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Why Lincoln Beat McClellan

Max Singer

While many people have assumed that in the election next year the Republicans would be helped by the strong economy and the Democrats by the Iraq war, if recent indications of a potentially faltering economy are correct, the opposite may turn out to be true.

While things in Iraq could turn around again, it now looks as if the change in US strategy and the injection of additional forces in 2007 is on the way to producing a military victory over al-Qaida and domestic Iraqi terrorists. Equally important has been the decision by a number of Sunni tribes to turn against the foreign terrorists. The result has been the restoration of security to Fallujah and a large part of the country and a sharp reduction in casualties. Next November it is likely to be clear that defeat was avoided and that troops are coming home.

Another result has been that more astute critics of the war have stopped talking about the hopelessness of the military effort and switched to complaining that the Iraqi government has failed to do what they believe is necessary to achieve “ reconciliation.” But the development of a non-dictatorial political system in Iraq is a slow, delicate, and uncertain process and voters may not think that American senators are the best judges of how well the Iraqis are doing.

Americans don’t like wars. But when the US is in a war most Americans want the US to win – even if they think that starting the war might have been a mistake. Americans feel even more strongly that the US should not lose a war – however it started – so they don’t like defeatists.

In 1864 Americans were fed up with the Civil War, in which there were days on which more soldiers were killed than have died in four years of the Iraq war. “ Mr. Lincoln is already beaten,” wrote Horace Greeley, perhaps the leading journalist. And three months before the election Republican leaders told president Lincoln that he had no hope of reelection. As Peter Wallison of AEI recently recalled, the Democratic platform denounced “ four years of failure” in the war effort and Gen. George B. McClellan, the Democratic candidate opposing Lincoln recommended making peace on Southern terms.

But on September 1 the news reached Washington that Atlanta had fallen to the Union army, and on election day it appeared as if the North was on the way to victory. Lincoln was decisively reelected. And, according to historian Allan Nevins, “ The damage done to the Democratic Party by the platform could not be undone. Its stigmatization of the heroic war effort as worthless gave the Northern millions an image of the Democratic Party they could never forget.and would cost the party votes for a generation.”

For well over a year now most prominent Democrats have insisted that the Iraq war had been lost and that the US should get its troops home as quickly as possible. It was true that the US was losing the war in 2006. Two responses were possible. The Democrats response was, in effect, “ the war is hopeless, we should give up.” The administration response was, “ we have to do something different so that we can win.”

Most voters prefer the second response – especially when it is successful.

In November 2008 it is likely to be clear that if the US had followed the Democrats’ advice the US would have suffered an unnecessary defeat. Those voters who believe that the US is facing dangerous threats from jihadis may well feel that it is not safe to bring to power the party that would have brought defeat in Iraq.

The Democrats will argue that since Bush didn’t succeed in what they will describe as a misguided attempt to create an effective modern democracy in Iraq his party should be turned out. But voters may have more modest expectations. Iraq had a cruel totalitarian government that was a declared enemy of the US. In November 2008 it is likely to have an incompetent, politically stalemated, but clearly Iraqi government that supports the US against the international jihadists – as well as a freedom of the press that is unique in the Arab world. Voters may well see this is a significant gain for the US – although undoubtedly some will think that the price was too high.

The US elections are not the only arena in which the changing prospects in Iraq will need to be considered. The Arab world and the Europeans will eventually need to adjust to a reality that they didn’t expect.

The Arab world will have to deal with the fact that for the first time one of the most important Arab countries is not a Sunni dictatorship. One of the main Arab powers will represent something new in the Arab world, and a country that is not likely to feel obliged to automatically accept Arab consensus. Iraqis are very conscious of the fact that the Arab world did nothing to relieve them from Saddam’s oppression, nor to help them in their war against the murderous effort by jihadis and Ba’athists to prevent their government from coming into being.

As things begin to settle down in Iraq the Europeans too will have to figure out how to adjust to the fact that while Bush made many mistakes in Iraq, and failed to articulate a policy that could attract broad democratic support, most of the European judgments about Iraq turned out not to be correct. Despite their history Iraqis did care about the (federal) unity of their country. They could create a government that was neither a Sunni dictatorship nor a sharia regime oppressing moderate Muslims. A Shi’ite-led government did not have to be a pliant tool of the Iranian ayatollahs. And, most important, the jihadis could not force the US to retreat in disgrace – despite putting everything they had into the effort.

The Europeans are likely to have to develop an analysis and a policy that responds to a new and unexpected reality in Western Asia and the Arab world. This reality will include another demonstration that while the US makes mistakes, and may suffer great unpopularity and other costs, no one seems able to defeat the US. This is a characteristic that carries great weight in the Arab world. Europeans will need to take into account renewed Arab respect for American power – as well as the weakened access they will have in Iraq as the result of betting on the wrong horse.

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