War time presidents

Posted: May 26, 2004 12:00 AM

One gets some sense of the heavy political weather President Bush was flying in Monday night by the pre-speech observation of a cable news anchor. He condescendingly observed that it must have escaped the White House's attention that the war college where Mr. Bush was to speak was close to Gettysburg, Pa., where Abraham Lincoln delivered his magnificent Gettysburg Address, compared with which Mr. Bush's speech would doubtlessly be found wanting. Talk about a tough audience. What is worse, that comment was on Fox News Channel, which passes for friendly journalism in Mr. Bush's Washington today.
But it is worth remembering that Lincoln's rhetorical masterpiece in November of 1863 did not save him from savage calumnies and despair by the following summer of 1864. Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald described the mood in Washington almost precisely 140 years before Mr. Bush's speech this Monday:

 "War weariness was spreading, and demands for negotiations to end the killing were becoming strident. In the Middle West the Copperhead movement was strong, and there were rumors of an insurrection intended to bring about an independent Northwest Confederation. The Democrats were organizing for their national convention to be held in Chicago at the end of August, and they were likely to adopt a peace platform. The Republicans were badly divided, and Lincoln was whipsawed between those who thought him too lenient toward the South and those who thought him too severe. Worst of all, the Union armies appeared stalemated. Sherman at the head of the Western Armies was approaching Atlanta but was not, apparently, nearer victory over Joseph E. Johnson. In the East, the Army of the Potomac was bogged down in a siege of Petersburg."

 By August of 1864, Lincoln wrote to a friend; "You think I don't know I am going to be beaten. But I do, and unless some great change takes place badly beaten, then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the president elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards."

 Yup. It's never been easy being a wartime American president. Great speechifying may start a war or celebrate a victory; but it can't win one. And that is where President Bush is right now. It matters surpassingly little whether the president gave a good speech Monday night or not (for my money it was a good speech of little consequence). Most of the post-speech commentary focused on its short-term political effect. Would it calm and unify nervous Republican congressmen? Would women in America feel comforted? But what matters is what happens in Iraq in the next five months. The consequence of the speech, such as it may be, rests on what it tells us about future events in Iraq.

 In that regard, listeners took from the speech about what they brought to it. Sen. Joseph Biden came to the MSNBC studios ashen-faced and, seemingly, almost near tears. He looked like his dog had died. And he had. Once again, tragically, according to Mr. Biden, Mr. Bush had failed to call for a summit of world leaders to beg them to send troops to Iraq. This has long been Mr. Biden's pet idea. He assured the viewers that he had talked to world leaders who said they would surely say yes if only Mr. Bush would ask. But he didn't.

 Newsweek's Howard Fineman shrewdly noted that by relying on the U.N.'s Lakhdar Brahimi to select the provisional government and a hoped-for U.N. resolution authorizing more military forces in Iraq, President Bush had lost substantial control over his destiny in Iraq. If I understand this criticism (which does make considerable sense), it is that President Bush is being insufficiently unilateralist.

 Thus, just as Lincoln in 1864 was judged to be either too lenient or too severe with the South; Mr. Bush is judged to be either insufficiently multilateralist by Mr. Biden or insufficiently uniltareralist by Mr. Fineman. It strikes me that Mr. Fineman, even if he may have been being sarcastic or ironic, identified a weakness in President Bush's announced plan: Mr. Bush is relying too much on the kindness of strangers.

 On the other hand, I took some comfort from President Bush's careful assertion that he was prepared to use our military forces in Iraq either in a "measured or overwhelming" manner in the next several months. The president wisely warned of difficult and violent days ahead in Iraq. I have a hunch that when those violent days come, Mr. Bush will be better served relying on that overwhelming force than relying on the United Nations.

 He should move two to three extra divisions in theatre as promptly as possible. Post Script: In late August 1864, the Democratic National Convention, to much cheering, pronounced Lincoln's war "a failure." On Sept. 4, Gen. Sherman telegraphed that "Atlanta is ours, and fairly won." On the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, Lincoln won 55 percent of the votes.