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Lincoln, Obama, and Bush

In a time of war, eloquence matters, but so does prudence.

11:00 PM, Dec 22, 2008 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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"This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists," the president said. "It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties. And that is exactly what I will continue to do, so long as I'm the president of the United States."

Critics of Bush fail to make an important distinction that Lincoln illuminated in the Corning letter:

I can no more be persuaded that the Government can constitutionally take no strong measures in time of rebellion, because it can be shown that the same could not lawfully be taken can be persuaded that a particular drug is not good medicine for a sick man, because it can be shown not to be good for a well one. Nor am I able to appreciate the danger apprehended by the meeting [of the New York Democrats] that the American people will, by means of military arrest during the Rebellion, lose the right of Public Discussion, the Liberty of Speech and the Press, the Law of Evidence, Trial by Jury, and Habeas Corpus, throughout the indefinite peaceful future, which I trust lies before them, any more than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness as to persist in feeding upon them during the remainder of his healthful life.

Bush, like Lincoln, understood that the means to preserve the end of republican government are dictated by prudence, which according to Aristotle is, the virtue most characteristic of the statesman. Prudence is concerned with deliberating well about those things that can be other than they are (means). In political affairs, prudence requires the statesman to be able to adapt universal principles to particular circumstances in order to arrive at the means that are best given existing circumstances. For Bush, as well as for Lincoln, preserving republican liberty requires the executive to choose the means necessary and proper under the circumstances.

George Bush is not the master of rhetoric that Barack Obama is. But the current president has been "Lincolnian" in responding to the threats the country has faced since 9/11. Obama's real test will come when he is actually the president. Then he will be required to translate his soaring rhetoric into actions that advance the interests of the country. As I have observed elsewhere, it is always easier to be president when you're not.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis and a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. His study of Lincoln's wartime presidency will be published early next year by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia.