Abraham Lincoln hated war as much as Barack Obama does. He saw so much more of it firsthand, lost friends in it and waged it on an immensely vaster scale than Obama has. And yet, almost exactly 150 years ago (Aug. 17, 1864, to be precise), he wrote this to the squat, stolid general besieging the town of Petersburg, south of Richmond: “I have seen your dispatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bull-dog gripe, and chew & choke, as much as possible.” And so Ulysses S. Grant persevered.
Therein lies the difference between Lincoln and Obama, which explains much of the wreckage that is U.S. foreign policy in Gaza and elsewhere today. Lincoln accepted war for what it is; Obama does not. The Gaza war is a humanitarian tragedy for Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire. It is also a barbaric conflict, as leaders of Hamas hide their fighters behind children while baiting their enemy to kill innocents. But first and foremost, it is a war, a mortal contest of wills between two governments and two societies.
By 1864, Lincoln, Grant and Grant’s no-less-grim lieutenants William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan had concluded that their conflict had shifted to what historians call “the hard war.” They knew not only that they would have to destroy the armies of the Confederacy but also that they would have to break the will of the people of the South to wage war. That is precisely what they did – in the siege of Petersburg, the devastation of the Shenandoah Valley, the march through Georgia and North Carolina, a close blockade and cavalry raids deep into the South.
And the gentle, humane and often grief-stricken president pushed them hard to do it. When, earlier in August, Grant ordered Sheridan to drive the Confederates from the Shenandoah – which he burned out thoroughly as he went – Lincoln commented, “I repeat to you it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.”
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The Israelis, having left Gaza only to be showered by rockets and harried by border raiders, have concluded that they are waging that kind of war. In a rare spirit of unity, they seem determined to break Hamas in Gaza. A more sensible U.S. administration would understand that and stand with our tough little ally, rather than attempt to stop its destruction of this Islamist partner of Iran and enemy not only of Israel but of Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well.
The problem is not the reported antipathy between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is that the Obama administration simply cannot accept that war is war. This explains, among other things, the debacle of our Libya policy, in which the administration studiously insisted that its bombing to help overthrow Moammar Gadhafi was not a war and left in its wake chaos that roils to the present day. It explains the administration’s declarations that drone strikes in Pakistan and the assassination of Osama bin Laden had brought al-Qaida to the edge of strategic defeat – even as the ideology of the group and similar ones has metastasized and Islamist movements have extended their sway in the Middle East and Africa.
It explains our hand-wringing over the slaughter of some 200,000 people in Syria as if it were a massive Ebola outbreak, when what is going on is, in fact, a war pitting Iran and its allies in Syria and Lebanon against an increasingly Islamized foe. It explains the long, disgraceful appeasement of Vladimir Putin and the administration’s continuing reluctance to say, simply, that Russia is waging war against a sovereign neighbor.
The president famously said in 2011 that “the tide of war is receding” in Iraq and Afghanistan, when in fact all that was happening was that we were (temporarily, perhaps) withdrawing from our wars, which entered new and more violent phases among the people we were leaving behind.
The most curious thing about this president is that he was elected in the midst of three open wars – the struggle against al-Qaida and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – and several more covert conflicts, including Iran’s long and bloody effort to drive the United States from the Middle East, and yet he could not conceive of himself as a war president. He cannot give the speeches that explain these wars, that call for sacrifice, that bring his domestic opponents along to confront a foreign foe, that rally foreign friends and strike fear in the hearts of common enemies. And he appears to have little capacity for empathy with an ally whose population must seek shelter when sirens wail.
War is war. We may wish that it could be waged like an 18th-century duel, with exquisite protocols and rules, and scrupulously circumscribed uses of violence, but it stubbornly remains what it became in the 19th and 20th centuries: a ferocious struggle among nations. That does not mean discarding the constraints of decency and civilization, but it is a dark truth to be faced. Lincoln understood it; if only the man who holds the presidency 150 years later did.
The writer was counselor of the State Department from 2007 to 2009.