History Debunks Bush Myth

U.S. President George W. Bush is not known for his love either of books or of history.

Nonetheless, he has frequently been compared to two former presidents who were both avid readers and even writers of history – Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Both former leaders also figure large in the historical imagination of some of Bush’s key cabinet officials and supporters.

Likewise, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney have extolled "TR" as a model of presidential leadership and nationalism. "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords," goes one of Roosevelt’s pithier proverbs (along with "Walk softly and carry a big stick"), which is engraved on a bronze plaque that sits proudly on the desk of Rumsfeld’s Pentagon office.

Indeed, the "national greatness" thesis propounded by the neoconservative founders of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose charter members in 1997 included Rumsfeld, Cheney, and more than half a dozen others who would occupy top foreign-policy posts in the Bush administration, derives directly from Roosevelt and his "imperialist" associates of the late 1800s.

While TR has been held up as one key historical model for Bush, a second predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, whose entry into the First World War was justified as a "crusade to make the world safe for democracy," has been cited as another.

Indeed, the allegedly pacifying, as well as freedom-loving, impact of democracy, according to the "Bush Doctrine," has become the after-the-fact justification for his invasion of Iraq and the "Greater Middle East Initiative."

To the administration’s neoconservative boosters, Bush represents a synthesis of the wisdom of the two presidents – the Republican realist and the Democratic idealist – who are among the most beloved in the generally hazy historical memory of the nation.

But according to the The Folly of Empire, a book published this fall by John Judis, this interpretation of history is nonsense.

Judis, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a veteran journalist who, rare among the breed, has actually studied U.S. history and the ideas that have animated it, agrees that both Roosevelt and Wilson, like Bush, were very interested in spreading U.S. influence and ideals to other countries.

But unlike Bush, he argues, both predecessors learned from their experience that doing so unilaterally and through the use of force was destined to fail.

Those lessons were also learned exceptionally well by Franklin Delano Roosevelt one generation later, and, with occasional but predictably disastrous deviations – such as the Vietnam War – generally followed by post-Second World War presidents to the great benefit of the United States, according to Judis.

The problem today, in his view, is that the accumulated wisdom of those precepts has been cast aside by the unilateralist and coercive trajectory of Bush’s foreign policy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Judis’ analysis, which usefully covers the religious antecedents of the sense of "mission" that has characterized much of American foreign policy thinking since the Mayflower discharged its Puritan cargo at Plymouth Rock nearly 400 years ago, focuses in particular on two more-or-less forgotten guerrilla wars that deeply affected his two main president-protagonists.

In Roosevelt’s case, the bloody insurgency against the U.S. occupation in the Philippines that followed the 1898 Spanish-American War soured his youthful war spirit, which was itself based largely on the theories of Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon racial superiority widely held by U.S. and European elites at the time.

Promoting those ideas – and the notion that Washington had a moral responsibility to spread "civilization" to the darker races – was a small, somewhat incestuous group of Anglophile "imperialists" who bear an uncanny resemblance to the neoconservatives and their nationalist fellow travelers of today.

The group consisted of influential lawmakers, defense officials, authors, journalists and essayists, including Roosevelt himself, who, working with sympathetic media magnates, prepared the ground for war with Spain as the first step toward making the United States a global player on a par with or even exceeding Europe’s imperial powers.

To these war boosters, the idea that Cubans and Filipinos would welcome U.S. troops as "liberators" rather than "occupiers" was gospel.

Washington’s swift victory over Spain confirmed to them – and indeed much of the nation – that Washington could indeed work its will on the world at a relatively small price. But as Roosevelt presided over the fierce nationalist insurgency and the rising cost in U.S. and Filipino lives, he and the public appeared to lose their appetite for the "noblest sport."

By 1907, TR had determined the United States would have to give independence to the islands "much sooner than I think advisable from their own standpoint."

He called the Philippines "our heel of Achilles" in the face of rising Japanese power, saw that the U.S. position in Asia could only be protected through cooperative action with its allies there, and pulled Washington’s defense perimeter back to Hawaii.

By 1910, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize for concluding the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt was actively promoting a "League of Peace" based on international agreements and a "world movement" for civilization. The Roosevelt of 1910 was a very different man from the youthful warrior whose aphorisms are beloved by the war hawks of today.

Wilson’s own religious roots and sense of mission were even stronger than Roosevelt’s, according to Judis, but it was his 1913 intervention against Gen. Victoriano Huerta in Mexico that tempered his conviction that Washington’s role, as he had applauded it in the Philippines, was to teach Latin Americans "to elect good men."

After expecting that Marines landing in Tampico would be greeted as liberators, Wilson found instead all of Mexico united in a nationalist backlash. He asked Argentina, Brazil, and Chile to negotiate a face-saving solution.

The lesson was conveyed to war secretary, Lindley Garrison, who had urged that U.S. forces march on Mexico City. "There are in my judgment," wrote Wilson, "no conceivable circumstances which would make it right for us to direct by force or by threat of force the internal processes of what is profound revolution, a revolution as profound as that which occurred in France."

The experience was to inform his belief in self-determination, even for those whom Roosevelt believed to be inferior peoples, set the stage for the Fourteen Points that Wilson brought to Versailles after the First World War, and confirm that unilateral U.S. action was not only morally questionable, but counterproductive at a practical level.

And although Wilson failed to bring the country into the League of Nations due to personal inflexibility and a devastating stroke, he had set the ideological stage on which 25 years later Franklin Roosevelt would found a new multilateral order designed in major part to dismantle the imperialism of the previous century.

"[Theodore] Roosevelt quietly abandoned the project of [U.S.] imperial expansion that he had advocated as a young assistant secretary of the navy, but Wilson had made explicit what was merely implicit in Roosevelt’s actions," according to Judis.

"Americans would differ over the next decades as to how zealously they should attempt to dismantle other nations’ empires, but no president for the remainder of the twentieth century would advocate the growth of an American empire."

The 21st century, of course, has so far taken a different course.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.