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History Can Offer Bush Hope ...

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

John Kerry is right to accuse President Bush of “colossal failures of judgment” in Iraq. These range from decisions taken in the early days of the occupation, such as the premature disbanding of Iraq’s army, to more recent missteps, such as allowing Fallouja to become a terrorist sanctuary.

Reading the depressing headlines, one is tempted to ask: Has any president in U.S. history ever botched a war or its aftermath so badly?

Actually, yes. Most wartime presidents have made catastrophic blunders, from James Madison losing his capital to the British in 1814 to Harry Truman getting embroiled with China in 1950. Errors tend to shrink in retrospect if committed in a winning cause (Korea); they get magnified in a losing one (Vietnam).

Despite all that’s gone wrong so far, Iraq could still go either way. (In one recent poll, 51% of Iraqis said their country was headed in “the right direction”; only 31% felt it was going the wrong way.)

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Lest we be too hard on Bush, it’s useful to recall the travails of the nation’s two most successful commanders in chief, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

Lincoln is remembered, of course, for winning the Civil War and freeing the slaves. We tend to forget that along the way he lost more battles than any other president: First and Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga.... The list of federal defeats was long and dispiriting. So was the list of federal victories (e.g., Antietam, Gettysburg) that could have been exploited to shorten the conflict, but weren’t.

As the Union’s fortunes fell, opponents tarred Lincoln with invective that might make even Michael Moore blush. Harper’s magazine called him a “despot, liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, ignoramus.” As late as the summer of 1864, Lincoln appeared likely to lose his bid for reelection. Only the fall of Atlanta on Sept. 2 saved his presidency.

Most of the Union’s failures were because of inept generalship, but it was Lincoln who chose the generals, including many political appointees with scant military experience. He ultimately won the war only by backing Ulysses Grant’s brutal attritional tactics that have often been criticized as sheer butchery.

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Roosevelt had more than his share of mistakes too, the most notorious being his failure to prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor, even though U.S. code breakers had given him better intelligence than Bush had before Sept. 11. FDR also did not do enough to prepare the armed forces for war, and then pushed them into early offensives at Guadalcanal and North Africa that took a heavy toll on inexperienced troops. At Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, in 1943, the U.S. Army was mauled by veteran German units, losing more than 6,000 soldiers.

The Allies went on to win the war but still suffered many snafus, such as Operation Market Garden, a failed airborne assault on Holland in September 1944, and the Battle of the Bulge three months later, when a massive German onslaught in the Ardennes caught U.S. troops napping.

Though FDR bore only indirect responsibility for most of these screw-ups, he was more directly culpable for other bad calls, such as the decision to detain 120,000 Japanese Americans without any proof of their disloyalty. Like Lincoln, who jailed suspected Southern sympathizers without trial, Roosevelt was guilty of civil liberties restrictions that were light-years beyond the Patriot Act. And, like Bush, Roosevelt didn’t do enough to prepare for the postwar period. His failure to occupy more of Eastern Europe before the Red Army arrived consigned millions to tyranny; his failure to plan for the future of Korea and Vietnam after the Japanese left helped lead to two wars that killed 100,000 Americans.

None of this is meant in any way to denigrate the inspired leadership of two great presidents. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt were brilliant wartime leaders precisely because they were able to overcome adversity and inspire the country toward ultimate victory with their unflagging will to win. That’s what Bush is trying to do today.

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And, no, I’m not suggesting Bush is another Lincoln or Roosevelt. But even if Bush hasn’t reached their lofty heights, neither has he experienced their depths of despair. We are losing one or two soldiers a day in Iraq. Lincoln lost an average of 250 daily for four years, Roosevelt 300 daily for more than 3 1/2 years. If they could overcome such numbing losses to prevail against far more formidable foes than we face now, it’s ludicrous to give in to today’s fashionable funk.

“Colossal failures of judgment” are to be expected in wartime; I daresay even John Kerry (whose judgment on Iraq changes every 30 minutes) might commit a few. They do not have to spell defeat now any more than they did in 1865 or 1945.


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