Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, 1861
From the Library of Congress
Uploaded from Wikimedia Commons; in the public domainThe speech Obama delivered to the nation on Tuesday night was flawed in several ways: it lacked elegance, a cohesive structure, and inspiring language. However, its greatest weakness, in the eyes of many, was not style; it was a lack of firm resolve. These critics seem to long for the kind of president who can say “bring ’em on” and who can threaten to bring enemies to heel “dead or alive”. I have a curative for this schoolyard bravado nostalgia: look at the nation’s bank balance; cast your eyes over the still-growing list of wounded and killed because of the former president’s unblinking belligerence.I don’t mind that my president pauses before he spills blood. I’m rather comforted that he doesn’t feel the need to go forth boldly in order to “save face”.The U. S. had another deliberate president once, one who, when faced with war, expressed reluctance to take fateful measures. On the eve of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln gave an inaugural speech to a nation already divided by secession . To those states that had seceded he offered an olive branch–and at the same time threatened force. In the space of a single breath he declared his disinclination to “irritate” the secessionists and then asserted an unshakable determination to hold the union together, in whatever way circumstances demanded. So mixed were the two messages of conciliation and threat that some in Lincoln’s party characterized the speech as one in which the President offered “an iron hand in a velvet glove“.I don’t know if Obama is consciously modeling his approach to the Syrian crisis after Lincoln’s approach to the Civil War, but there are striking similarities. The greatest parallel between the two strategies–and the ultimate justifications for military action–is a strong reliance on law. Lincoln was careful to outline his Constitutional obligation–“implied” if not expressed, he declared–to keep the union together. Obama, in his speech, traced the various treaties and accords which make the use of chemical weapons a violation of international law. He also asserted his desire to act with the authorization of Congress.Both Lincoln and Obama were clear in their reluctance to engage in battle. And both were unswerving in their promise to go forward with action if terms of peace were not met.It is true that Lincoln’s prose soared and that he constructed a legal argument beautiful in its unerring logic. Obama, by comparison, offered a sloppy cut-and-paste address, one that was awkwardly and disjointedly laid out. The shabby construction of the speech may be one reason for its poor reception–even by those who were sympathetic to its message of restraint.But let’s be fair; Lincoln was elected on November 6 and inaugurated on February 23. Conditions in the country had been pretty consistent and he knew for a long time the kind of speech he would have to make. Obama, on the other hand, was dealing with a rapidly changing environment. Putin’s suggestion came out a couple of days before Congress was to vote on the Syrian resolution and Obama had to adapt to a morphing landscape. The resulting speech was not artful, but it served. The speech did not commit us to war or peace. Neither Assad or Putin can be assured by Obama’s words that Syria can act without consequence.I’m relieved today–someone has pushed the pause button on war. That’s always a good thing. It doesn’t matter to me very much that my president looked as though he might be waffling. We all know where he stands; he was pretty clear about that. If Syria persists in its stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, Obama still has the war option on the table.
I’m certainly a lot less embarrassed by Obama’s performance on Tuesday night than I was by George Bush’s antics in a jump suit at the start of the Iraq War. Better a reluctance to shed blood than the spectacle of one who struts in celebration of death.