Churchillian Courage
Moral leadership and the War on Terror.


About a year before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, historian Martin Gilbert visited the Oval Office to talk about the leadership of Winston Churchill during the Second World War. Based on the work of this preeminent 20th-century historian, we can guess what traits he might have emphasized: realism and vision. When it came to measuring the brutalities and sacrifices of war against the existential threat of fascism, Churchill was peerless. “War is terrible,” he wrote during the parliamentary debate over German aggression, “but slavery is worse.”

This week the Senate continues a bitter congressional debate about America’s commitment to Iraq and its importance in the war on radical Islam. A proposal by Democrats John Kerry and Russ Feingold calls on the United States to start pulling out troops this year. Another plan, authored by Minority Leader Harry Reid and Carl Levin, would set the date at the end of 2007. The resolutions follow votes last week in the House and Senate endorsing the American effort in Iraq, while rejecting firm timetables for a U.S. troop withdrawal. Historians will argue about the Bush administration’s prosecution of this war. But, based on how the conflict is being portrayed by  many of our nation’s political leaders, some things could be said about the realism and vision required to prevail in this struggle — and where this leadership is mostly likely to be found.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, for example, spent a good deal of her time on the House floor last week denouncing the decision to remove Saddam Hussein. “It’s time to face the facts,” she said. “The war in Iraq has been a mistake. I say, a grotesque mistake.” It is a refrain heard often in both the House and Senate debates, voiced endlessly, in fact, since the earliest days of the conflict. Indeed, most Democrats still seem to invest far more energy decrying the rationale for the Iraq invasion than thinking strategically about the way forward.

Compare this to Churchill’s governing philosophy during a season of intense political strife. As Martin Gilbert recounts in his gem of a book, Winston Churchill’s War Leadership, the new prime minister resolved to forget the past. Even those associated with the disastrous policy of appeasement toward Hitler found a place in Churchill’s administration: The achievement of national unity against the enemy was all important. “Of this I am quite sure,” he said, “that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Democrats insist on keeping open this quarrel between past and present, and their posturing has deepened the nation’s political divisions. The Bush administration has begun meeting regularly with high-profile critics, such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Yet Bush has failed to recruit a single, respected Democratic leader to help prosecute the war. (There are, to be sure, pitifully few to choose from.) What might the debate over Iraq be like today, however, if the president had named Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of Defense during his second term?

Perhaps the most insidious domestic enemy that confronted Churchill in wartime was the spirit of defeatism. There was lots of it in the early days of the war, when Britain stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut. There were proposals to sue for peace with Hitler, fears of a successful German invasion of England, and military blunders that cost thousands of British lives. Churchill never lost heart. “The prime minister expects all His Majesty’s Servants in high places to set an example of steadiness and resolution,” he said. “They should check and rebuke expressions of loose and ill-digested opinion in their circles.”

The loose and ill-digested opinions about the Iraq war could fill volumes. No matter what the sign of progress in the country — fair elections, a liberal constitution, a representative government — some detractors seem seized by an almost pathological gloom. The late Edward Said, a scholar at Columbia University, expressed his outrage a month after the invasion with a disdain that has entered the bloodstream of the liberal political establishment. The Iraq war is “a grotesque show,” he said, part of a U.S. pattern of “reducing whole peoples…to ruin by nothing short of holocaust.” As Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean put it a few months ago, the very idea of victory in Iraq “is just plain wrong.”

The answer to defeatism, of course, is not a policy of denial. The administration is right to describe Iraq as “the central front in the war on terror.”  But it emerged as this violent epicenter only after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a metamorphosis for which most Americans were totally unprepared. Vice President Cheney’s insistence last summer that the insurgency was in its “last throes” — even as terrorist attacks were plainly intensifying — surely undercut the credibility of the cause in Iraq. Only in the last several months has President Bush offered a more substantive public account of the fierce difficulties that remain.

Churchill’s first wartime speech to the British people as prime minister was shocking for its sobriety: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” He later warned the House of Commons: “Death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey, hardship our garment, constancy and valor our only shield.” And, while England rejoiced over the escape of thousands of British troops from a German onslaught at Dunkirk, Churchill injected his usual dose of realism: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

The strength of a great leader, Martin Gilbert suggests, is his ability to frame the horrific realities of war within a larger moral vision. In this regard, no political figure of the 20th century possessed both the bearing and the eloquence of Winston Churchill. None understood better why Hitler and his ideology had to be confronted — and utterly defeated.

“People say we ought not to allow ourselves to be drawn into a theoretical antagonism between Nazidom and democracy,” he said in a radio address during the Munich crisis of 1938. “But the antagonism is here now. It is this very conflict of spiritual and moral ideas which gives the free countries a great part of their strength.” Once war was declared, Churchill kept reminding the country what the conflict was fundamentally about. “We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defense of all that is most sacred to man.”

For all his faults, President Bush sees correctly what is now at stake in Iraq: The forces of decency and democracy against the macabre vision of al Qaeda and Islamic fascism. His determination to stay the course is grounded in a set of moral and democratic ideals. “As we fight the war on terror in Iraq and other fronts, we must keep in mind the nature of the enemy,” Bush told Air Force graduates two years ago. “The terrorists who attacked our country on September 11, 2001 were not protesting our policies. They were protesting our existence.” He has repeated the message, in various forms, dozens of times. He did so again during his recent visit to Baghdad, in a commencement address this week to the U.S. Merchant Marines, and at a Republican fundraiser. “We’re going to win the war on terror,” Bush said, “if we don’t lose our nerve.”

As the debate in Congress makes painfully clear, too many war critics still fail to admit the blackness of the threat — the hideous inhumanity of radical Islam — that confronts us in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Without this moral realism, detractors have allowed their qualms about the conflict to degenerate into fatalism and defeatism. No surprise, then, that they now lack the resolve to carry on.

It was once said of Winston Churchill that he had “enough courage for everybody.” Churchill’s steadfastness, however, must not be confused with empty bravado. His strength of character was rooted in his life experience, moral clarity, and spiritual conviction. We will need more of that courage in the difficult days ahead, not less.

 – Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a commentator for National Public Radio. His most recent book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.