Among the great iconic political leaders of America, few are treated with greater veneration (or, in some circles, vilification) than Abraham Lincoln. He appeals to many parts of our national mythology, and he was a ‘war leader’ during a time of great national crisis who melded toughness and tenacity with a firm vision for what America should be – a vision not all Americans shared.
In our modern age there is another controversial president, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. Just as Lincoln, Assad is…
… the head of a geopolitically semi-peripheral, but economically-important, state;
… waging a civil war against geographic and cultural sectarians for control of his country;
… similarly motivated by secularism, realistic concerns for stability and security, and national centralism supported by Russia (for identical reasons);
… opposed by France and Britain (for identical stated reasons);
… accused of starting the civil war and of committing war crimes against civilians;
… changed the goal of his civil war from preserving his country to fighting global terrorism;
… undertaken an early campaign was marked by failure and defections;
… proven more tenacious than predicted and won an election held during wartime.
Both Abraham Lincoln and Bashar al-Assad are classified as secular leaders. Even though Lincoln invoked God and divine providence in his most famous speeches – including the brilliant Second Inaugural – he was not given to favouritism or religious dogma in his public life. ‘That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true,’ he wrote in 1846. ‘But I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.’
Lincoln did, however, have a strong faith – in his nation, defined in such a way that placed it above the states which comprised it. ‘I appeal to all loyal citizens to favour, facilitate and aid this effort to maintain the honour, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government.’ This faith in a single centralised Union superseded whatever religious identity he had, and – contrary to the popular mythology – he was even willing to sacrifice his anti-slavery stance in order to preserve the Union if necessary. Hans Morgenthau ranked him among the great classical realists of American statecraft – a man who placed the national interest above his own personal moral and religious preferences.
That said, his ethical preferences – at least his publicly-stated ones – were, in fact, to create a nation wherein all races and religious sects were treated with equal consideration. In one speech in 1858, he exhorted his audience: ‘Let us discard all this quibbling about… this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and… once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.’
Lincoln was thus opposed by both geographical and cultural sectarians within the United States, just as Assad is opposed by geographical (the Kurds) and cultural (Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham) sectarians in his own country. And many of those same geographical and cultural sectarians ended up blaming Lincoln for the Civil War which followed his election in 1860, just as Assad is blamed for the crackdown on protests that escalated into violent civil conflict. Lincoln was accused of launching an attack on the seceding states (even though a Confederate army fired first on Fort Sumter), and is still accused of committing atrocities against civilians that would now be considered war crimes. The suspension of habeas corpus, John Turchin’s sack of Athens, and William Sherman’s ‘scorched-earth’ March to the Sea – these were laid at Lincoln’s door as accusations of tyranny by his political opponents during his lifetime and by hostile historians afterwards.
One must consider that in Lincoln’s own time, America was still a very young nation and a geopolitical backwater – power was concentrated in the empires of Western Europe, all of which favoured the seceding Confederacy, either directly or indirectly, to the point that the Union had to institute a blockade. Great Britain under the ministry of Lord Palmerston and France under Louis Napoleon III considered a ‘humanitarian intervention’ on the American continent in 1862 on behalf of the Confederacy, though in truth economic interests (notably the textile industry) was driving pro-Confederate sentiment in both governments. At the same time, the Empire of Russia under Alexander II, both to oppose the Western European empires and to assert the principle of national sovereignty, sent a small naval fleet to San Francisco as a warning against such ‘humanitarian intervention’, and in a show of unofficial support of Lincoln and the Union. Consider the modern-day echoes of France and Britain calling for Assad’s removal – ostensibly for humanitarian reasons – and Russia supporting Assad with motives rooted firmly in realist geopolitics.
The early years of the Civil War were marked by military failures on the part of Lincoln’s generals and several high-profile military defections (including Robert E. Lee, a United States general who was approached by both the Union and the Confederacy with offers of command). A turning point was reached, however, between the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg – the latter being the point when Lincoln publicly changed the aims of the war from a simple realist goal of preserving the Union to a more noble and idealistic goal of ending slavery in the seceding states.
During the war, Lincoln’s leadership was contested even in those states still under the control of his government. It was a popular prediction at the time that Lincoln’s government would fail. However, a presidential election occurred as scheduled and Lincoln won the contest against his one-time general George McClellan. In the same way, the election that was held in 2014 in Syria, as the civil war there was at its worst, resulted in a victory for Assad, whose government has similarly kept a tenacious hold on its territory in the country.
It is always a salutary exercise to consider current events through the long lens of history. Our modern-day political leaders tend to not want us to remember further back than our own lifetimes, unless it is with a sense of piety toward our own past and with aloofness at the history of others. The conclusions we come to otherwise might prove inconvenient for them.
Matthew Franklin Cooper blogs at The Heavy-Anglo Orthodox.