Suddenly, the debate over invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein has taken a literary turn, with the news that George W. Bush is reading a book. This significant clue to future policy appeared in the last line of a dispatch by Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press, recounting an engaging tour of the President’s Texas vacation home. Between bouts of exercise and clearing cedar brush, Mr. Bush peruses Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime by Eliot A. Cohen, a former Pentagon official who now teaches strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Observers regard the Presidential acknowledgment of the Cohen book as an important signal because the author is not merely a respected defense academic, but a charter member of the hawkish Republican circle promoting military action against the Baghdad regime. He writes for The Wall Street Journal ‘s editorial pages and similar venues, and his book was prominently blurbed by Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor who called it the single volume he most wished Mr. Bush would read.
Why? Simply because Mr. Cohen’s book argues that civilian leaders in wartime, such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, achieved greatness by pushing their pusillanimous generals toward victory. Such historical analogies excite the hawk faction in their ferocious interoffice and interagency hostilities with adversaries in and around the Pentagon and the State Department who are skeptical about another, more ambitious Iraqi adventure. The most notable of those skeptics, of course, is Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose credentials as a military officer and diplomat only make him more suspect in the hawks’ eyes. In recent days, Secretary Powell has been joined publicly in his skepticism by other figures from the previous Bush administration, including Lawrence Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft.
In theory, Mr. Cohen’s analogy would embolden this President Bush to act more boldly than his father; to disregard or discipline those uniformed dissenters who warn against war-making; to demand action and answers rather than excuses, and so on. It all sounds good, and in some circumstances would be good. (For instance, it would be very good if Mr. Bush demanded answers about the apparent escape of Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan, rather than pretending that the capture of Al Qaeda’s Führer never had been a prime objective of our operations there.) Freed of constraints, Mr. Bush could ignore what Secretary Powell or our allies might say. The bombs would begin to rain on Baghdad and Tikrit as our troops prepared for the final assault.
As any true admirer of Churchill realizes, however, there are a few differences between the British lion and the present occupant of the White House. Churchill did take a daily nap, but he also labored long past midnight, even in his 70’s. Aside from those grueling work habits, which allowed him to produce multiple works of history, memoir and journalism while pursuing his political career, Churchill brought a long résumé of military and diplomatic experience to his relationship with the general staff. He was a graduate of the military academy at Sandhurst, and as a young officer he took part in the Empire’s last cavalry charge-in the Sudan in 1898. He was named First Lord of the Admiralty twice and served at the front during World War I. (Come to think of it, those credentials distinguish him from Mr. Kristol, too.)
After toiling on his book for 15 years, Mr. Cohen is understandably thrilled by the Presidential attention. Still, he would surely admit that its lessons have little relevance to the merits and risks of war with Iraq today. The questions about that war remain the same: What are its purposes? Why are they worth American blood and treasure? Is there any way to achieve those objectives without bloodshed?
A few years ago, Mr. Cohen wrote critically about the Clinton administration’s bombing strikes against Iraq. Back then, the professor noted that “this is a war not about weapons of mass destruction (few remain to Iraq) but about American credibility; not about removing Saddam as an immediate threat to his neighbors (he poses none) but about uprooting an incorrigible regime and a long-term threat.” Yet we are told daily by proponents of war that it is about Iraq’s alleged possession of such weapons and the threat those weapons pose. Which is it? That is what the President must explain, clearly and precisely, to the public, the Congress and our allies.
Meanwhile, before Mr. Bush styles himself a latter-day Churchill, let’s hope he absorbs all of what history tells us about that icon. Whatever Churchill’s private opinions were about his wartime allies, he knew that without them, England would perish and the Axis would rule Europe. However determined he was to overrule the appeasers, he was still a pragmatist. In describing the late prime minister, Mr. Cohen quotes a passage that Churchill himself wrote about Lord Halifax: “a love of moderation and a sense of the practical seemed in him to emerge in bold rather than tepid courses. He could strike as hard for compromise as most leaders for victory.”