Winning the War on Terrorism
Angelo Codevilla, with Paul Seabury, wrote the best short introduction to war in recent years, War: Ends and Means. What Codevilla writes about contemporary conflict is always strongly—even explosively—worded, and in the end more persuasive than not. After September 11, Codevilla has serially lectured us on our half-hearted and at times counterproductive methods of waging war against terrorists and Middle Eastern regimes-hence the lament of his present essay, "Why We Don't Win" (Winter 2009/10). His pessimistic appraisal covers America's nearly decade-long, multifaceted counter-response to radical Islam: he argues that we did not achieve any of our aims in Iraq; that our therapeutic diplomacy has weakened us in relation to our enemies in the Middle East; and that nine years after 9/11, we have not improved to any measurable degree our homeland security.
Is Codevilla's pessimism overwrought? At first glance, many would certainly think so—after all, Americans have not been hit by another major attack comparable to 9/11. Although we immediately allowed the Baathist-led army to dissipate, watched wide-scale looting in Baghdad, pulled back from the first siege of Fallujah, and gave a reprieve to Moqtada Sadr, Iraq's consensual government survives against all odds. The country no longer translates its oil wealth into attacks against its neighbors. The recent election of the secularist Ayad Allawi suggests that Iraqis are more worried about religious fundamentalism than about candidates supposedly tainted with past American associations. An open Iraq may in the long run prove to be more destabilizing to Iran's paranoid theocrats than their legions of terrorists were to it. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda's grandees are still dying at a quick clip in American Predator drone attacks. And the popularity of both Osama bin Laden and his favored tactic of suicide bombing have dived in the Middle East's most recent opinion polls.
But to be fair to Codevilla, he is not talking about the ebb and flow of battle against radical Islam and its supporters and empathizers. Instead, as his title suggests, Codevilla is worried why there is still a war at all: why can't the most powerful nation in the history of arms once and for all crush its far weaker enemies? That is a good question inasmuch as bin Laden and Dr. Zawahiri, and their leadership, apparently survive—and survive in areas under the control of our own Middle East "allies." America worries more about whether radical anti-American Arab autocracies are fond of us, than Syria or Libya worries about a righteously angry United States. We contort to distance ourselves from a Western democratic Israel. The Taliban is resurgent. In 2009 there were more radical Islamic terrorist plots uncovered at home than in any year since 2001—as the efforts by Najibullah Zazi, Major Nidal Hasan, and the wannabe Christmas Day suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab all remind us.
To assess Codevilla's diagnosis, perhaps we can juxtapose his own accusations with developments that have transpired after his writ was composed. For example, Codevilla derides our politically-correct fears of offending radical Islam. Yet since he composed his essay, the Obama Administration has proscribed the term "Islamic extremism" altogether. Codevilla also notes that the administration and the media exaggerate right-wing domestic terrorism in politically-correct tit-for-tat fashion, in an effort to reassure Muslims that their radicals are no more dangerous than our own homegrown ones. Again, we have just witnessed a media hysteria over "right-wing violence" in the Tea Party movement—as though anyone trying to blow up Americans at 30,000 feet would be evoking Jesus Christ or Sarah Palin as the plane disintegrates.
Codevilla argues that our utopianism in the current war is merely the logical consequence of a long-standing American naïveté about the nature of war itself. That delusion is fueled in part by the fallacy that nuclear weapons somehow have changed conflict irrevocably by limiting war. Here, too, the dour Codevilla seems to have presaged President Obama's recent nuclear initiatives, which boil down to assuring would-be nuclear enemies that, We won't nuke you, even if you use biological or nerve agents against us, so why get a nuke at all?—as if such pre-nuclear appeasement won't whet a thug's appetite for even greater concessions to follow, when he really does get the bomb.
On the diplomatic front, Codevilla describes accurately a "speak loudly and carry a small stick" policy, the signature of what he calls "the ruling class." Again, note Barack Obama's four missed deadlines for the Iranian theocracy to quit weapons-grade production of enriched uranium-capped by the regime's denunciation of Obama's summit on non-proliferation. Codevilla's gripe about our efforts at stopping Iran is not over the policy choice of sanctions, bombing, or regime change, but over the degree to which we will pursue seriously any or all of the three.
In the end, Codevilla is not a "more rubble, less trouble" Dr. Strangelove, calling for Baghdad or Khandahar to end up like Grozny. His moral point can be distilled to a reluctance to ask our service people to fight wars that we do not plan to win—and a refusal to delude our citizenry that they are safe from their enemies. In his view, our elites accept a "logic that flows from the heights of American universities through the bureaucracies and the war colleges." In other words, we draw on our wealth and strength not to defeat enemies, but to delude ourselves into thinking we are immune from the rather nasty rules of war.
Yet in a democracy the people get the leaders they deserve, who reflect the values of their constituents. Codevilla begins by citing polls that may reflect American unhappiness with our on-again/off-again wars and even greater dissatisfaction with our government itself. Yet I doubt that such discontent necessarily translates into the sort of toughness Codevilla advocates—at least when the costs mount and the shrillness begins. So at least part of the problem lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. Nation-building—as we know from late republican Rome to 19th-century Britain to postwar America—is rightly an epiphenomenon, not a catalyst. An enemy should first be defeated, humiliated, and then, and only then, given magnanimous terms. Generosity of spirit and change in the attitude of the defeated improve the chances for a lasting peace—but both are predicated on the fact that the enemy is first materially and psychologically vanquished.
In recent years, we put the proverbial cart of nation-building before the horse of crushing an enemy, because in our opulent, therapeutic society we thought we could get away with it (and in small wars like Panama and Grenada sometimes did), and because we did not wish to feel that we had forsaken the world of reason and caring, in order to operate on bleak principles deeply embedded within our reptilian brains. Thus we do not give the Arab autocracies, the Islamic terrorists, or would-be nuclear Iran the sort of quiet ultimatums, backed by real action, that Codevilla would like: cease your anti-American aggression or face untold hurt and damage. The reason for our hesitancy is because we, the American people, would probably be uncomfortable with what that follow-through would entail.
From time to time, we get a glimpse of the public queasiness to which such unapologetic force leads: the monster Milosevic slowly morphing into a victim as the Clinton bombing became prolonged and occasionally sloppy; the American repugnance in late February 1991 at the televised "Highway of Death" when looters, thugs, and rapists were incinerated with their booty on the way home from rapine in Kuwait—and on their way to murder Shiite insurrectionists; or the collective furor at seeing American contractors hung on girders outside of Fallujah in spring 2004 quickly transmogrifing from a tough Marine response into outsourcing the problem to the Baathist "Fallujah Brigade."
In other words, had we waged a tougher war in Iraq, or in ruthless fashion played off one tribal thug against another in Afghanistan, or really cut off commerce with Iran, the American people might not have welcomed the fallout—especially as amplified and dissected by National Public Radio, Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. We deprecate these megaphones as the "elite" or "mainstream" press, but they reflect a postwar American self-regard at being singularly able to defeat enemies while being liked and thought fair by all in the process.
At times in our history enemies have disabused us of such pretensions, and it is to Codevilla's credit that he warns us that we need not periodically reacquaint ourselves with such ancient wisdom only through excruciating pain.
Victor Davis Hanson
I love Angelo Codevilla. Such strong, clear writing. Such challenging ideas. You're never in doubt about what he thinks or why he thinks it. His latest essay is a forceful and convincing indictment of an entire "ruling class" that, in his view, fails to understand the world as it really is, and has swallowed whole the crazy politically correct view that now dominates the media and the universities. If he is right, this is not a temporary failure of our governing and educating elites, but a chronic shortcoming of the entire system.
Codevilla neatly catches the surprising combination of fecklessness and self-proclaimed intellectual superiority of our current elites, leading them to caricature anyone who actually wants to defeat our enemies as some sort of Neanderthal. They send our troops into battle with poorly defined objectives and muddled strategy. Codevilla gives several examples of this self-inflicted confusion, ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq to Iran. He well captures the highly challenging rules of engagement under which our men and women fight, rules that sometimes seem to have been designed with greater concern for our enemies than for ourselves.
All these points are made vigorously and convincingly, but one is sometimes left wondering if things are quite as clear as Codevilla would have us believe. That life, even at the highest levels of government and society, is full of error and confusion should surprise no one. It is certainly true, as Codevilla says, that we went to war in Iraq with a very confused set of missions. But I don't think that confusion should be blamed entirely or even primarily on a misguided view of the world. It stemmed at least in equal part from the normal, ubiquitous problems of modern government, above all from bureaucratic conflict that led some of us in 2003 to remark that the State Department and the CIA were fighting harder against the Iraqi National Congress than against Saddam Hussein's evil regime.
Codevilla is very critical of the Bush Administration for failing to recognize that terrorism—including the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001—is primarily the responsibility of states: "the host of governments that espouse violent anti-American causes and that facilitate the individuals who actually do the killing." He says that our leaders rejected this view, but in fact President Bush said precisely what Codevilla says, namely that we had been attacked by, and were therefore at war with, a series of terrorist organizations supported by a series of states. And he announced that we would not distinguish between them. We would attack the terrorists and we would attack state sponsors of terror.
I think Codevilla is being a bit unfair when he asks "what was the problem that overthrowing Saddam's regime was supposed to fix?" At the time, I thought that Iraq was to be one battle in the war against the terror masters, and that we knew that we were at war with Iran as well. As I wrote back then, Iran and Syria could see their doom and were compelled to confront us in Iraq.
There are times when Codevilla seems to fall for the notion that Sunnis and Shia are everywhere and forever locked in mortal combat. He suggests, for example, that during the Iraq war we might have "demanded that Iran stop sponsoring Hezbollah lest perhaps the U.S. Expeditionary force...add Iran's Kurdish zones to the new Kurdistan." Good luck with that one! Hezbollah, created 20 years earlier, is the spinal cord for Iran's foreign operations, and its sacrifice would be a mortal blow to the country's messianic ambitions.
I have other quibbles, but the importance of Codevilla's superb essay lies in its central thesis: the corruption of the American ruling class. If he is right, if the elites coming out of American universities understand neither the workings of the real world nor the kind of action we must conduct in order to survive, then we are in a real jam.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
"Why We Don't Win" is a tour de force. Angelo Codevilla's elegantly controlled rage against inside-the-Beltway foolishness captures the tragedy of U.S. policy toward the Middle East and Islam over the past decade. It clarifies my own thinking on these matters.
I regret that the article has not prompted the widespread attention and debate it deserves. Disaster, presumably, must strike before this profound voice will receive its rightful hearing.
The Middle East Forum
Angelo M. Codevilla replies:
My friend Michael Ledeen's colloquial language sometimes makes the reader work to grasp what he means. Always, it is worth the effort. Ledeen writes:
[Codevilla] suggests, for example, that during the Iraq war we might have "demanded that Iran stop sponsoring Hezbollah lest perhaps the U.S. Expeditionary force...add Iran's Kurdish zones to the new Kurdistan." Good luck with that one! Hezbollah, created 20 years earlier, is the spinal cord for Iran's foreign operations, and its sacrifice would be a mortal blow to the country's messianic ambitions.
Does he mean that the U.S. government was correct in not taking advantage of its massive force in Iraq to exact from Iran such concessions as would cripple its capacity to hurt us? Especially right after April 2003, American forces in Iraq were capable of doing a lot more to the Iranian regime than just depriving it of dominion over Kurds—which we might well have done for its own sake. How much pain and risk of death was the regime willing to endure for the sake of Hezbollah? How much was it willing to lose on behalf of its nuclear program—in a fight every round of which it would have lost worse than the previous one? We will never know because, as I wrote, our foreign policy establishment does not wield sticks any more seriously than it does carrots. It is truer now of our best and brightest than when Charles DeGaulle said it in 1963: "Ils ne sont pas serieux." They are not serious. Ledeen offers evidence for this when he writes:
in fact President Bush said precisely what Codevilla says, namely that we had been attacked by, and were therefore at war with, a series of terrorist organizations supported by a series of states. And he announced that we would not distinguish between them. We would attack the terrorists and we would attack state sponsors of terror.
Indeed he said it perfectly, eloquently, on September 20, 2001. But then he acted otherwise. Ledeen writes that he expected the Bush Administration to overawe Iran and Syria or to fight them, and was surprised when it turned the "war" into attempts at nation-building. What surprise? The default mode of our best and brightest has been to make grandiose statements about fighting America's enemies and then settle down to tinkering with foreign politics: in Saigon overthrowing Diem, in Baghdad stifling the Iraqi National Congress, and in Afghanistan playing puppet games while all sorts of people get shot for no good reason.
Ledeen does not believe that this failure "should be blamed entirely or even primarily on a misguided view of the world. It stemmed at least in equal part from the normal, ubiquitous problems of modern government, above all from bureaucratic conflict." Certainly conflict among officials is ubiquitous. But what leads me to believe—correct me if I am mistaken—that most of those who lead our agencies and write for their teleprompters "understand neither the workings of the real world nor the kind of action we must conduct in order to survive" is that the alternatives over which they fight have not been all that different. Theirs are the failures of a remarkably homogeneous, bipartisan leadership class.
Daniel Pipes raises the question: must disaster strike before the country realizes that our foreign policy amounts to "inside-the-Beltway foolishness"? Alas, disaster did strike on 9/11. And the country (minus its Jeremiah Wrights) did rise and give the government all the powers to fix the problem for which it asked. But since the problem lies in the government rather than in the country....
Or does it? Victor Hanson suggests the contrary: "in a democracy the people get the leaders they deserve, who reflect the values of their constituents." He gives that most terminal of diagnoses after having termed my dissection of incompetence at the highest levels—which is curable—as "pessimistic" and "dour." He notes, as I do, that events are rapidly removing doubt about the incompetence of those in charge of our foreign policy. But he suggests that the American people might not be willing to support a competent one: "at least part of the problem lies not in our stars, but in ourselves." I think the people's failings are small in comparison with those of our ruling class.
Although it is true, as Hanson writes, that we Americans vaunt ourselves as "singularly able to defeat enemies while being liked and thought fair by all in the process," few outside the ruling class share its passion for "nation-building." Americans are famously compassionate to defeated enemies. But only our highly credentialed leaders "put the cart of nation-building ahead of the horse of crushing an enemy." Moreover, since immigrants do not come to America to rule the world, the American body politic has no imperialist bones.
On the other hand, polls at each stage of our post-World War II conflicts have shown the American people far more favorable to energetic, effective action against our enemies than was the government at the time. For example, Henry Kissinger acknowledged that "hawks" outnumbered "doves" at each stage of his concessions to North Vietnam. In 1991, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and others decided not to destroy Iraq's Republican Guard and to keep Saddam in power. If public opinion had ruled, Hanoi would have been bombed seriously, or flooded and/or invaded, and Saddam would have been gone. The American people very much want to trust that the blood and treasure we give to our government in such conflicts is being used fruitfully. Yet few hold our leaders accountable for each success or failure—as happened when the military draft involved most of society. Though a majority of Americans have sensed that our government and the prestigious institutions arrayed around it are wrongheaded, few want to contemplate what it means to be led by incompetents.
Hanson's point, however, is deeper. He writes that the reason why our ruling class has involved us in war without following such "nasty rules of war" as "stop this, or else" and then following up, is that "we, the American people, would probably be uncomfortable with what that follow-through would entail." I submit that we do not know that. Years ago, while I was wielding some budget power over the intelligence agencies and Department of Defense and part of the Washington policy mill, any number of officials would object to a suggestion of mine with something like: "makes a lot of sense, but the American people wouldn't support that." I would answer: "Why not ask? It's their interests and their lives. What right have you or I to prejudge and therefore preclude their choices? Why not submit to the Congress realistic arguments about what each course of action would entail?"
Hanson argues that
had we waged tougher war in Iraq, or in ruthless fashion played off one tribal thug against another in Afghanistan, or really cut off commerce with Iran, the American people might not have welcomed the fallout—especially as amplified and dissected by National Public Radio, Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post
and cites "the collective furor at seeing American contractors hung on girders outside of Fallujah in spring 2004 quickly transmogrifing from a tough Marine response into outsourcing the problem to the laughable Baathist ‘Fallujah Brigade'" as evidence that no-nonsense foreign policy would engender "queasiness" among Americans, ending in nonsense anyway. But that is not what happened. I ask, whose furor, whose queasiness? The polls would not have answered the question "What should we do about Sunni insurgents who torture-murdered Americans?" with "Turn over the city to them." Rather, many within the National Security Council staff, State Department, and especially CIA—and a few in the Army, including General David Petraeus—had been arguing precisely that we could turn Sunni insurgents into allies by conceding to them control of certain territory, plus other incentives, in exchange for cooperation. We saw the results.
Once upon a time, in Athens' Pnyx, the men who wielded shield and spear would sit to debate whether and how to use them. Their decisions were not always good. But they were responsible. America's founders, famous for splitting powers among branches and sovereignties, confided the war power to Congress alone. That power long since passed to the agencies that advise the president formally, and to select media and think tanks to which the agencies look to ratify their own legitimacy. These deciders have less and less in common—socially and religiously—with those who fight. This might matter less had their decisions brought victory, peace, and many good things. But they have brought the opposite.
I did not and do not mean to argue that the American people are the infallible, incorruptible source of wisdom. The highly placed persons who have contributed or not objected seriously to America's downward spiral have some active support among the general population and have enjoyed the majority's presumption that they would do more or less the right thing. But they have forfeited it. Reacting to their own failures, they have been more dismissive than ever of outside views. A turnover of leadership in our leading institutions must come, either sooner by force of argument or later, forced by events. I join with Hanson in hoping that reason will prevail, soon.
* * *
Lincoln as One of Us
Allen Guelzo is a superb historian and an accomplished Lincoln scholar. His review-essay "The Bicentennial Lincolns" (Winter 2009/10) reminds us to remember Abraham Lincoln's "historical remoteness," to curb our endless yearning to draw Lincoln into our own times and make him speak to, for, and about us, rather than about the 1850s and 1860s. Many writers over the years have issued the same warnings, and the Lincoln publishing industry as well as commercial uses of the man in the stove-pipe hat in advertising and popular culture, surge unabated. And yes, of course, as Guelzo contends, the recent "tsunami" of Lincoln books is, in part, the result of "simple literary opportunism." That is not news.
But Professor Guelzo is angry; he believes conservative scholarship has been shunted aside by recent work, much of which "reeks" of a "Left imperialism" determined to appropriate Lincoln for modern liberal causes, "in much the same spirit that a spoiled child lays claim to another child's toy." Guelzo's ascerbic wit is entertaining, and sometimes accurate. But the essay also reeks of ironies about which Guelzo seems unaware.
Among the thousands of pages in all the books Guelzo reviews, he singles out one essay of mine in Eric Foner's collection Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World. The piece, "The Theft of Lincoln in Scholarship, Politics and Public Memory," actually agrees with one of Guelzo's general complaints—that Lincoln is constantly lifted from his own contexts and made into a "usable historical commodity." I spend some pages demonstrating how this has emerged in our political culture and journalism on the left and the right. But two elements of my piece have made Guelzo dyspeptic and apparently unable to acknowledge the essay's argument.
He claims my essay is the "most uncloaked" example of "left-wing holy-rolling." With phrasing like that who wouldn't eagerly read on? Misreading the point of my piece, Guelzo claims that I doubt "whether Lincoln deserves much credit as the Emancipator" and that I pledge myself to the "self-emancipation thesis." I harbor no such "doubts" and have made no such "pledges." I did take issue with Guelzo's own published contempt for even the suggestion that some slaves—several hundred thousand—did, through their own volition, bravery, and cunning contribute to their own liberation. The evidence for this is massive in the many volumes of the Documentary History of Emancipation. And Professor Guelzo may want to glance at my recent book, A Slave No More, in which I publish the personal narratives and reconstruct the stories of two former slaves, John Washington and Wallace Turnage, who without doubt fashioned their own freedom, as they benefited from both Lincoln's Proclamation and compassionate Union officers. In that book I also make clear that Lincoln, as well as the Union army and navy, were absolutely crucial to how, when, and where emancipation happened and why it endured. The only pledges any of us should make are to the evidence. Who freed the slaves, Lincoln or the slaves themselves? The answer has been in plain sight for a very long time—both. And Guelzo is uninformed about the longevity of these arguments; they long pre-date Ken Burns's 1990 film series.
The other issue that troubles Guelzo, and the main point of my essay, is that I document the scurrilous, deceptive, sometimes frankly racist misuses of the "party of Lincoln" rhetoric by the contemporary Republican Party in its failed recent efforts to appeal to African-American voters. If Lincoln has been a "toy" or a "commodity" ripped out of his context as Guelzo contends, he has been so to no one more than conservative Republicans who cannot stop invoking his name and reputation as they increasingly despise the "big government" that he created. Lincoln was an "emancipator," and he really believed in activist government; the problem is that modern Republicans have hardly been the emancipators of their era and they do not believe in government.
Guelzo lampoons my demonstration of the laughable efforts by the George W. Bush Administration and the Republican National Committee under Ken Mehlman to reach out to blacks in 2004-06 with ridiculous, ahistorical propaganda claiming, among other haymakers, that the Republican Party has throughout its existence been "the mightiest force for individual liberty in the history of the world" (from the RNC's "Freedom Calendar" of 2005). Lincoln in the Second Inaugural and John Bingham in writing the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, perhaps. But from 1964 to 2010? Please! Instead of mocking my critique of Bush-era Republicans, saying that I believe they wear Lincoln as a "Halloween disguise" when appealing to blacks (good line, wish I'd used it!), he might have attempted some defense of why Bush and Mehlman had to go before the NAACP in 2006 and openly apologize for the "Southern strategy," for "trying to benefit politically from racial polarization" that they themselves had caused (Mehlman's words), and for writing "off the African-American vote" (Bush's words). Or, he might attempt some explanation for why not a single black Republican sits today in the U.S. Congress. Guelzo avoided addressing that part of my essay. Legitimately, that may not be his responsibility as a historian. But someone from within the Republican ranks needs to fashion an honest explanation for why the "party of Lincoln" has become the White American Party, adorning itself with tea bags, guns, anti-intellectualism, racist anti-Obama posters, "Confederate History Month," and militant libertarians who hate the central government Lincoln preserved and re-imagined.
David W. Blight
New Haven, CT
Allen Guelzo performs a Herculean task in reviewing the copious scholarship accompanying the Lincoln bicentennial. He is quite right in lamenting how much of this scholarship continues a long history of reimagining Lincoln as "one of us" for the purpose of flattering ideological dogmas. That historians of the New Left are undertaking many of these efforts, however, may not be cause for complete despair.
It is true, as Guelzo aptly demonstrates, that many of these histories of Lincoln are slapdash and seem more concerned with exploiting our 16th president than with trying to understand him. But it is ironic that the New Left is emphasizing "Great Men" in their histories at all. For decades, these writers have devalued the historical emphasis on particular human beings in favor of narratives that concentrate on the "currents" of history (the great "isms") or the influence of groups and social movements. The New Left's continuing infatuation with Abraham Lincoln betrays a grudging awareness of the importance of statesmanship in American history. It means, too, that the growing body of excellent scholarship on Lincoln's statesmanship—much of which Guelzo himself has contributed—cannot be ignored.
Eric C. Sands
I have read with great interest Allen Guelzo's survey of "The Bicentennial Lincolns," amounting in all to 24 books. Most extensive is his discussion of Michael Burlingame's Abraham Lincoln: A Life. Burlingame exceeds all previous biographies in the depth and comprehensiveness of his research, the exhaustiveness of which always enhances our interest and does not clog the story.
Notwithstanding his ungrudging praise, Guelzo notes that
It is clear that the Lincoln who matters most to Burlingame is the psychological Lincoln, the Lincoln who rises from mental loss and humiliation as a young man, who suffers from what we would call "spousal abuse"...and who bears the sorrows of a bleeding nation through four years of war without losing his balance or resiliency.
What is missing from Burlingame—in fact what seems to have taken French leave from almost all the Lincoln bicentennial books—is the political Lincoln. Not the politically corrected Lincoln...but the political Lincoln as he himself knew and understood politics.
This is as close as Guelzo comes to Leo Strauss's irrefutable and indispensable (as it seems to me) maxim, that it is our task to understand the thinkers of the past as they understood themselves before trying to understand them differently or better. That is to say, before characterizing something as wise or foolish one must be able to say what it was in the mind one is studying.
In Lincoln's case, this is made easier by his numerous statements of what he believed and why. Foremost among these statements is of course the Gettysburg Address, and the dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal. Familiarity with Lincoln's writings, particularly from 1854, shows that what is expressed in the Gettysburg Address is no isolated event, but is a culminating event. In 1859 he said that "the principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society." And he praised Jefferson for introducing "into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times." In Independence Hall in February 1861 he said that he had "never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence."
Jefferson was not an authority for Whig doctrine. I am surprised therefore at Guelzo's identification of Lincoln's principles with his commitment to Whig policies, and Guelzo's silence concerning the Declaration of Independence. There is no dispute as to the unvarying firmness of Lincoln's support for the Whig program for banks, tariffs, and internal improvements. These policies moreover had greater success during Lincoln's presidency, when the Whigs had transmigrated into Republicans, than in the days of Whig ascendancy. But Lincoln's principles, properly so called, transcend party distinctions, even when they were adopted by a party, as they were by the Republicans in 1856 and 1860 (but not since then).
Harry V. Jaffa
In his spirited essay, "The Bicentennial Lincolns," Allen Guelzo concludes that the greatness of Lincoln "will rest on how much genuine credit (and not just notional assent) we still give his politics as the embodiment of natural laws written onto the hard disk of human nature and transcending the circumstances of his times." Taking Lincoln to heart by asking what he would do under a given set of circumstances—making him "one of us" as Guelzo puts it—might seem a reasonable thing to do. But Guelzo frowns on this response to what he calls the problem of Lincoln's "historical remoteness" as "popular but insincere" and not intellectually serious. Richard Hofstadter avoided this danger, Guelzo notes, by asserting that Lincoln was wrong on the big political questions of his day, as though Hofstadter not only understood Lincoln but also knew what the right thing to do was in the situations he faced.
By stating that Hofstadter "had no illusion that he could rewrite or erase the politics and still have the man," Guelzo overestimates the famous historian's intellectual probity. By contrast, Guelzo is hard on today's progressive historians, who condescend to praise Lincoln's "splendid inconsistency" and his capacity for "change, growth, and contradiction," as seen in his adoption of military emancipation when forced to do so by the slaves' self-emancipation. Latter-day progressives treat Lincoln as "one of us" by making him out to be a "modern-day soft Progressive." Yet Hofstadter similarly conformed to a progressive standard in his sympathy for the South and failure to understand Lincoln's dedication to the principle of national union.
Although Lincoln took his creed from the Declaration of Independence, Hofstadter argued that "in the end it was the Declaration that he could not make a consistent part of his living work." Quoting Lincoln's 1848 assertion of the right to revolution, Hofstadter wrote that Lincoln "suppressed secession and refused to acknowledge that the right of revolution he had so boldly accepted belonged to the South." According to Hofstadter, in defending the federal government's authority to maintain the Union "Lincoln inverted the main issue of the war to suit his purpose. What the North was waging, of course, was a war to save the Union by denying self-determination to the majority of Southern whites." With suitable condescension, Hofstadter (quoting historian Kenneth Stampp) observed that "the burden [of responsibility] rested not on Lincoln alone, but on the universal standards of statesmanship and on the whole concept of ‘national interest.'"
Implicit in the Whig principles of political economy that shaped Lincoln's political character was the determination of a new Republican Party to preserve America's constitutional Union. By recognizing that secession was unjustified rebellion, Lincoln reversed the course of national disintegration promoted by popular sovereignty (both in its Northern Democrat and Southern secessionist forms) and ultimately ensured citizenship for black Americans because it was implicit in the meaning of republican self-government and intrinsically related to the nature of the Union and American national identity. Progressives from Richard Hofstadter to today's multiculturalists still fail to understand these facts.
Allen Guelzo's wide-ranging analysis of recent books on Lincoln reminds us that Lincoln's words (and sometimes the words of witnesses and friends) often make claims upon interpreters who assume that the march of history trumps the primary textual record. To ignore those claims is to ignore history, just as a disregard for historical context often injures an interpreter's ability to read a text closely and well.
Guelzo usefully identifies a number of misguided approaches to the textual and historical records, which seem especially malleable in Lincoln's case. My concern is that what Guelzo offers as an alternative to bogus readings of Lincoln—the recognition of Lincoln's Whig roots and their symbiotic relation to his "embodiment of natural laws written onto the hard disk of human nature"—does not go far enough to describe even the Lincoln of antebellum times.
The Whig legacy in Lincoln's politics has a particularly problematic dimension documented in the primary texts, one that seems to have no connection, or even allowance for, natural law. Lincoln's support of the Michigan Canal project while the Illinois state government faced bankruptcy led to his proposal that news bonds be floated to pay the interest on the old. For a Whig who believed that "money is only valuable in circulation," the idea was not strange, though Lincoln says he reached that conclusion after much thought as a last resort. In the Sangamo Journal's paraphrase of his speech on the bonds, he said he "believed it would have the effect to raise our other bonds in market" and that "[i]f our increasing means would justify us in deferring to a future time the resort to taxation, then we had better pay compound interest, than resort to taxation now." The debt was so large, he said, there was no way for taxes to pay it—until and if the galloping increase of the state's population supplied the taxpayers.
History records that the canal was successfully refinanced five years later, after the virtual ruination of the project in 1840. It became an engine for the state's economy. But what are we to make of Lincoln's apparently relativistic attitude toward the currency, and his eventual application of such notions of finance to immense wartime expenditures covered by the printing of greenbacks? Where is natural law in this extreme version of capitalism: the almost purely engineered generation of species from species, in anticipation of winning the confidence of newly-arrived citizens willing to pay the bill? If this Whiggish philosophy in any way allows for the flourishing of natural enterprise and the belief in transcendent qualities embodied in human nature, as Guelzo claims, we will have to look to Lincoln's other works for an explanation. What Guelzo has identified as a double strain in Lincoln's Whiggism—support for public works and reliance upon the individual enterprise of the natural man—leaves us with a most perplexing paradox.
In order to judge such apparent inconsistencies, we must return to the written works as a whole. Guelzo rightly directs our attention to Lincoln's remarkably dedicated reading in 18th-century political economy, which drew him into various considerations of the mixture of statecraft and soulcraft. Lincoln's view of natural law is not bounded by Darwinian thought, or even by the Declaration's Jeffersonian axioms. His politics are influenced by his psychological dimensions, especially a soul-moving power of persuasion that seems to be connected to his sense of who he is and what we are and might be, for better and for worse. We do not have much access to these things, beyond a certain point, in the study of history without turning to Lincoln's written work.
John C. Briggs
University of California, Riverside
When it comes to Abraham Lincoln, I normally and prudently defer to my friend Allen Guelzo, who, like Harry Jaffa, has forgotten more about the 16th president than most people will ever know. But I must take issue with him on the topic of Lincoln as war president.
Guelzo argues that the dominant military doctrine of the time, shaped by the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte, saw victory in war as the result of a war-winning, decisive battle of annihilation along the lines of the emperor's defeat of the Third Coalition at Austerlitz in 1805 and the of Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806. He contends that such decisive battles were impossible by the 1850s because of the size of field armies, and that therefore Lincoln's directive to his generals to focus on defeating the Rebel armies was "almost the worst advice a commander-in-chief could have given in the 19th century." Guelzo asserts that the proper focus instead should have been on destroying the Confederate logistical system.
This assessment is flawed in a number of ways. First, it was impossible to get at the Confederacy's logistical infrastructure without first defeating the Rebel field armies. It is true, as Guelzo claims, that it was the capture of Chattanooga and Atlanta that wrecked the Confederacy's war-making capacity, but to capture those places required Grant and Sherman to first fix and defeat the Confederate Army of Tennessee that barred the way to those cities.
The bloody Union victory at Shiloh was not decisive, but it led to the capture of the important rail junction at Corinth, Mississippi. Neither were the Union victories at Perryville and Murfreesboro, but they were the necessary precursors to the capture of Chattanooga, which allowed the Union to penetrate the Appalachian barrier and open the way to Atlanta.
Second, the real problem of Union generals early in the way was not that they operated under the spell of Bonaparte, but under the spell of Baron Antoine Henri Jomini, the renowned military theorist, from whom they learned that the purpose of a campaign was to maneuver an opponent out of position without actually fighting him. This was the true curse of those steeped in the military theory of the day, especially McClelland, Buell, and Halleck, who did seek to destroy the Confederacy's logistical infrastructure while avoiding battle.
Third, there were decisive victories in the mid-19th century: the Prussians over the Austrians at Konnigratz-Sadowa in 1866 and over the French at Sedan in 1870. In addition, there were two "near misses" by the Confederacy that could well have changed the outcome of the war: Bragg's Army of Tennessee came close to annihilating Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland at Chickamauga and Lee came astoundingly close to victory on the second day at Gettysburg.
In my 2009 monograph on the topic of Lincoln as war president, Abraham Lincoln: Democratic Statesmanship in War, I claimed that Lincoln intuitively understood war in a Clausewitzian sense and that part of this understanding was that the field armies of the Confederacy constituted the "center of gravity" for the Union effort. Although there were no decisive battles of annihilation, even the war of attrition that the Civil War became required the Union to defeat Confederate field armies.
Mackubin Thomas Owens
U.S. Naval War College
Allen C. Guelzo replies:
To have so many distinguished members of the Lincoln fraternity take so much trouble to comment on my mere review is, in a backhanded sort of way, the occasion for some mild swelling of the head, and not only because the comments were not, by and large, the howls of injury which are so often sent in pursuit of an offending review.
The inimitable Harry Jaffa chides me for not having anchored Lincoln more securely to the Declaration of Independence. I don't think I entirely neglected to make that connection, at least once. But knowing how dear that connection is to our "Harry of the West," I expect that if I'd made it twice he would have asked why I hadn't said it three times, and so on, ad infinitum. So let me say here that, yes, I do believe the Declaration was the central article of Lincoln's political faith, and will be honored to write that a hundred times on the blackboard as an atonement.
Eric Sands believes that the upside of the Left's suddenly discovered passion for claiming Lincoln as "ours" (as in Eric Foner's Our Lincoln) is the implicit acknowledgement such a passion contains of Lincoln's greatness, and through that, of the importance of statesmanship. This is an interesting and worthwhile way of looking at it; I fear only that Professor Sands is too optimistic. The Left's newly-embraced adoration of Lincoln as one of their own is, like all historical annexation, concerned less with history and more with advantageous manipulation (and here I must agree with David Blight). Likewise, I am not sure that Lincoln's practice of statesmanship, in an executive office consisting of four or five staffers and a federal budget topping out at only $1.2 billion, is going to offer anyone today, whether on the Left or the Right, much more in the way of useful instruction in statesmanship than Giotto could in painting to the Museum of Modern Art.
In something of the same spirit of Prof. Jaffa, Herman Belz wishes I had kicked Richard Hofstadter a little harder. But Belz may have failed to see in my faint praise of Hofstadter how very gleefully I've actually damned him. I applaud Hofstadter for having avoided trivializing or annexing Lincoln—not because I think Hofstadter had rightly perceived Lincoln's irrelevance or Lincoln's failure to embrace the Declaration—but precisely because Hofstadter understood quite clearly that Lincoln was far from irrelevant and that he had embraced the Declaration. Lincoln had simply accomplished this in ways Hofstadter feared and deplored. Hofstadter took Lincoln with deadly seriousness, first because he discerned in Lincoln the most powerful antidote imaginable to Hofstadter's own un-regretted Stalinism, and then because he realized that Lincoln could not be annexed to the Left, and so, at least in historical reputation, had to be repudiated. As such, Hofstadter shares common ground with that other clear-eyed critic of Lincoln, J.W. Booth, who shared more than a little common ground with Hofstadter on the subject of the 16th president, although with more lamentable results.
Professor Briggs (whom, by the way, I should lose no opportunity of praising for one of the best books ever written on the subject of Lincoln as a writer) was puzzled by my connection of Lincoln and natural law, mostly because he finds so little in Lincoln's "relativistic attitude" toward banking, currency, and extreme capitalism which seems rooted in any law except that of self-aggrandizement. This raises a caution which I have ever had to keep before me—remembering that Lincoln is a lawyer and a politician, not a philosopher, that (as Herndon said) politics was his heaven and metaphysics his Hades. Lincoln suffered under none of that impulse which governs his academic biographers, to connect every dot and align every gesture. He could, on the one hand, insist that all human actions were motivated by self-interest; but on the other, condemn those who wanted to tear up the Declaration of Independence and reduce any question about the morality of trafficking of human flesh purely to considerations of profit-and-loss.
Ultimately, however, I believe that Lincoln's purpose in promoting Whig capitalism was not self-interest per se, but capitalism's necessary connection to equality, self-transformation, and social mobility, which were Lincoln's real goals. The essence of a free society, Lincoln said in 1859 (and here he was pirating J.S. Mill's Principles of Political Economy), was the openness it afforded to each of its citizens to make of themselves whatever they could, without the handicap of artificial inequalities based on status, nationality, or race. One could not do this in an economic environment governed by status, racial stratification, or centralized planning. Lincoln loved the Declaration's affirmation of all men's natural equality; but that equality would be meaningless without the unfettered opportunity to use it for something. If a national bank, tariffs, and "international improvements" promoted these opportunities, then they really were serving the interests of the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
If Briggs is worried that I have not made Lincoln enough of a moralist, my friend Mack Owens is worried that I have not made Lincoln enough of a strategist. And, indeed, because nothing succeeds like success, it does seem counterintuitive to assert that the commander-in-chief of the victorious federal armies did not understand what he was about. But in a strictly military sense, the North won the war in spite of Lincoln—or rather, it won in spite of the prevailing Napoleonic hangover afflicting so many amateur American strategists who really did expect a Jena or an Austerlitz, and who lapsed into stab-in-the-back theories to explain why these didn't emerge from 19th-century warfare. Contra Prof. Owens, the logistical dimensions of the post-Napoleonic armies were exactly what made battles of annihilation so elusive, and why campaigns increasingly turned from the clash of armies to the slitting of supply throats. The Crimean War was the first great warning of this development, when despite Allied victories at the Alma, Balaklava, and Inkerman, the Allies nearly perished on the vine in front of Sevastopol. And I have to say that neither Königgratz nor Sedan were really victories of annihilation. Not only did Benedek and most of the Army of the North survive to fight another day, but the Austrians had another entire field army—the Army of the South—fresh from victory at Custozza, to assist them. And Sedan may have wiped out an entire French field army (with the hapless Napoleon III thrown in as a prize), but the Franco-Prussian War dragged on into another year after Sedan, largely because Paris had to be reduced by siege before the war could end.
For Lincoln to imagine that George McClellan was holding back from winning a single-shot, decisive victory on the Peninsula or at Antietam simply because he had ulterior political motives was naïve at best; but pushing Burnside, Hooker, and Meade to attempt the same thing was lethal at worst. It was not until the advent of Ulysses Grant in 1864 that Lincoln (as he himself admitted) stopped trying to micro-manage the war in Virginia; and Grant, of course, succeeded only after he transferred his operations to the James River and began essentially the same siege of Richmond that McClellan had proposed two years earlier.
In truth, I have been no more than jousting in a friendly way with Messrs. Jaffa, Sands, Belz, Briggs, and Owens, their disagreements being more matters of shape rather than substance. The same cannot be said of David Blight, whose objections to my dismissal of Foner's Our Lincoln anthology in general, and Blight's contribution to it in particular, come down to the commission of two imaginary crimes.
Professor Blight objects to my "contempt" for the "self-emancipation" thesis, first because I ignore the evidence for it, then because I misconstrue his embrace of it, and finally because I am mistaken about its origins. Vincent Harding, in 1981, may be regarded as a precursor of the "self-emancipation thesis," but Barbara J. Fields gave it common currency through Ken Burns's Civil War series; it certainly shows up no earlier than that in Blight's work. However we date it, the essence of the thesis is that the slaves really emancipated themselves—by running away, by joining Union armies, and not "from words on paper, either the words of Congress or those of the President." Its real purpose, I suspect, is to enhance "black agency," by removing from the consciousness of modern African-Americans any sense of debt owed to white Union soldiers, a white president, or white people in general. It is Stokely Carmichael manqué, and its chief virtue is the cultivation of racial self-esteem.
Like many self-esteem projects, however, it tends to function in a vacuum of evidence. No one has ever determined how many slaves took the occasion of the outbreak of the Civil War to leave their masters; the creation of a freedmens' bureau and freedmens' camps did not begin until 1862, and even then tallies of the numbers of so-called "contrabands" were infrequent and far from comprehensive. At the end of the war, William H. Seward guessed—and did no more than guess—that maybe 200,000 slaves had made their way to freedom on their own; but that would amount to no more than 5% of the enslaved population. Blight triumphantly points to two fugitive slave narratives he has recently edited and published as though they were the clinch of the "self-emancipation thesis"—without entirely realizing that two is an even more meager estimate than Seward's. The freedmen who appeared before the 38th Congress's Joint Committee on Reconstruction in 1866 testified that they were freed "when the proclamation was issued," that "under the Proclamation of the President of the United States, I consider myself a Free Man," and that "I have been a slave from my childhood up to the time I was set free by the emancipation proclamation." Reading this kind of testimony about the importance of the Proclamation from the mouths of freed slaves is the sort of thing which impresses the proponents of the "self-emancipation thesis" so greatly that they are liable to give up reading altogether.
But what Blight misses, and much more substantially, is that even if 50% or 90% of the slaves had fled freedomward, this would only have made them free in a de facto sense; like an escapee from a prison, they might be at large, but they would actually be only fugitives, and liable at any moment to rendition. What transformed simple fugitives—or any slave, for that matter—into free men was a de jure transformation out of slavery. That could have come in 1862 only through a presidential "war powers" proclamation, a constitutional amendment, or by state legislative action. Lincoln pled for the last of these and didn't get it; the second could not be cajoled out of the 37th Congress; so Lincoln resorted to the proclamation. But that was the key. The Emancipation Proclamation changed the slaves' legal standing at one massive, liberty-making stroke, and that was what made for freedom. The answer, then, to the question of who freed the slaves is not the slaves, and not even (as Blight tries to temporize) both the slaves and Lincoln. It was Lincoln's task—and Lincoln did it. This may not work to promote anyone else's self-esteem, but it did wonders for providing freedom.
My second "crime" and the problem which really seems to bring the froth to Blight's lips, is my disenchantment with the turn his essay took toward damning modern-day Republicans for draping themselves in Lincoln's mantle when they have, by his reckoning, plumbed the depths of the "scurrilous, deceptive and sometimes frankly racist" in their "faded efforts to appeal to African-American voters." Lincoln, we should know, was really a believer in "activist government," while modern Republicans "have hardly been the emancipators of their era." Perhaps Blight can explain why an appeal to African-American voters is "racist" (as opposed to, say, ignoring or excluding them), or by what inattention these scurrilously racist Republicans installed the first African-American secretary of state and national security advisor, appointed a black Supreme Court justice, elected the first black U.S. senator since Reconstruction, and sent the troops into Little Rock. Perhaps Blight does not believe that these were real black people, but were instead like Cinderella's frogs, masquerading as sprightly coachmen. The difficulty is that he offers no reason why I should not regard his dismissal of the "faded effort" of Mehlman, Rove, et al. as "ridiculous, ahistorical propaganda" as itself a piece of ridiculous, ahistorical propaganda. Blight certainly has the right to rant; but not the privilege to claim that one can rant and do history at the same time. Yes, I did pull short of belaboring "that part" of his essay because, indeed, I did not see this as my "responsibility as a historian." But one of us had to.