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Thursday, March 09, 2006 | Historians come together from time to time to rank U.S. presidents. The exercise was started after World War II by Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and continued after his death by Arthur Jr., both eminent historians. The rankings have produced few surprises over the years, with Lincoln, FDR and Washington always among the top three, Eisenhower and Truman steadily moving up and Lyndon Johnson and Nixon sinking.
As a variation on the theme, a different group of historians was asked recently to rate the 10 worst presidential mistakes through history. The worst mistake, according to the vote of these worthies, was made by Buchanan, who failed to prevent the Civil War. Buchanan has long been at the bottom of the Schlesinger lists for his do-nothing presidency, but blaming him for not preventing the Civil War is preposterous. Lincoln, who consistently heads the Schlesinger lists, could be blamed for the same thing.
What bothers me about the latest exercise – which was carried out by a broad national group of historians convened by the University of Louisville – is that it included presidents only through Clinton. George W. Bush was given a pass, presumably because he is still in office and not yet “history.” I see no reason, however, that we cannot have an assessment of Bush’s first term, which is, thank God, history.
I believe Bush’s Iraq war will go down as the greatest strategic blunder in our nation’s history. Leaving aside the horrors of the conflict itself – the terrible toll it inflicts daily on a civilian population that we pushed into civil war – Bush’s war has done more to damage America’s long-term interests, reputation and relationships than any other event in our history. Not even Vietnam can match it.
The Louisville group ranked the Vietnam War under Lyndon Johnson as the third worst presidential mistake (the second worst, they said, was Andrew Johnson’s siding with Southern whites after the Civil War). In the context of the times, however, Vietnam made more sense than Iraq. We know Vietnam was wrong today, but in 1965, when Johnson made the decision to escalate, the nation believed Southeast Asia was threatened by communism. Johnson, like Eisenhower and Kennedy before him, believed Vietnam the right place to make a stand. Unlike for Bush’s war, the nation was solidly behind him.
Interestingly, Nixon’s continuance of the Vietnam War four more years after his election in 1968 (on a platform to end it), did not make the top ten mistakes. The historians rated Nixon’s Watergate follies the fifth worst blunder, but gave him a pass on his pursuit of the Vietnam War – a far more egregious error than Johnson’s, for by Nixon’s time we knew the war was a disaster.
Eventually, at the cost of another 20,000 U.S. lives, Nixon came up with a plan to get out of Vietnam. Bush, on the other hand, has mired the nation in draining, murderous, endless conflict in Iraq with no clue how to get out. Bush has turned Iraq, a former unitary nation, into an anarchistic hellhole, broken its national fabric, while at the same time making America the most despised nation in the world.
And the historians gave Bush a pass.
I was a foreign correspondent in Europe during the Vietnam War. I saw the damage done to our reputation and interests abroad, especially after 1968 when the war’s effects led to the collapse of the dollar. Nothing during those years, however, comes close to the loathing that Bush’s war has created around the world. Despite Vietnam, Americans were still welcomed and honored in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, still remembered for what we had done to rescue Europe and keep it free.
It was financial – not moral – strain that led to our withdrawal from Vietnam, and I suspect it will be the same in Iraq. Until their pocketbooks are hit, Americans maintain a high tolerance for atrocity and imbecility. Newspapers like the local one relegate the daily Iraq carnage to the back pages, helping us to forget; the connection between the present sectarian killing and Iraq’s secular tradition goes unmentioned; rising anti-U.S. sentiment across the Middle East is rarely reported; the lies Bush told to win support for the war, like Iraq’s alleged ties to al Qaeda and 9/ll and its alleged weapons of mass destruction, are forgotten. And where have all the neo-cons gone?
The exercise of the Louisville historians was a useless one. As I look down the list, I don’t see presidential mistakes so much as I see national ones. Buchanan had no more chance of preventing the Civil War than Lyndon Johnson had of turning his back on what Eisenhower and Kennedy had started before him. Their actions, or lack of them, were in the nature of things. So were Madison’s War of 1812 (ranked sixth) and Wilson’s failures after World War I (fourth). Only Jefferson’s embargo act of 1807 (seventh), Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco (eighth), Reagan’s Iran-Contra trickery (ninth) and Clinton’s White House trysting (10th) were presidential choices that could have been avoided.
Iraq, a war of choice, was never in the nature of things, and the failure is a national one. The 2000 election can be excused, but in returning this president to office knowing of his lies, incompetence and errors, we the people assumed full responsibility. Unlike in 1968, when Americans voted (they thought) against the Vietnam War, we voted Bush back into office in full knowledge of the consequences on Iraq and America. The media and the Congress colluded with Bush in this national failure.
Belatedly, Bush is plummeting in the polls, abandoned by all but the hardest core Republicans, those who probably think Jack Abramoff is just another fund-raiser.
What changes Bush has brought to America, once the nation of Lend Lease and Normandy, Guadalcanal and “Layfayette, we are here.” Today we are the land of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Guantanamo, domestic spying, secret overseas gulags, faulty intelligence, legalized torture and presidential lies. The list of failures is endless.