On July 4, 1863, as he stared across the fields near Gettysburg at Robert E. Lee’s battered army, George Meade issued a general order expressing his thanks for the “glorious result” of the previous three days’ fighting. The victory already won would be “matters of history ever to be remembered,” the elated commander of the Army of the Potomac declared. Still, he allowed, “Our task is not yet accomplished,” and he looked to his troops for “greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.”
The message enraged Abraham Lincoln. As he had in the general order issued prior to the battle, upon being placed in command of the army, Meade seemed to regard the Confederates as invaders rather than insurgents, as the forces of a separate state rather than rebels. In an attempt to get his timid chief of staff, Gen. Henry Halleck, to spur Meade to destroy Lee before he could retreat to Virginia, Lincoln pointed out that the South was equally “our soil.” Lincoln understood the purpose of the war to be a new order across America, not, as he feared his generals did, a return to the pre-war status quo.
In his extended tour of the foreign-policy horizon with Thomas Friedman, the chin-stroking sage of the New York Times, President Obama seemed to be channeling some inner George Meade. Observing that Vladimir Putin “could invade” Ukraine at his leisure, Obama would only say that such an unpleasant event might make “trying to find our way back to a cooperative, functioning relationship with Russia during the remainder of my term much more difficult.” Perhaps even more disturbingly, he suggested a similar strategy toward the Islamic State, the extremists who have expanded from Syria into Iraq to declare a new caliphate bent on regional conquest, extermination of religious minorities and attacks on the United States. “We do have a strategic interest in pushing back” the Islamic State, he allowed, but destroying the organization would have to wait until “we’ve got partners on the ground who can fill the void.”
Waiting on the tribal sheiks of Anbar to develop a capacity to defeat the fiercely committed, well-armed, well-financed, experienced, ruthless, swelling forces of the Islamic State – which, according to U.S. intelligence sources, even are attracting recruits from groups formally associated with al Qaeda – is likely to be as futile as waiting on the Unionists of East Tennessee to overthrow the government of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate armies. It’s the defeat of the Islamic State that will create American partners, not the other way around. And, of course, there is no status quo to return to; if the United States wants an Iraq – let alone a Syria or a greater Middle East – it can live with, it must begin again from a worse position than it occupied in 2009. To extend the Civil War analogy, the current situation is more akin to the summer of 1862 – what the historian Joseph Harsh called the Confederate Tide Rising – than the days following Gettysburg, when Lincoln argued that to have “closed upon” Lee “would…have ended the war.” The end of the Middle East war is not in sight.
But lacking an understanding of the war, there is little chance of an immediate or lasting American victory. As Obama told Tom Friedman, “We can run [the forces of the Islamic State] off for a certain period of time, but as soon as our planes are gone, they’re coming back in.” Abraham Lincoln didn’t command an air force, but he grasped the strategic problem. In response to Meade’s declaration – and as Meade’s tentative maneuvers through the middle of July 1863 simply ran Lee off to Virginia – Lincoln composed what he describe as a “hot letter” to Meade, as if anticipating the duration and the cost of the war to come, and lecturing about “the magnitude of the misfortune” that would result from Meade’s excess of caution. More Americans would perish after July 4, 1863 through the rest of the Civil War than had died in the previous battles. It is difficult to avoid a similar sense of foreboding today.