk about war and what it entails.

“War is seen as a great challenge,” Bueno de Mesquita reflects, “so people don’t really question how we got into it unless it fails. All people like winning. Winning is a good thing. Therefore presidents who defeated the ‘evil enemy’—always demonized—are seen as heroic, and so are known as great presidents. That a president avoided getting into a big war is quickly forgotten.”

At the end of the book, a list ranking presidents by the extent to which they actually fostered peace and prosperity—again, the outcomes we claim to want—puts Warren G. Harding and Gerald Ford at the top, with Lincoln and George W. Bush tied near the bottom.

The ranking, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith admit, is intended less as a rigorous statistical statement than as a provocation. “The idea is getting people to stop and think: What do you really want a president to do?” Bueno de Mesquita says. “We don’t ask that enough.”