The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Bush’s Attempt to find a Legacy


September 6, 2007

With his approval ratings in the low thirties–historic lows for a sitting President–Bush is now turning to “history” to vindicate him and his decisions on Iraq. He’s hoping to become another Truman, unpopular due to a war on his watch but later lauded by those looking back on his acomplishments. I don’t think this is likely to happen.

First, this weekend, we recieved an interesting look inside the Bush inner-circle and decision-making process. Harry Truman is venerated for making tough decisions–considering the right path, confering with top advisors, making a choice, seeing it through, and taking responsibility for the outcome. The rap on Bush, especially from his opponents, is that he’s an intelectual light-weight incapable of such weighty deliberations. Remember the 2000 election–a Governor with zero foreign policy experience (couldn’t even name a couple of world leaders) but a good team from his father’s administration to act as a steady hand on the ship of state. The narratives of Iraq that emerges from this auspicious begining are that Bush’s advisors essentially duped him into the Iraq war–devious neoconservative ideologues Wolfwitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld and company steamrolled the Administration into Iraq. Bush, caught in simplistic post-9-11 rhetoric, bought it hook, line, and sinker. The promenance of this narrative is why many observers expected things to change as the top officials in charge of Iraq policy have changed. Gates, England in at Defense, Rice over to State, Crocker and Petraeus in Iraq. Bolton, Perle, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Libby out of government.

What we’re seeing, however, is that these personnel movements are not significantly improving the situation because the dysfunction was never with the staff, it was with the President. The President is much more involved and knowledgable in these decisions than this common narrative suggests.

Take, for example, the criticism of Rice as National Security Adviser:

But none of that has been enough to erase the view that as national security adviser she largely served as a rubber stamp for a series of foreign policy blunders, during a period that critics say will ultimately weigh most heavily on her legacy. “It turned out to be a very disastrous four years in my view,” said Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Mr. Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department while Ms. Rice was national security adviser.

A president poorly served by his senior staff? Perhaps, but don’t blame the staff:

But Mr. Armitage said his view of Ms. Rice had since mellowed. “I’ve become more conscious of the fact that the president got the national security adviser he wanted,” he said in an interview this week.

The President knew full well what he was getting when he selected his advisers, and was seeking the kind of advice they would provide consistent with his own decision-making style.

And in apparent reference to the invasion of Iraq, he continued, “This group-think of ‘we all sat around and decided’ — there’s only one person that can decide, and that’s the president.”

Each and every key decision on Iraq has Bush’s fingerprints all over it.

Take, for example, the decision to disband the Iraqi army, now seen as a poor choice that both increased the instability the US now faces in the country and removed one of the key tools to combat just such violence. Again, the conventional wisdom is that Bremer acted imperiously and alone. Even Bush tries to perpetuate the narrative, somewhat insulating himself:

Mr. Bush acknowledged one major failing of the early occupation of Iraq when he said of disbanding the Saddam Hussein-era military, “The policy was to keep the army intact; didn’t happen.”

But when Mr. Draper pointed out that Mr. Bush’s former Iraq administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, had gone ahead and forced the army’s dissolution and then asked Mr. Bush how he reacted to that, Mr. Bush said, “Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, ‘This is the policy, what happened?’ ”

Except that:

A previously undisclosed exchange of letters shows that President Bush was told in advance by his top Iraq envoy in May 2003 of a plan to “dissolve Saddam’s military and intelligence structures,” a plan that the envoy, L. Paul Bremer, said referred to dismantling the Iraqi Army.

Mr. Bremer indicated that he had been smoldering for months as other administration officials had distanced themselves from his order. “This didn’t just pop out of my head,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday, adding that he had sent a draft of the order to top Pentagon officials and discussed it “several times” with Mr. Rumsfeld.

A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House is not commenting on Mr. Draper’s book, said Mr. Bush indeed understood the order….

Throughout the course of the War in Iraq, Bush knew exactly what he was doing, and far to often, when he had a choice to make, he made the wrong one. When he was poorly served by an adviser or Cabinet member, it was a person he personally selected for that position. He got the staff he wanted, the war he wanted, and he knew what he was asking for. When you take the role of “The Decider” you are also saddled with the consequences. The buck stops there.

Second, consider what Bush has built in his term as President to leave to future occupants of the office.

But he said he saw his unpopularity as a natural result of his decision to pursue a strategy in which he believed. “I made a decision to lead,” he said, “One, it makes you unpopular; two, it makes people accuse you of unilateral arrogance, and that may be true. But the fundamental question is, is the world better off as a result of your leadership?”

Mr. Bush has often said that will be for historians decide….

Perhaps. Historians do have the advantage of knowing how things turn out. But in making this claim, Bush is resting his entire hopes of a legacy on the long-term outcome of Iraq.

Compare it to Truman. It was pretty clear that Korea was not going well and would not end well for the US. Indeed, the best Ike could do was a stalemate armistice quite close to where the war started. However, Truman’s legacy is based less on Korea than it is his handling of the rest of post World War II era. In particular, Truman and his administration built the foundations of international order that still guides much of world politics today: The Breton Woods system, the UN, NATO, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the National Security Act of 1947, and others. Truman led the establishment, legitimization, and early development of so many key institutions that have had such staying power that its difficult to find a President not in his debt (even Bush–who is now relying on NATO, a Truman Administration product, to take over Afghanistan). What has Bush built? What future President will rely on a Bush Administration project, program, or institution as a cornerstone of international security?

Finally, its quite likely that we political scientists as well as historians and presidential scholars hold this administration’s penchant for secrecy against it. We thrive on records–archives, interviews, transcripts, documents, and such. This administration has gone to great lengths to keep those records secret from researchers despite a legal regime designed to open them up for research and historical judgment 12 years into the future.

Contrast this with JFK. Lionized by his contemporaries for his idealism and his tragic assassination, Kennedy’s stature sagged as many of the details behind his carefully manipulated image came to the fore–womanizing, illness, and hiding much of this from the public. Indeed, his Presidential library has been accused of selectively releasing documents to protect his image. However, his legacy has also received a boost from the full disclosure of his Administration’s records. The Kennedy Tapes have reaffirmed his critical role and leadership in a defining crisis of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Well studied by historians and political scientists, it has been dissected repeatedly. Yet Kennedy’s actions and decisions stand the test of time. The tapes, documents, and memoirs help, allowing scholars to weed out the wishful memories and celebratory memoirs and replace them with documented historical evidence (compare Essence of Decision 1971 and 1999–lots more data, but JFK still does alright). Historians need this evidence to build a president’s legacy. Bush is keeping it secret, making it harder for historians to write about him and making its revelation all the more significant when it finally does come to light.

As Bush winds down his term and prepares to leave office, it doesn’t look like history will vindicate Bush. If anything, these trends, over time may only serve to lower his stature among modern Presidents.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.