As he prepares to return home after 45 years in the nation's Capital, former Rep. Lee Hamilton says the question posed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 still remains unanswered as America prepares to celebrate its 234th anniversary on Sunday.
"Lincoln's question whether this nation so conceived and so dedicated will endure was the operative question at Gettysburg and it's still the operative question today," the 79-year-old Indiana Democrat said Thursday after announcing he will soon step down as president of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Affairs, a job he has held since 1999.
"I do not believe that it's written in the stars anywhere that this nation will always be number one and will always prosper," he added. "I'm not pessimistic about that but I think the challenges are formidable."
Hamilton, who served 34 years in Congress, has grappled with many of those challenges as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Joint Economic Committee, and more recently, as co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group.
While he emphasized that he has "a lot of confidence in representative democracy and the institutions of our government, he said those institutions, particularly Congress, "are under a lot of stress today. "What impresses me most of all is the rapidity and complexity of the problems that are coming at us.
"You go back to the 19th century and the political giants were all men who were wrestling with a handful of problems throughout their political careers. And today it's probably an exaggeration, but not too much of a one, to say that our political leaders today are dealing with just as many problems before lunch, and they are problems of enormous complexity."
Foremost among the problems that most concerns Hamilton, whose special interest during most of his career has been foreign policy, are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, each of which he says are going badly.
Hamilton said the appointment of Gen. David Patraeus to head the military effort in Afghanistan means that "what could have been a difficult transition period has become much less difficult. But in order to achieve his goals in Afghanistan, there are still tremendous obstacles to overcome. Things are just not going well as of today."
Hamilton said "the real question in Afghanistan, in my mind, is sustainability, which is often the case in foreign policy. The American people, the polls suggest, are weakening in their support of the war in Afghanistan. And there is a kind of a sense of lack of progress at this time which will only encourage that trend."
While President Obama and General Petraeus "are saying it's going to be a long effort, the question now is will the American people one year, two years, five years, ten years from now, support a major effort in Afghanistan? ... Public support will come only if there's a real sense of progress and if the casualty levels are not too high. But of course right now, the casualty levels have been up, and the sense of progress is just not there."
Hamilton also expressed concern that "American policy is so heavily dependent upon the performance of Pakistan and Afghanistan. With all of our capabilities and resources, we cannot have success without the capable performance by those two countries. And to have the American national interest dependent upon the performance of the Karzai government is very unsettling. But that seems to be where we are.
"We are in fact engaged in nation building in Afghanistan. We don't say that but we are in fact doing that, and it's a necessary part of the effort because as everybody has observed, you're not going to resolve this by military means alone."
As for Iraq, Hamilton said the so-called surge "was certainly a success in military terms, but where it was not a success was in achieving its goal of political objectives, which was to bring about reconciliation. I see Iraq as still very much an unresolved question. It's still a very violent country and the political problems are not close to being resolved.
"So I think you can argue we've done about what we could do, but nobody can argue that we've had a successful experience in Iraq. All of this, without taking into account the enormous costs in terns of lives and resources. I think the experience of both Iraq and Afghanistan has made me much more cautious on the whole question of intervention.... That does not make me an isolationist, but I would look at any future major military intervention with a great deal of caution."
Hamilton and his wife will move to Bloomington, Indiana, this fall, where he heads the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He said he will make the move after his successor at the Wilson Center is named "in the next few months."