Day By Day

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Bush and Lincoln

So far I have resisted drawing any analogies between President Bush's current situation and that of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, although in some respects the the similarities are striking.

Usually such comparisons are superficial and misleading, but occasionally in the right hands they can be instructive. Such is the case with William B. Stuntz' recent article in the New Republic.

He writes:

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln led what was left of his country to war to restore "the Union as it was," to use the popular phrase of the time. Free navigation of the Mississippi River, the right to collect customs duties in Southern ports, the status of a pair of coastal forts in South Carolina and Florida--these were the issues over which young American men got down to the business of killing one another that sad summer.

It was all a pipe dream. "The Union as it was" was gone, forever. Events proved William Tecumseh Sherman--the prophet of that war--right, and everyone else wrong: An ocean of blood would be required to reunite the United States, and once that blood was spilled, the country over which James Buchanan had presided was as dead as the soldiers whose corpses littered the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg, Antietam and Cold Harbor.

But there was a much bigger, much better, and above all much nobler dream waiting in the wings: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom" (to use Lincoln's own words)--that the chains of four million slaves might be shattered forever, that freedom and democracy might prevail against tyranny and aristocracy in a world still full of tyrants and aristocrats.
Thankfully, Lincoln saw to it that the war's purpose changed. George W. Bush has changed the purpose of his war too, though the change seems more the product of our enemies' choices than of Bush's design. By prolonging the war, Zarqawi and his Baathist allies have drawn thousands of terrorist wannabes into the fight--against both our soldiers and Muslim civilians. When terrorists fight American civilians, as on September 11, they can leverage their own deaths to kill a great many of us. But when terrorists fight American soldiers, the odds tilt towards our side. Equally important, by bringing the fight to a Muslim land, by making that land the central front of the war on Islamic terrorism, the United States has effectively forced Muslim terrorists to kill Muslim civilians. That is why the so-called Arab street is rising--not against us but against the terrorists, as we saw in Jordan after Zarqawi's disastrous hotel bombing. The population of the Islamic world is choosing sides not between jihadists and Westerners, but between jihadists and people just like themselves. We are, slowly but surely, converting bin Laden's war into a civil war--and that is a war bin Laden and his followers cannot hope to win.

We see the fruits of that dynamic across the Middle East. Democracy is rising, fitfully to be sure, but still rising: in Lebanon, in Palestine, in Egypt, in Iran, even in Saudi Arabia--not just because it is also rising in Iraq, but because its enemies are the same as our enemies. That is a war very much worth fighting.

Today our forces and Iraqis are fighting together and, slowly, winning a good and noble war that holds the hope of bringing to millions a measure of freedom they never knew before....

Read the whole thing here [registration required]

For some time now I have been arguing that Dubya has been such an emormously transformative figure both at home and abroad that he will eventually rank as one of America's greatest presidents. It is good to see that others, including distinguished Harvard profs. hold similar opinions. Bush, like Lincoln, may not have envisioned at the start the possibilities and dangers that faced him, but like his great predecessor he has risen to the challenge and turned a punitive action into a war of liberation [although in both Lincoln's and Bush's early statements you can find hints that liberation was always lurking somewhere in their minds].

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