Friday, July 13, 2007

History and Iraq: George W. Bush is no Harry Truman

Listening to President Bush’s press conference Thursday, I was reminded of my high school days and of a kid sitting in the back of the class (not me, of course) who is suddenly called upon by the teacher. He doesn’t know the answer to the question so he just keeps talking as if the teacher can be fooled by the mere fact he keeps talking even though he never really answers the question. Mr. Bush came across yesterday as much less informed than the reporters asking the questions. This, of course, is the President who brags about not reading daily newspapers. Peggy Noonan, the conservative Republican speech writer for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, watched George W. Bush’s dismal performance and pessimistically concluded, “Americans can't fire the president right now, so they're waiting it out.”

This is how Andrew Sullivan summed up the President’s press conference:

He's arguing he didn't decide to go to war; Saddam did. He's saying he agrees with his Republican critics. He's blaming the generals for all the combat decisions that have made this war a failure. His blaming Tommy Franks specifically for the troop levels was particularly piquant. So he gave him a Medal of Freedom anyway? Worse, the president conflated every single radical element in the Middle East into one amorphous anti-American entity. It appears that he sees Shiite militias, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, Hamas and the Sunni insurgents as indistinguishable. He has even said baldly that the people bombing and murdering in Iraq are the same people who attacked us on 9/11. The Shiite militias? The Baathist dead-enders? Is he serious? He seems to be still operating under the premise that the fundamental dynamic is one between democracy and radicalism. At some very broad and general level, that's not wrong. But in terms of forming policy, it's close to useless. Actually, it's worse than useless. We have a president who seems unable to understand the critical dynamics of the war he is allegedly waging. Is he capable of understanding the complexity? Does he really think we need another lecture on the evil of al Qaeda? Does he really think that's what we're arguing about at this point?

Either he truly believes that’s what we are arguing about at this point indicating he is just out of the loop or he knows he is responsible for creating a mess but is being evasive because he can’t bring himself to take responsibility. Neither scenario paints a complimentary picture of this President.

Unfortunately, conservatives have put it in this President’s head that he is another Harry Truman so he seems to think the judgment of history will be on his side in the long run. His interpretation of history becomes a story of a leader being unappreciated in the short run but admired for his courage and wisdom over time.

That’s a dangerous delusion and others disagree with the Truman analogy and the President’s interpretation of history. Written before his death in an automobile accident in April and published in the August issue of Vanity Fair, David Halberstam argued that President Bush has a very slight grasp of history that he cites to justify his actions:
We are a long way from the glory days of Mission Accomplished, when the Iraq war was over before it was over—indeed before it really began—and the president could dress up like a fighter pilot and land on an aircraft carrier, and the nation, led by a pliable media, would applaud. Now, late in this sad, terribly diminished presidency, mired in an unwinnable war of their own making, and increasingly on the defensive about events which, to their surprise, they do not control, the president and his men have turned, with some degree of desperation, to history. In their view Iraq under Saddam was like Europe dominated by Hitler, and the Democrats and critics in the media are likened to the appeasers of the 1930s. The Iraqi people, shorn of their immensely complicated history, become either the people of Europe eager to be liberated from the Germans, or a little nation that great powerful nations ought to protect. Most recently in this history rummage sale—and perhaps most surprisingly—Bush has become Harry Truman.

Ironically, it is the president himself, a man notoriously careless about, indeed almost indifferent to, the intellectual underpinnings of his actions, who has come to trumpet loudest his close scrutiny of the lessons of the past. Though, before, he tended to boast about making critical decisions based on instinct and religious faith, he now talks more and more about historical mandates. Usually he does this in the broadest—and vaguest—sense: History teaches us … We know from history … History shows us. In one of his speaking appearances in March 2006, in Cleveland, I counted four references to history, and what it meant for today, as if he had had dinner the night before with Arnold Toynbee, or at the very least Barbara Tuchman, and then gone home for a few hours to read his Gibbon.

I am deeply suspicious of these presidential seminars. We have, after all, come to know George Bush fairly well by now, and many of us have come to feel—not only because of what he says, but also because of the sheer cockiness in how he says it—that he has a tendency to decide what he wants to do first, and only then leaves it to his staff to look for intellectual justification…

When David Frum, a presidential speechwriter, presented Bush with the phrase "axis of evil," to characterize North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, it was meant to recall the Axis powers of World War II. Frum was much praised, for it is a fine phrase, perfect for Madison Avenue. Of course, the problem is that it doesn't really track. This new Axis turned out to contain, apparently much to our surprise, two countries, Iraq and Iran, that were sworn enemies, and if you moved against Iraq, you ended up de-stabilizing it and involuntarily strengthening Iran, the far more dangerous country in the region. While "axis of evil" was intended to serve as a sort of historical banner, embodying the highest moral vision imaginable, it ended up only helping to weaken us.

Despite his recent conversion to history, the president probably still believes, deep down, as do many of his admirers, that the righteous, religious vision he brings to geopolitics is a source of strength—almost as if the less he knows about the issues the better and the truer his decision-making will be. Around any president, all the time, are men and women with different agendas, who compete for his time and attention with messy, conflicting versions of events and complicated facts that seem all too often to contradict one another. With their hard-won experience the people from the State Department and the C.I.A. and even, on occasion, the armed forces tend to be cautious and short on certitude. They are the kind of people whose advice his father often took, but who in the son's view use their knowledge and experience merely to limit a president's ability to act. How much easier and cleaner to make decisions in consultation with a higher authority.

Therefore, when I hear the president cite history so casually, an alarm goes off. Those who know history best tend to be tempered by it. They rarely refer to it so sweepingly and with such complete confidence. They know that it is the most mischievous of mistresses and that it touts sure things about as regularly as the tip sheets at the local track. Its most important lessons sometimes come cloaked in bitter irony. By no means does it march in a straight line toward the desired result, and the good guys do not always win…
If President Bush were the least bit familiar with history of the country the United States invaded and is occupying then he would know that Iraq is less than one hundred years old. The League of Nation formed it at the end of World War I by the merger of the former Ottoman Empire vilayets of Mosul (including much of Kurdistan), Baghdad and Basra into a single nation. It was set up as a British mandate (i.e., de facto colony of an empire of one of the victor nations) and granted independence only in 1932. The country was invaded by the British in 1941 because of the leanings of the government towards the Nazis and occupied until 1947. What native governments ruled the nation called Iraq were either monarchies or military dictatorships.

Perhaps, more importantly, of the four multi-national/multi-ethnic states that were put together following WWI – the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Iraq – only Iraq survives. Of course, the current American policy is to deny the existence of a civil war and fight to avoid the natural partition of the country into three nation-states. The Kurds, the only trusworthy friends of the U.S. in the country, have had their own national aspirations and have already set up a nation within a nation. If President Bush were familiar with history then he would know how easily a country like Iraq can come unravelled if a lot of thought and planning don’t go into an operation like the one the United States is currently engaged. He would know that once civil war starts, it is extremely difficult to end.

Harry Truman surrounded himself with the most qualifed foreign policy advisors of the day, despite his lack of formal education he was widely read and took the opinions of others into consideration, he fired Generals, and he took responsibility for his decisions --“The buck stops here.” George Bush is no Harry Truman.

(Halberstam’s essay is too long to reproduce on this blog and can be read here in it’s entirety here. And I do recommend you read the entire piece – it’s very good.)

1 comment:

Jim said...

Indeed, Dubya is no Truman. Bush is more like James Buchanan, who sat by while his nation split apart before his very eyes, and Herbert Hoover, who kept saying that prosperity was around the corner. See my Periodic Presidents page. Bush is a Nero/Hamlet president. Truman was an Outspoken president