Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has a retrospective piece on “the issue of preventive war as a presidential prerogative” in today’s Washington Post. As is the nettlesome habit of all historians, Schlesinger points out that this particular perversion of foreign policy is “hardly new” under George W. Bush, citing James Polk’s little adventure down Mexico way and Abraham Lincoln’s reasoned opposition to it:
“Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose -- and you allow him to make war at pleasure [emphasis added]. . . . If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, ‘I see no probability of the British invading us’; but he will say to you, ‘Be silent; I see it, if you don’t.’"
True, Lincoln opposed the Mexican War, regarded Polk’s casus belli “intelligence” as thoroughly cooked and inveighed against the venture as the worst sort of presidential folly and challenged ethics (though it should be remembered that Lincoln was the most political of creatures, and as such his Whig loyalties no doubt influenced his public reasoning against a Democratic president).
What Schlesinger omitted, however, was Lincoln’s almost immediate regret that he ever opposed the bloody thing. His outspokenness killed -- permanently, he thought at the time -- his political future. He discovered the hard way how impolitic it is to oppose a war in progress, no matter how many excellent reasons may exist to do so.
That’s the flipside of Schlesinger’s retrospective. If Lincoln were alive today as a Democratic advisor he’d be issuing “Support Our Troops” memos to every client and, other than that, advocating silence. Some things really do never change -- unfortunately.