In front of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., are two busts on pedestals, one of Winston Churchill and the other of FDR. Carved into the marble beneath Roosevelt are these three words: THE WAR PRESIDENT.
We are not encouraged to think of Roosevelt these days as a "war president" -- the moving FDR memorial in Washington makes little mention of his role as commander in chief of 12 million men, though it does quote his prewar statement, "I hate war," the sincerity of which I do not doubt for a minute.
Roosevelt's radio broadcast on D-Day was, in its entirety, a prayer. (Think of the uproar if the current incumbent did that!) It was a prayer for the hundreds of thousands of men he had ordered into battle, thousands of whom he knew would die or be grievously wounded. You can see in those wartime photographs how Roosevelt aged, how his health was destroyed by the weight of the responsibilities he bore, a weight the rest of us have a hard time imagining.
I was reminded of this last Friday when, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, I was one of nine opinion journalists interviewing George W. Bush. He acknowledged that the conflict in Iraq is an unpopular war and said that he cannot make decisions about Iraq and have parents of the men and women who have volunteered to serve "think I'm making decisions based on the Gallup poll."
Then, with some fervor, he said, "You don't know what it's like to be commander in chief until you are one."
Bush, too, has visibly aged in his years in the White House, surely more than he would have if his duties were limited to clearing brush in Crawford, Texas.
The current debate about what we should do in Iraq is intellectually far from satisfying. The surge of troops ordered by Bush last January and completed June 15 and the new strategy of forward action against al-Qaida forces has produced or accelerated encouraging developments: the rout of al-Qaida in Anbar province, which it seemed to control six months ago; similar developments in Diyala province north of Baghdad; and a sharp decrease in sectarian violence in Baghdad and elsewhere. Yet majorities in the House and Senate seem to want to call the whole thing off, with not much care for the consequences.
The New York Times, arguing for a pullout, admits that the result may very well be genocide. That is seen as somehow preferable to continuing a conflict that has produced U.S. casualties of the magnitude of those suffered in the first 24 hours after U.S. forces landed in Normandy.
Much of the domestic political debate, I think, revolves less about what is happening or will happen in Iraq than it does about what kind of nation we are. I want it to be my country again -- that was one of the themes of Howard Dean's campaign in the early days of our military involvement in Iraq, and it is one of the themes, as best I can tell, of candidates who call for a pullout from Iraq today.
My country, this line of thought seems to go, is not a country that tries to accomplish things by force or violence; my country is a country that is willing to negotiate, that respects the feelings of those in other countries, that tolerates differences of opinions among the peoples of the world, that does not seek to dominate them or to impose our own morality. After all, who's to say we're better than anyone else?
All of which is fine, up to a point. Bush has said that he didn't take office wanting to be a war president, and Franklin Roosevelt certainly didn't, either. Nor did Harry Truman, though he was faced soon with deciding whether to drop the atomic bomb and, five years later, deciding whether to respond to the communist invasion of South Korea.
Bush is surely correct in supposing that the Islamist terrorists we are fighting in Iraq want to do grievous damage to us and that their ability to do so will be increased if we leave Iraq in failure. A Middle East in shambles is scarcely in our interest. Bush and Gen. Petraeus may or may not have come up with a winning strategy and tactics. But the results in Anbar show that the twists and turns of war can be unexpectedly good as well as unexpectedly bad. Wouldn't it be better to see if the surge produces success than to pull the plug now?