David Sanger has a stinging article in the New York Times today basically ridiculing President Bush’s notions of Iraq-related legacy building. He suggests that the President’s recent actions on everything from Supreme Court appointments to rhetoric about democratizing Iraq are designed to get historians to see his presidency as an FDR-type reign rather than that of a Franklin Pierce.
Sanger’s piece indicates that either David has finally just had it with the White House and is ready to forfeit his White House spot to someone else — or he, like so many others, senses real weakness in the Bush White House team and sees this as the time to begin emphasizing that the wannabe emperor really has no clothes on.
Sanger’s critique is hard-hitting and would have been practically impossible for him to write three years ago without serious retribution from Karl Rove and company. One would hope that writers of David Sanger’s stature would always write boldly and candidly — and Sanger generally has, particularly on White House foreign policy and nuclear negotiations missteps — but writing about the White House and the President is also walking a tight-rope between the public’s right to know and the President’s willingness and obligation to be transparent.
But bravo for today’s piece.
Sanger goes after Bush for feeling that there is a “stuff of legacy” in America’s Iraq invasion and occupation.
BEFORE he retreated behind the fences of his ranch here to ring out a bruising year, President Bush made it clear that even with three years to go, he already regards his presidency as a big one in the sweep of American history.
He insists that his real motive in conducting the war in Iraq is to democratize one of the least democratic corners of the earth. He regularly quotes Harry Truman, who rebuilt Japan and Germany while remaking American national security policy from the ground up. Several of his speeches have deliberately included Churchillian echoes about never surrendering to terrorists and achieving total victory, along with made-for-television imagery to drive home the message.
Mr. Bush, of course, is trying to give larger meaning to a war whose unpopularity dragged down his presidency last year. But at moments he often seems to also be talking directly to historians, tilting the pinball machine of presidential legacy. It may not be too early: the year 2006, many in the White House believe, will cement the story line of the Bush presidency for the ages. And there is growing acknowledgment, perhaps premature, that his standing will rise or fall with the fate of Iraq.
Maybe so, but presidential legacies are complicated – a point proven by Truman himself, whose reputation has aged so well that it is almost forgotten that he left office mired in the intelligence failures, early mistakes and the ultimate muddle of the Korean War.
“They have learned to love the Truman analogies in this White House because it’s a reminder that legacies are built out of events that happen long after most presidents leave office, when we see things through the lens of later events and one or two ideas look like big turning points,” said Richard Norton Smith, who heads the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Ill. Only in retrospect do we regard Truman’s decision to integrate the armed forces as a precursor to the civil rights movement, something he did while containing Stalin and establishing NATO.
These days, you can almost hear this administration struggling to find its own combination of domestic and foreign programs – Supreme Court appointments and education initiatives, tinkering with domestic liberties in the name of facing down foreign enemies – that makes the difference between an F.D.R. and a Franklin Pierce.
The entire article is worth reading, but pay particular attention to the comments by MIT’s brilliant Japan historian John Dower:
To some historians, spinning the meaning of victory seems an exercise in futility. “It’s ridiculous talk,” John Dower, the historian who has chronicled war propaganda and written the definitive history of the American occupation of Japan. “People know what victory looks like,” he said, and are unlikely to adopt the president’s definitions.
But what truly sets Mr. Dower off are Mr. Bush’s comparisons between rebuilding Iraq and the postwar rebuilding of Japan. He and others note that Japan was religiously unified with some history of parliamentary government and a bureaucracy ready to work as soon as the conflict ended.
Like Dower, I have long been irritated and incensed by the President’s comparisons of the occupation of Iraq with that of Japan. Dower notes that the basic components of the Japanese state were more intact and also had a structure that could be used to manage the government and generate a representative parliamentary assembly more readily than in Iraq.
But if we gave the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt for a moment — at the beginning of the conflict — there were many things that the occupation of Japan should have told us. First and perhaps most importantly, a large new class of political and economic winners needed to be quickly generated because of America’s presence. In Japan, we accomplished this with farmers via land reform. This might have been possible with some formula of resource-sharing or dividends from Iraq’s oil wealth with every working age Iraqi citizen. Instead, the U.S. pushed buckets of money into the clutches of self-aggrandizing political elites, like Ahmed Chalabi — and did nothing for Iraq’s average citizens.
The Occupation would still have been wrong-headed in my view, but there were ways at the very beginning to get an occupation right. We seemed to check off all the steps in getting an occupation wrong.
The other practical reality that America’s Japan experience should have taught us — and about which John Dower and other historians on the Japan Occupation have written — is that some of the early calculations about political winners and losers can be wrong. It’s important to be able to maintain the option to back up and reverse course.
In the April 1946 elections that first followed the American occupation, a “liberal” in the European sense — Ichiro Hatoyama — cobbled together a new party and a likely government coalition that had him ascending as Japan’s first prime minister.
In fact, Hatoyama was a conservative who believed in individual liberty, in real democracy, and a minimal state — but his embrace of democratic process unnerved some in Douglas MacArthur’s operation and he was “purged” literally on the eve of becoming prime minister. Instead, America helped engineer the ascension of a bureaucrat with little political party experience, Shigeru Yoshida.
Yoshida’s grandson, Taro Aso, happens to be Japan’s current Foreign Minister and no doubt owes a lot to America undermining Japan’s early democratic process.
America’s efforts in the long run somewhat backfired as Ichiro Hatoyama made a comeback, dethroned Yoshida whom he felt was a traitor, and merged the Liberal and Democratic parties of Japan into one mega-party, the LDP. Yoshida then began flirting with the Soviets and worked to normalize relations with them — in part because it was in Japan’s strategic interests to do so but also in part because America had misplayed its hand with Yoshida.
After the purge of Hatoyama, the real winners in Japanese political circles — particularly locally — became the Socialist and Communist parties, which had been harrassed by Japan’s ultra-conservatives before and during the war.
With the Cold War breaking out, the American government saw increasing tension with a global problem of Soviet communist aggression while in Japan America was coddling the political expansion of communist and socialist political participation. America reversed course and began to purge high-ranking communist and socialist adherents and restoring to positions conservatives it had previously purged. The highest profile of these was Nobusuke Kishi, a former Class A War Criminal who had served as Minister of Munitions during the war. Kishi later became Prime Minister of Japan and was a staunch ally of the U.S.
The lesson here regarding Iraq is that we have tilted the political system towards Iran-leaning Shia theocrats, much like America did with communists and socialists in Japan. While America deployed a systematic purge of war-making and war-promoting intellectuals, business leaders, and politicians in Japan, it figured out a way to rebrand competent conservatives who could be counted on to serve in government. In contrast, America has simply booted out all former Baathists, even those who wore that distinction lightly and were drawn to serve in government no matter the regime.
America has undermined secularism in Iraq and should have always kept that door open.
Now, in contrast to Japan — America can’t back up, can’t reverse course — and has set into motion a set of realities that are likely to be convulsing and exploding for many years in the Middle East. America’s mystique and global influence will dramatically suffer because of Bush’s reckless gamble.
If the President had a great deal less ignorance about America’s experience with Japan, he would realize that the practical realities that we learned in Japan were completely ignored in Iraq.
A quick search of America’s worst presidents produces links to James Buchanan, Warren Harding, and Franklin Pierce.
George W. Bush turns out to be a bold president, willing to take huge risks and make tough judgment calls — but by most accounts, he is not an intelligent man and made decisions on gut more than serious analysis. This makes him the worst kind of president — a kind of anti-FDR.
As former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson recently stated, the framers of the National Security Act after World War II feared a future strong, dumb president — and felt that much needed to be done to protect the country from someone like a George W. Bush.
Wilkerson stated (regarding the framers of the 1947 National Security Act):
But these were probably some people who I think rivaled those who got together that hot summer in Philadelphia and put together the Constitution. We have had some peaks and valleys in our history, but I think post-World War II and World War II itself was a peak, and we had some really good people thinking hard about these issues.
And one of the things that they probably wouldn’t tell you if they were here today — unless they’d had a few drinks, and Harry Truman would have had a few — (laughter) — is that they didn’t want another FDR. They did not want another Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
They even amended the Constitution to make sure they didn’t get one for more than eight years. But they didn’t want the secrecy, they didn’t want the concentration of power, they didn’t want the lack of transparency into principal decisions that got people killed, even though they’d been successful in arguably one of the greatest conflicts the world has seen. And so they set about trying to ensure that this wouldn’t happen again.
I don’t think even his critics would have argued that FDR wasn’t a brilliant politician and a brilliant leader. But let’s think about it for a moment, if you are one of the framers. How often does America get brilliant leaders? Put them down on paper. I can count them myself on one hand. You can perhaps count them on two hands and make persuasive arguments for the additions. I prefer one hand.
So we need a system of checks and balances and institutional fabric that can withstand anybody — or at least nearly so. (Laughter.)
You know, you laugh, but I’m not trying to solicit your laughter. I think it’s a real problem in our democracy. You have to have a system that is so elastic, so resilient, so able to take punches that at one time one branch can supplant another, or one branch can come up and check another. It’s the old business of checks and balances.
If you concentrate power and you do it in a way that is not that different from the way Franklin Roosevelt concentrated it, but you don’t have someone who is brilliant at the utilization of that power, you’ve got problems. You’ve got problems.
You may have problems even if you have someone who is brilliant. Go ask people who’ve written about Woodrow Wilson — although I wouldn’t say Woodrow Wilson had concentrated power quite the way FDR did.
And of course the war and the depression gave him ample opportunity to do things to abridge civil liberties, for example, that even Abraham Lincoln didn’t go to in a conflict that produced far more casualties and arguably was more passionately fought, certainly in terms of the families of America. But too much power, too much secrecy — they wanted to get rid of that.
I agree with Wilkerson that America needs a new National Security Act because the measures taken by the framers of America’s post-WWII national security institutions failed to contain the damage to the country that a George W. Bush could inflict.
It’s time to go back to the drawing boards.
— Steve Clemons