Max Boot: Presidents Have Often Lost Many Battles Before Winning the War





Max Boot, in the LAT (Sept. 23, 2004):

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.)

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.

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....


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Gary Ostrower - 9/26/2004

Korea was a victory? Antietam too? Send Mr. Boot back to American History 100.

But Boot is probably correct to note that 51% of Iraqis believe that the war is going "the right direction." Unfortunately, their notion of the right direction may differ from Boot's. And that's because plenty of that 51% may be composed of the men who we've seen dancing in some of the uglier recent TV footage from Iraq.

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