Is Bush our Woodrow Wilson?
President Bush used the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to reaffirm his belief that history will vindicate him. He likes to compare himself to Harry Truman, who left office with low poll ratings because of the Korean War but today is held in high esteem by most historians.
Truman biographer David McCullough warns that about 50 years have to go by before a presidency can be historically appraised. But by this stage of Truman’s presidency, the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were already judged to be solid accomplishments, whereas Bush lacks comparable successes to compensate for his mismanagement of Iraq.
There’s another wartime president who may be a more instructive comparison when speculating how future historians will regard Bush: Woodrow Wilson.
Bush and Wilson have many similarities. Both were highly religious men who came to office without any foreign policy experience and who responded to a crisis -- Wilson to World War I, Bush to 9/11 -- with a bold, moralistic vision. Wilson vowed to make the world safe for democracy, and Bush tried to transform the Middle East by imposing democratic government on Iraq.Many of Bush’s speeches about promoting democracy abroad could have been given by Wilson. The expressed ideals in both men’s proposed visions of changing other countries were unachievable given our nation’s capacities.
And both presidents were stubborn. One of Wilson’s advisors said: “Once a decision is made, it is final. There is no moving him after that.” For instance, Wilson badly wanted the Senate to ratify U.S. membership in the League of Nations, but when he was offered a compromise that would have led to just that, he adamantly refused to bend. it. When even his wife pleaded with him to reconsider, he replied, “Little girl, don’t you desert me; that I cannot stand.”
Bush was slow to admit mistakes in his Iraq strategy. It wasn’t until August 2004 that he conceded that he had “miscalculated” the postwar situation in Iraq, but even then he insisted that his strategy was flexible enough to deal with the then-building insurgency.
In judging leaders, there is always the question of luck. Wilson was unlucky that a stroke crippled him in the midst of his campaign to educate the public about the League of Nations. Ironically, had the stroke killed him, the Senate almost certainly would have ratified a version of his League, and he would have left office (posthumously) as a hero. Instead, his stubbornness led to the rejection of his multilateral approach to foreign affairs, and the isolationism that followed minimized the country’s global influence for the next 20 years. Eventually, Wilson’s reputation was rescued by World War II, which spawned the conditions that allowed Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman to create the United Nations as a descendant of Wilson’s League.
I doubt Bush will be so lucky as to have his presidential reputation rescued. Some dimensions of luck are fortuitous; others are self-made. Reckless reality-testing and unnecessary risk-taking often produce “bad luck.”
Future historians are likely to fault Bush for recklessly testing reality by failing to understand what it would take to transform Iraq into a successful democracy and by failing to develop a broad coalition of support. As Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff put it in a 2007 article in the New York Times Magazine, “It was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself.”
Wilson, by contrast, was neither reckless nor unilateral in entering World War I.
History tends to be unkind to the unlucky, but historians also judge leaders in terms of the causes of their luck. Even if unexpected events lead to a more stable and peaceful Middle East 20 years from now, future historians will probably criticize the way Bush distributed the risks and costs of his actions in the region. For instance, many Middle East observers believe that Bush’s poor handling of the invasion of Iraq has set back, rather than advanced, freedom and democracy in the region. According to an annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization, there has been a significant decline in freedom in the Middle East, notably in Egypt.
The conservative British politician Enoch Powell once wrote that “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.” A president’s stature in history is helped if he leaves office at the top of his game, as did Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Bush, like Wilson, does not have that choice. Bush, unlike Wilson, will leave office without a military victory in his war, with few significant foreign policy achievements and with America’s moral and political standing in the world diminished.
Although it is possible that future historians will vindicate Bush like they have Wilson, the odds do not favor him. He will more likely be seen as a victim of his reckless judgment and self-created bad luck.
Joseph S. Nye Jr., a professor at Harvard University and member of the board of directors of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is the author, most recently, of “The Powers to Lead.”
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