A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Illinois Lawyer-President and the General

In November of 1861, Abraham Lincoln and his young Secretary, John Hay (who became his biographer, told this story, and later was Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of State) ventured across Lafayette Square to the quarters of General George B. McClellan, Commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was no admirer of Lincoln ("baboon" was one his descriptives), but this would be a particularly memorable evening, as Hay told it. The general was out, but the President agreed to wait in the parlor for his return. As they sat there, they heard the general arrive home, the servant speak to him, and then the general ascend the stairs. A half hour or so later, the servant informed them that he was sorry, but the general had gone to bed.

Certainly General McChrystal's confrontation with another lawyer-President from Illinois tomorrow is not going to be as hostile as that one. Lincoln swallowed it at the time — McClellan was popular and as yet, barely tested — and only sacked him a year later after more provocations. But Lincoln faced an issue Obama faces as well: when someone (Horace Greeley, maybe?) told Lincoln he should replace McClellan with just about anyone, Lincoln quipped that while his critics had the luxury of replacing McClellan with anyone, the Commander-in-Chief must replace him with someone. It's the summer campaigning season in Afghanistan, and there's no time for a rudderless ship.

That said, all sides need to remember that Obama has supported counterinsurgency — he replaced Gen. McKiernan with McChrystal last year for that reason — and this isn't a difference over policy.

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