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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Frederick Chiaventone

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Frederick Chiaventone

Last Build Date: Wed, 31 Jan 2007 08:25:05 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

War and Presidential Popularity

Wed, 31 Jan 2007 08:25:05 -0600

Several years before Kennedy's Administration, Harry Truman found himself embroiled in the first of many post-World War II conflicts as the United States struggled to rescue South Korea from an unprovoked assault by hordes of North Korean and later Chinese troops. A confused, nasty slugfest resulted that cost over 54,00 American lives by the time an uneasy cease-fire was signed in Panmunjon. By then, Truman's approval rating had slipped to 22% (lower even than President Bush's most recent polling figures) and his hopes for re-election had ended with his defeat in the New Hampshire primary.

Truman's predecessor in the White House, the inimitable Franklin Roosevelt, alone among what could be termed War Presidents, seems to have avoided the excoriation of a disenchanted press and public. Despite his election to the Presidency for an unprecedented four terms, and despite America's twin trials of the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt seems to have escaped the harsher judgments of the opinion pollsters (perhaps owing to the fact that the Gallup Poll did not make its debut until after his death) and the press. But even the sainted FDR had his critics as American forces sustained unprecedented casualties for a 20th Century war.

Woodrow Wilson, who was elected on the slogan "He kept us out of war!" was nonetheless obliged to commit United States forces against Imperial Germany. Unrestricted submarine warfare waged by Germany - especially with the sinking of the Lusitania - and the subsequent uncovering of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram (in which Imperial Germany urged Mexico to attack the United States) had so aroused American passions that Wilson felt he had no peaceful options open. Notwithstanding these circumstances, so concerned was Wilson to curry the favor of the American public that some scholars have speculated that his mental and physical breakdown in the last year of his term was due to his inability to cope with the stresses of maintaining a popular mandate.

The Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln, was pilloried in the press, by opposition politicians, and even his own generals as he tried to prosecute the nation's bloodiest, and possibly most necessary war. In fact, as historian Geoffrey Ward has noted,

"What is how little praise Lincoln got and how much abuse he endured without complaint."

In hindsight however we readily acknowledge that Mr. Lincoln's war was an indispensable and possibly unavoidable turning point for this nation. The dreadful knowledge which Lincoln carried internally, was that this war, however horrifying. however thankless and distasteful a task, was one that must be seen through to the bitter end.

Thus let us try not leap to judgment in the aftermath of President Bush's annual State of the Union address. The opposition in both Democratic and Republican parties have been looking anxiously at opinion polls and American involvement in Iraq. But, the question to ask is "What if the opposition is wrong?" Only twice before in our history has America been threatened by external forces - once by the bandit Pancho Villa's depredations in our Southwest, and once by British troops who actually burned the White House in the War of 1812. In neither case did the enemy have or seek the capabilities which are actively being sought by our enemies in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In neither case did the civilian casualties inflicted rival those of the attack on the World Trade Center. In neither case did the enemy seek to destroy utterly the United States, our population, our form of government. In neither case were the stakes quite so high as they are today.

Gen. Petraeus Has the Right Stuff

Wed, 10 Jan 2007 16:30:43 -0600

When last we met over pastrami sandwiches and coffee the subject turned inevitably to the situation in Iraq where we remain heavily engaged in an effort to resurrect that nation from its legacy of corruption and internecine strife. While Dave had been heavily engaged in shepherding the restructuring of US policy for counterinsurgency the nation of Iraq had been lurching forward in fits and starts - eager for a better future and yet mired, seemingly hopelessly, in the tendrils of a convoluted and an unforgiving history.

Now Dave has once again been offered an opportunity to help Iraq meet the challenge of its own existence and future. I strongly believe that he is very much the right man for the job.

As I have already noted, Petraeus is not a stranger to the region or its populations. He has operated successfully in that area for years on end. The question which naturally arises out of his most recent appointment is how it may impact on Iraq and its contending populations and political entities. The simple answer (as if anything is really ever simple in that region) is that Petraeus is no one's fool. Of all senior military officers on active duty today he likely has the best, most down to earth appreciation of the factions at work and what is at stake.

Exceptionally well-educated and well-read Dave is also a hands-on personality. What we always referred to as a "muddy boots" soldier. He is not afraid to plunge into an affray to get to its root causes and to propose and impose solutions which although not always pleasing to all factions are at least acceptable and workable.

Like the venerable Theodore Roosevelt he is very apt to speak softly and carry a big stick. He knows full well what is at stake in Iraq - not only for that country's population but for the region and the world - and is thus not one to abet petty internecine squabbles. All parties will be expected to be flexible, innovative, and even forgiving of perceived past wrongs. The emphasis of all negotiations will necessarily be on the future. The petty squabbling, the latent dishonesty, the regional tolerance for intolerance and for violent, short term solutions will likely get short shrift from Petraeus' leadership. Any burgeoning problem, a contemporary Gordian Knot, which threatens the region or its peoples may well be resolved in the same way that Alexander dealt with the original - with no-nonsense directness backed by force.

For all of their good intentions and hard work, previous military administrations in Baghdad have become mired in the volatility and contentiousness of the environment. There have been so many political and military brushfires with which to deal that accomplishment of the greater objective - a peaceful and productive region - has proved elusive. Thus, just as a change in the civilian leadership at the Department of Defense was due, so too a change in the military leadership in Iraq may be expected to achieve goals which were simply unattainable beforehand.

Some have ventured to criticize the Bush Administration for, in essence, changing horses in mid-stream but that, I will contend, is the mark of an administration which is doing its job correctly; which is adjusting to an evolving situation on the ground. During the American Civil War President Abraham Lincoln appointed a succession of unsuccessful generals to prosecute the war. It was only when he finally settled on Ulysses S. Grant that he realized that he had found the right man for the job. When critics insisted after the bloody encounter at Shiloh that Grant be fired - apparently a natural risk for combat commanders - Lincoln replied laconically "I cannot spare this man. He fights." Petraeus fights and thinks. A good combination for the challenges ahead.