Facing an election year, a weary but determined president was blamed by Democrats for the human and financial costs of war. They accused him of violating civil libertiesandrunning roughshod over the Constitution. They said the military was inequitably composed of poor, urban Americans. They demanded an end to the war and a pullback of U.S. troops.
The governments of Europe flirted with the enemy. Advancing into the center of the hornet’s nest, the U.S. military was exposed to the risk of an insurgent resistance. A war that conventional wisdom predicted would be short and sweet had become long and bitter.
Former presidents had ignored the warning signs and left it to this president to confront the problem once and for all. Seeking legitimacy, the Democrats looked longingly to a disgruntled former four-star general as the best chance to unseat the sitting administration.
The coming election was a referendum on national resolve.
The year was 1864. The incumbent president was Abraham Lincoln. When the votes were tallied and the opposition defeated, the re-elected president had a mandate to see the war through to victory.
As he demonstrated in his speech to the nation on Sept. 7, President Bush is determined to confront the enemy with a “sustained and serious response,” which terrorists long presumed free nations were too “decadent and weak” to maintain. He understands that “the use of strength” deters aggression, whereas “the perception of weakness” invites it.
Like the antiwar Democrats of 1864, whom Lincoln labeled “Copperheads” due to their poisonous effect on morale, Mr. Bush’s political adversaries believe they can woo voters with the message that we should placate the enemy by leaving Iraq “before our work is done.”
Yet, as the electorate showed 140 years ago, American resolve is sturdier than either the enemy or the political opposition presumes. The Union followed and bled for Lincoln, because, as Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote about his boss, “The policy of the President and the course of [his] administration were based on substantial principles and convictions to which he firmly adhered.”
Lincoln’s example explains why Mr. Bush can be so sure that the America he leads will not shirk “the duties of our generation,” nor “run from a challenge.” The Union troops whom Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sent into the teeth of the enemy fortifications at Cold Harbor were so convinced of their morbid fate that they pinned pieces of paper with their names and addresses to the back of their uniforms. Yet amazingly, Grant’s men cheered him as he rode by, because they knew he would accept nothing short of victory.
The cost of ending slavery was more than 600,000 American lives. We hope and pray that eradicating terrorism will cost far less.
Mr. Bush, like Lincoln, perceives the gruesome reality that there can be no real peace without victory. After the voters elected him to a second term, Lincoln delivered an inaugural speech that is best known for its magnanimous spirit of reconciliation. However, a closer reading shows that Lincoln’s message was not mere forgiveness: It was military conquest, followed by forgiveness.
Lincoln emphasized the duty “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace,” a duty that entailed his insistence on total triumph and complete surrender. Then, and only then, would his generous vision of “malice toward none” and “charity for all” have a real chance of success.
Mr. Bush, too, is resigned to unflinchingly prosecute a war which he did not start, but is determined to finish. Once American resolve has defeated terrorism, American compassion will ensure it stays in the dustbin of history.
Thankfully Mr. Bush, unlike Lincoln, will achieve his vision without exiling the chief antiwar Democrat to the enemy. Sleep comfortably, Howard Dean.
Charles G. Kels is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.