Since the war on terrorism started in earnest earlier this week, we all seem to understand that it will not be a quick war -- this could very well be quite a long haul. As this ongoing campaign is waged, of course we must be unified and brave, but we must also be vigilant that our essential freedoms are not usurped unnecessarily.
A review of some of the most insightful and some of the most ill-advised national responses to tragic, provocative events like the one we now face may well illuminate a path of reasoned resolve and responsible reaction.
History is Prologue
The noted author, journalist and diplomat C.G. Bowers postulated, after reviewing the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, that "History is the torch that is meant to illuminate the past, to guard us against the repetition of our mistakes of other days."
Now many impassioned politicians, pundits and commentators urge the United States to, a) strike substantive blows at our cherished civil liberties, and b) execute widespread military operations to insure both internal security and total victory in the new war against terrorism. I fear that in their impassioned patriotism and heightened rhetoric, they may be overlooking stark lessons of history.
Recently, C-SPAN concluded an acclaimed, in-depth survey and ranking of U.S. presidents by 58 of America's most distinguished historians. This notable academy of scholars ranked all presidents, Washington through Clinton, using substantive objective criteria. Their perceptive choices of the eight greatest presidents were: 1) Abraham Lincoln, 2) Franklin D. Roosevelt, 3) George Washington, 4) Theodore Roosevelt, 5) Harry Truman, 6) Woodrow Wilson, 7) Thomas Jefferson and 8) John F. Kennedy.
These remarkable, gifted leaders each faced historic crises and in general executed reasoned and, on occasion, brilliant governance. But in isolated instances, some also erred by virtue of excessive response. President George W. Bush has frequently stated that the United States has gone to war to protect freedom. Historically, however, the American government has not always been diligent in protecting constitutional freedoms in time of war. One may disagree with Representative Jeanette Rankin's historic votes in Congress against entry into World War I in 1917 and against entry into World War II in 1941, along with Representative Barbara Lee's vote against U. S. military retaliation in 2001, but we must also understand that they had the constitutional right to dissent.
Lincoln was truly a historic giant, but his imposition of martial law in the western territories during the Civil War was later declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. The sanctioned treatment of his political critic/opponent Valandingham (placed under military arrest, shackled and deported to the Confederacy), sans any semblance of a legitimate trial, was unequivocally wrong. President Wilson, also an outstanding president, failed grievously with his endorsement of the repressive Sedition Acts of World War I (legalized massive round ups and shipping of labor activists to southwest desert detention centers). Regretfully, Eugene V. Debs, the socialist leader and presidential candidate, spent years in prison simply for voicing opposition to U.S. involvement in a controversial and convoluted war.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a leader of a stature comparable to Lincoln's, wrongfully approved an infamous executive order sending Japanese-American citizens to internment camps. Their only crimes, apparently, were their race and the government's panic-driven security concerns. Ironically, there is not a shred of evidence to believe that any of these malignant measures did a single thing to enhance internal security or quicken victory. And yet each of these acts left indelible stains on the records of great presidents.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has requested congressional approval of a comprehensive package granting the government broad authority to diminish, and even suspend, fundamental constitutional rights to combat the serious threat of continuing terrorist attacks. At this juncture, clearly the lessons of American history command caution. But this proposal is unquestionably a slippery slope of the first order. Any legislative approval should be temporary, limited in scope and subject to intense congressional review.
President Wilson, in granting his attorney general carte blanche authority during and after World War I, effectively unleashed the infamous "Palmer Raids" and with them their primary architect -- J. Edgar Hoover. FDR further reinforced Hoover's power base during World War II by granting the despotic FBI director vast unchecked authority over internal national security matters. Historically, once that genie has been let out of the bottle, it has proven to have had bubonic effect. President Truman, on the other hand, firmly resisted the frenzied patriotic pressures of Senator Joseph McCarthy and publicly proclaimed that he would not permit "the creation of a right-wing police state in order to deal with a left-wing threat."
The Bush Administration, the Congress and the American people have an absolute right to bring Osama bin Laden and his agents to a full and complete accounting. This righteous task and other legitimate national security concerns need to be addressed. However, they must be balanced within the fundamental frameworks of our political system, specifically in concert with our treasured Bill of Rights and proven system of checks and balances.
A Limited, Winnable War
The very nature of the war that now confronts America presages a protracted and an often frustrating conflict. It behooves our leaders, pundits and commentators to carefully reflect on key historical lessons if they desire this nation to skillfully chart a prudent military and diplomatic course. I strongly urge the readers of this commentary to review the recent film Thirteen Days, and to read Ernest R. May's book, The Kennedy Tapes, which contains the raw tape transcripts of the debates over how to handle the Cuban Missile Crisis. The insights to be harvested are rich and bountiful.
President Bush has repeatedly assured us that he has surrounded himself with a talented and seasoned national security team. I tend to agree. However, the ultimate test of leadership rests with the ability to choose intelligent courses of action. John F. Kennedy recruited an even more impressive group of advisors around him during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet the historic record reveals that it was his own critical intelligence and honed capacity to perceive the "big picture" that enabled him to reject erroneous options offered by some of his closest advisors.
The conflict confronting our nation today is grave and wrought with unforeseen dangers. President Kennedy brilliantly guided the United States through an even greater crisis in October 1962. Ultimately his wise selection of the firm, limited response of a naval blockade and his rejection of the reckless options of air strikes and invasions averted a potential nuclear war. The profound leadership lessons of that reasoned response can well serve President Bush today.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, a man seemingly disappearing and despondent only a few short weeks ago, has re-emerged as the dominant voice of moderation in what has been described as an otherwise hawkish aggregate. You can see his stamp on the American response now, like the drops of food and medicine in Afghanistan. Powell's previous military experiences in Vietnam, the Gulf War and a series of crisis negotiations (along with former President Carter at the behest of President Clinton) have meshed to mold a man well equipped to offer enlightened counsel. Powell has already orchestrated a highly effective diplomatic isolation of the Taliban cabal and forcefully argues for limited, focused military interventions.
These proposed strikes are calculated to disembowel bin Laden and other identifiable terrorists. They also negate the need for larger, less focused military options that have the very real potential to turn this limited, winnable war into a pyrrhic conflict with the Islamic world. Make no mistake, there are those who have the president's ear who would like to see the war on terror spread far and wide.
Secretary Powell seems to see the big picture better than his policy rivals and has been the behind-the-scenes director of intense pressure upon Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The objective on this front is to restrain provocative Israeli military operations. Absent an aggressive advocacy of a more balanced Middle East policy, all of our security precautions and military operations will be of little long-term consequence. America must stand fast in its support of Israel's security, but it must also align itself with visionary, not reactionary, Israeli leadership. The courage and vision of Issac Rabin ought not to have been in vain. Israel's security, a Palestinian homeland and peaceful coexistence are mutually desirable and attainable. History teaches that injustice enriches the fertile breeding swamps of terrorism. Balanced U.S. diplomatic initiatives are of equal importance with any and all security procedures and military operations in the war on terrorism.
President Wilson fully understood the necessity of a League of Nations as a diplomatic pathway for peaceful resolution of international conflict. He prophetically warned those who sought revenge, that without a just diplomatic vehicle of resolution, another war was inevitable. That war, he foresaw, would make the just-concluded "War to end all wars" seem pale by comparison. World War II was a catastrophic confirmation of that vision. Without something like a Marshall Plan, World War II was almost a foregone conclusion after World War I. Lasting peace must be the goal in this war as well.
President Bush urgently needs to promote a more dynamic and more equitable foreign policy for this tinderbox region or he will surely face far graver dangers. Bin Laden and his kind require injustice to effectively ferment their toxic grapes of wrath.
The apocalyptic horror seen in the demonic deeds of Sept 11 provide an opportunity to administer legal and moral justice for the vile architects of these barbaric acts. Similarly, it enhances the risk of dangerous erosion of fundamental rights. The United States must not permit panic, anger or desires for revenge to dominate our reason.