The war on terror is over, the president assured us a year ago. Now, we are told, that war is very much with us and will be pursued with all due diligence. The president was obviously responding to the polls reflecting the disapproval of the public, but also to critics in his own party. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sadly commented on his admission that he had “no strategy yet”: “I think I’ve learned one thing about this president, and that is: He’s very cautious—maybe in this instance too cautious.”
Two centuries ago, in the midst of another “war on terror”—or so he thought of it—Edmund Burke rebuked his prime minister for a similar failing. He had admired William Pitt for his leadership in the war with France, but now, out of excessive caution, Pitt was seeking peace with that “regicide” regime. “There is a courageous wisdom,” Burke wrote in his “Letters on a Regicide Peace,” but “there is also a false reptile prudence, the result not of caution but of fear. Under misfortunes it often happens that the nerves of the understanding are so relaxed, the pressing peril of the hour so completely confounds all the faculties, that no future danger can be properly provided for, can be justly estimated, can be so much as fully seen.”
That misplaced caution, or false prudence, was all the more serious in the case of a “great state” like England, which had to behave in a manner commensurate with its power.
The rules and definitions of prudence can rarely be exact; never universal. I do not deny that in small truckling states a timely compromise with power has often been the means, and the only means, of drawling out their puny existence; but a great state is too much envied, too much dreaded, to find safety in humiliation. To be secure, it must be respected. Power, and eminence, and consideration, are things not to be begged. They must be commanded: and they who supplicate for mercy from others can never hope for justice through themselves.
It is an odd argument to come from Burke, and perhaps the more telling for that. If there is any one political principle associated with Burke, it is prudence. “Letters on a Regicide Peace” was written in 1796. Five years earlier, in his “Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs,” he had pronounced prudence the first of all virtues. “Prudence is not only first in rank of the virtues, political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all.” But prudence was associated with a corollary principle, “circumstances,” which determine what is wise and prudent in any particular situation. On this occasion, in a war with an implacable enemy, a misplaced prudence was not a virtue but a fatal flaw.
The war with France was such an occasion, Burke believed, because France was the consummate enemy, the very embodiment of terror. The idea of the “Reign of Terror” (la Grande Terreur) was not, as some have suggested, the invention of disaffected emigrés or hostile historians. “Terror” was the term the revolutionaries publicly and proudly applied to themselves. In December 1793, with the executions well under way (they amounted to 30,000 or more in a two-year period), the “Constitution of the Terror” officially inaugurated the “Government of the Terror.” Robespierre, the head of the Committee of Public Safety, explained why terror was the necessary instrument of the revolution—the “Republic of Virtue,” as he saw it. “If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.” (Robespierre was executed shortly after, one of the notable victims of the Terror.)