by Richard Striner
How will historians eventually rate our incumbent president as a wartime commander? A comparison of George W. Bush and the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, is instructive.
Putting aside the issue of civil liberties in wartime —— an issue that people of good will could debate almost endlessly —— Lincoln was a very different kind of presidential strategist.
In the first place, Lincoln wanted massive and fully equipped armies to fight the Confederates. All through the war he told his generals to use their great superiority in numbers to the maximum advantage. In contrast, Bush seemed to give short shrift to all the warnings that the American troop levels in Iraq were insufficient.
Then there’s the matter of financial wherewithal. Lincoln asked Congress for the colossal sum of $400 million (in 1861 values) when the war began. Congress gave him more than he asked for. The Republicans created the first direct income tax in our history and raised even more federal revenue through the sale of bonds. As they financed the war, they invested simultaneously in infrastructure by supporting the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Money was no object for Lincoln: toward the end of the war he even flirted with the notion of assuring the ratification of the anti-slavery thirteenth amendment by paying all the slave states to ratify —— to the tune of an additional $400 million. Lincoln thought big and he was willing to spend enormous sums when the nation’s well-being seemed to warrant it. Bush, on the other hand, has stripped Uncle Sam of resources by advocating tax cuts right in the middle of a major war.
Then, there’s the issue of worst-case contingency planning. Lincoln usually chose to prepare for the worst: he liked to have some back-up plans up his sleeve since he never presumed that his strategies were perfect or foolproof. Though he fought aggressive war, he also urged his commanders to watch their backs and sides, lest the enemy turn the tables. In 1862 he wrote to General George McClellan as follows: "In case of disaster, would not a safe retreat be more difficult by your plan than by mine?" In 1864, he wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant as follows: "I am a little afraid lest Lee sends re-enforcements to [General Jubal] Early, and thus enables him to turn upon Sheridan."
Is it likely that Bush had any back-up plans in the event that his Iraq strategies should fail?
Lastly, there’s the matter of moral purpose and conscience: though Lincoln felt a righteous sense of justification, he consulted his conscience all the time. He took the ironies of his position quite seriously, and he felt himself humbled by the human cost of the war. Though it’s hard to tell from a distance, Bush displays little in the way of a conscience, except in matters of fundamentalist theology. Notwithstanding his pledge of humility at the Republican convention in 2000, he comes off as smug. Self-doubt seldom figures in his thinking, or so it would appear.
The spiritual convictions of Lincoln eventually led him to view the Civil War as a punishment inflicted on the North and South alike for their vainglorious pride. Bush, on the other hand, seems cocky when he chooses to invoke religious values in his politics.
In all, it’s a depressing comparison —— is it not? But only time will reveal the hidden record in regard to our incumbent.
Richard Striner is the author of Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery.