Effective wartime presidents are generalissimos, commanders-in-chiefs wielding military power to achieve historically monumental strategic ends; visionaries who shape and mold events through bold political and military action. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, America’s two greatest wartime Presidents, served the nation’s best interests, forfeiting contemporary public approval to the judgment of history. President George W. Bush also qualifies as one of the greats.
Abraham Lincoln led the nation through its greatest peril. Following Lincoln’s election in 1860, Southern secessionists mistakenly believed they had a constitutional right to secede and that the Federal government lacked the means or will to stop them. Lincoln, a country lawyer whose qualifications for wartime leadership paled next to those of his Confederate counterpart Jefferson Davis, nevertheless proved vastly more effective as a wartime President. Lincoln, initially without Congressional authorization, raised Union armies, blockaded Southern ports and used his authority to silence criticism. Understanding the Confederacy needed military forces to prevail, Lincoln saw Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as a greater threat than Richmond’s ineffective government. Accordingly, Generalissimo Lincoln appointed and fired generals until he discovered U.S. Grant who understood, as Lincoln did, that annihilating Lee’s army was essential to victory. He also knew preserving the Union meant crushing Rebel morale. So while Grant obliterated Lee’s armies, Lincoln loosed William Tecumseh Sherman “to make the war odious to the South” with massive raids through Georgia and Alabama and into the Carolinas. Lincoln is the nation’s greatest wartime president.
Before becoming Commander-in-Chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s only military experience was as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson. From 1933 to 1940, with the economy faltering and war clouds gathering abroad, Roosevelt propounded the New Deal to provide government policies and bureaucracies appropriate for an Industrial Age economy. Thus the United States became the “Arsenal of Democracy” to overwhelm the Axis powers in World War II. Internationally, despite persistent isolationist sentiment, Generalissimo Roosevelt pushed the Lend Lease Act through Congress and, in 1940, boldly moved against German U-boats to prepare the nation for its decisive role in the coming conflict. His vision for a postwar international environment in which the United Nations, supported by US military power, would maintain world peace set the political aegis beneath which architects of containment devised strategies that bound Soviet power until Communism’s inherent contradictions tossed the Soviet Union into the dustbin of history. Historians judge Roosevelt the nation’s second greatest wartime president.
Al Qaeda’s attacks on 9/11 were strategically well-conceived. Strikes on the World Trade Center, combined with destruction of key targets in Washington, aimed to cripple both the American economy and US Government with the strategic objective of driving American forces out of the Middle East. Osama bin Laden had reasons for optimism. While earlier al Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Africa, the Kobar Towers US military barracks in Saudi Arabia and the USS Cole elicited official denunciations and vows to track down the perpetrators, actual responses entailed a few cruise missiles tossed at inconsequential targets in Afghanistan. Additionally, from bin Laden’s perspective political prospects looked promising. After Bush won election by a narrow margin in Florida, disgruntled losers maintained he had been “selected not elected,” and contemptuously portrayed President Bush as a political—if not mental—light weight, a veritable “Bush leaguer” (pun intended) playing over his head.
History will judge President Bush based on his response to the strategic challenges posed by 9/11. He ignored naysayers who resurrected overused Vietnam War analogies and lamented Soviet Army defeats at the hands the “battle-hardened Mujahedin,” to move boldly against al Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan. While critics decried the impossibility of it all, the President’s actions resulted in a democratic regime in Kabul. More significantly, President Bush grasped the strategic nature of the conflict; total war on a global scale; a war to determine the world our grandchildren will inherit. Understanding that political and economic desperation drive the disaffected to terrorism, Generalissimo Bush established a strategic paradigm to foster democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights where despotism formerly held sway. Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) deposed Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical dictatorship to establish a democracy. Iraq now joins Turkey and Afghanistan as Middle Eastern Islamic democracies. Strategically, OIF disrupted the “arch of tyranny” which previously ran from Damascus eastward through Baghdad to Teheran. Since October 2001, military coalitions led by the United States have freed ten times as many people as Union forces did in the American Civil War. Globally, democracies expand while tyrannies wither and tyrants had better quake.
Like Lincoln and Roosevelt, President Bush perseveres in the face of critics whose lesser visions flounder in strategic ambiguity and political uncertainty. Great leaders respond to great challenges confident that the verdict of history is what matters. History will rank George W. Bush among America’s greatest wartime presidents.