January 30, 2005 | National Review Online

The Reachable Star

War-Ravaged Elections and Human Freedom

In the short history of this novel democratic experiment, the national election would easily be the single most critical development ever…if there actually could be an election worthy of the name. That was in grave doubt.

That it should be this way was alarming. The military forces dispatched by the president of the United States enjoyed every apparent advantage. Nonetheless, the insurgency seemed impossible to quell, and victory proved elusive. The months wore on, frequently without progress, and always with steadily mounting losses. Scores upon scores of soldiers laid down their lives, and as the death count climbed, support for the war — so strong at the start — evaporated in many parts of the United States.

Naturally, the nay saying registered strongest in bastions of elite opinion. Pockets of the establishment press were sharply critical, accusing the administration of incoherence in justifying the war and articulating its aims. The U.S. Supreme Court also weighed in disapprovingly. The enemy had resorted to terrorist strikes. In response, the president asserted broad constitutional authority to suppress such threats to national security, including the extraordinary power to detain enemy operatives without criminal charges or trial in the civilian courts. Predictably, this controversial claim met with widespread protest. The president held firm, explaining his view that civilian courts were designed for the trials of individuals “in quiet times, and on charges well defined in the law”; to the contrary, he asserted, his administration was responding to the exigencies of war. Unimpressed, a prominent Supreme Court justice wrote an opinion insisting that those in custody had a right to challenge their detention in ordinary judicial proceedings.

The president, meanwhile remained politically embattled, detractors emerging on all sides. Some in his own Republican party chafed at what they saw as occasional ineptitude and loss of focus. For them, the need to take up arms against this foe had seemed compelling at first. But as the fighting wore on, and the public seemed to waver, they groused that the initial clarity of purpose had evolved into an unreachable star — a grand idealism, soaring in noble but impractical paeans about universal rights to freedom and social justice. That kind of victory, they worried, could not be achieved. They began to grumble about the need for an exit strategy before the inevitably disastrous political fallout.

The Democrats, of course, were not nearly as kind. As the defining election of their time drew near, their party's most prominent members — notwithstanding that our troops had fought bravely and were even then in harm's way — railed about the administration's “four years of failure” with its “experiment of war.” In one of New York's most prominent publications, they derided the administration's “ignorance, incompetancy, and corruption.” Their solution: Cut and run. In highest dudgeon, they blustered that “justice, humanity, liberty and the public welfare demand…a cessation of hostilities.” The troops should be withdrawn, they counseled, with the enemy — fully appeased — free to determine the future course of the disputed territory, including the choice of whom to enslave.

The president would hear none of it. But as the election loomed, even important military victories were tainted by the malfeasance of some of the troops, who were alleged to have used disproportionate force, caused needless collateral damage, and been abusive toward those they had captured. Yes, the tide seemed to be turning favorably. But the cost of the war continued to run high — especially when a major offensive aimed at breaking the back of a key insurgent hub met vicious resistance, and our forces suffered significant casualties.

Even after all this time and effort, moreover, the enemy maintained a stranglehold on crucial population centers. Plainly, citizens in those areas — a very sizable portion of what would have been the overall electorate — would not participate in the voting. As a result, the would-be legitimacy of the election was hotly disputed, with some calling for it to be cancelled, or at least postponed until the security situation was more certain, more amenable to broader participation. Again, the president demurred. “The election,” he declared, “was a necessity.” A people, he admonished, “can not have free government without elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”

The election thus went forward as scheduled. Millions were effectively disenfranchised, and the outcome of the war, and indeed the very fate of the great experiment in democracy, remained deeply in doubt. Still, the ballots were cast.

Americans owe their nation, their freedom, and a prosperity unknown in the history of mankind, to that election — the great election of November 1864. It bears remembering that today, as Iraqis take an enormous step toward self-determination and, perhaps, inject the microbes of democracy into the tyrannical dysfunction of our planet's most turbulent neighborhood.

The historical perspective is irresistible. The 1864 election did not merely secure the preservation of the Union — the casus belli around which the nation had originally rallied against the rebel states. Because Lincoln remained in office, his vision of ending the blight of slavery — a vision that was widely castigated as a pipedream by his allies and an outrage by his opponents — became a reality. President Bush has analogously traveled some distance from the cause of crushing Islamofascists who threaten U.S. national security. As his most recent inaugural address made clear, he has a grander vision of draining the terror swamps by sowing the seeds of democracy in soil whose arability (pardon the pun) is widely thought suspect. The success of this aspiration, to be sure, is uncertain. Monumental progress, however, can never be made without a bold conviction about the realm of the possible — conviction steeled to withstand such imprecations, as Democrats made in 1864 and echo today, that it is farcical, or incompetent, or corrupt.

War was hell then, as it is now. It was messy, and unpredictable — except to the extent that constancy of will, even in the darkest hours, was an essential ingredient if there was to be any prospect of victory. Elite opinion was often wrong — sometimes epically so. Hard decisions about the delicate balance between security and liberty had to be made — and the resulting tussles between Lincoln and Chief Justice Roger Taney over wartime detentions reverberate today as the Bush administration grapples with new Supreme Court rulings about the rights of enemy combatants.

Pre-election casualties in 1864 were staggering, and potentially destabilizing. When Grant attempted to break Confederate defenses at the stronghold of Petersburg on July 30, 1864, as Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald has recounted, 4,000 men were killed or wounded, and the remaining 11,000 troops were compelled to retreat. By comparison, the fierce fighting by which American forces finally succeeded in crushing the terrorist base in Falluja was a raging success — and with a bare fraction of the casualties. Further, while our indignation at the abuses of Abu Ghraib persists, the historian Paul Johnson has observed that Sherman's scorched-earth march on Atlanta resulted in mass slaughter, extensive destruction of civilian infrastructure, looting and other atrocities. It is remembered today as a legendary campaign.

And consider this. When we nearly lost our Union, it stood on the foundation of centuries of essentially common culture, as well as decades of experience as a constitutional democracy. The Iraqis, by contrast, are inching forward with multiple cultures (some harboring ancient animosities), with a people who did not so much develop as a nation as they were stitched together by the victorious World War I powers' divvying of the Ottoman Empire spoils, and with no democratic tradition. In that light, their participation in a democratic election only months after Saddam Hussein's removal is nothing short of remarkable. And while large swaths of the Sunni territories remain under terrorist siege and thus, as a practical matter, shut out of this seminal Iraqi election, it is worth bearing in mind that, as the Civil War raged, there was no federal electoral voting in eleven seceded Confederate states — by comparison, a far greater percentage of the then-U.S. population did not participate in the election of 1864.

Still, Abraham Lincoln was reelected as the legitimate president of the United States, and the result altered history. Without that election, there is no Union as we know it, no end of slavery, no Fourteenth Amendment, and no march to American civil rights that are, now, the envy of the world. It should humble a proud people that this progress took us over a century to complete.

Today is a day to rejoice over progress that is historically startling. In far less than a century, it may transform the world. Or it may not. But as we watch this Iraqi achievement, this is a day for American pride and humility, not gracelessness and nitpicking.

— Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

 

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