Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, Ben-Gurion and Bush

An American president who chooses to realize his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief can enforce his authority more than a prime minister in Israel can, even one that has taken the defense portfolio for himself.

"If I could ask President Bush to read one book," Washington-based journalist William Kristol recently wrote, only half-jokingly, "it would be this book." Kristol, editor of a weekly that represents a school of thought that is represented in the Bush administration by Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, bestowed this high praise on "Supreme Command," by Eliot Cohen, a book about "Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime."

Surprisingly, his wish was fulfilled. According to Bush, it is the one book he took along with him on his long summer vacation in Crawford, Texas. Did he really read it? It matters not. The main message can be found on the book jacket: Big victories require that national leaders involve themselves in the implementation of policy.

Lying behind this seemingly obvious statement, is the big showdown into which Bush has been pushed: to function as the bona fide commander-in-chief in the war on Saddam Hussein and not to be disconcerted by the reservations raised by the generals, who in Cohen's opinion failed Bush Sr. in 1991, with a combination of impetuosity and tentativeness. Cohen throws up a challenge to Bush, by way of four shining examples of civilian leaders who waged war while managing to retain control of the details: U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (the Civil War) and three prime ministers: George Clemenceau in France (World War I), Winston Churchill in Britain (World War II) and David Ben-Gurion in Israel (the 1948 war).

Cohen finds a common denominator to all four: Clemenceau admired Lincoln, Churchill admired Clemenceau, Ben-Gurion learned from Churchill. Lincoln was a serial dismisser and appointer of combat commanders until he found Ulysses Grant; Clemenceau assessed that war - a multi-disciplinary action pursued by a nation, not by an army alone - is too important to be left in the hands of the workmen-officers; Churchill refused to succumb to his field marshals and admirals; Ben-Gurion let the military men know who was in charge, being, as he was "not an expert, but an expert on experts."

Incidentally, Cohen offers his readers arguments in favor of the just nature of the Zionist enterprise; and since the Ben-Gurion example is the last link in this generational dynasty, it develops that the author expects George Bush to pick up from where Ben-Gurion left off.

Should G.W.B. take after B-G? Should the fake cowboy learn from the actions of the Old Man from Sde Boker? Cohen thinks so, and he offers his readers a synopsis of Ben-Gurion's in-service training on defense affairs, and how he dealt with the sort of public figures who may not be very well known in Texas - Yisrael Galili, Yitzhak Sadeh, Yaakov Dori, Chaim Laskov, Yigael Yadin, Moshe Carmel and Yigal Allon.

The organizational structure is different. An American president who chooses to realize his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief can enforce his authority more than a prime minister in Israel can, even one that has taken the defense portfolio for himself (Ben-Gurion borrowed from Churchill's example). The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triangle exudes a willingness to amass public support and give the professional echelons directives to be executed.

That is the organizational side, but even more important is the heart of the decision-making: choosing between alternatives, when the decision to launch a preventive preemptive strike might destroy the evidence to prove it was unavoidable. If Roosevelt had joined Churchill before Pearl Harbor, without a broad national consensus, he would never have been able to prove the belligerence of Japan and Germany. If Bush had struck bin Laden before September 11 last year, no one would have believed that such an atrocity could have occurred. If Bush takes action against a pre-nuclear Iraq, observers will no doubt question the likelihood of any scenario of mass destruction actually taking place.

"Supreme Command" encourages Bush to assume a rare breed of leadership, one that is willing to be daring and take action before the disaster hits. It looks as if the author will not be disappointed by this particular reader's choices, in both policy and summer reading.