Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Truman Show

Fred Kaplan doesn't think there is much change in store with respect to President Bush's foreign policy over the next two years. At least not in Iraq - though there are wider ramifications.

Like Kaplan, I also don't see much room for Democrats in Congress to affect Bush's Iraq policy through threats to cut off funding and the like. Not only would that be political suicide of a kind that leaves an indelible mark, but, as Kaplan noted, "purse strings are unwieldy instruments for such purposes." Absent a broad, bi-partisan consensus to rein in Bush's Iraq policy, his status as Commander in Chief leaves little room with which to operate.

Democrats should, nonetheless, continue to turn up the heat through the use of public hearings and new found subpoena power so as to highlight the flaws in Bush's strategy, unearth the record of mistakes made, and keep such topics in the news. The elusive bi-partisan support mentioned above could be bolstered by such actions, especially if the public's opposition to the war is further consolidated.

Despite the paucity of options, though, I find the account of Bush's obstinancy, and recent attention to presidential history, to be disconcerting.

It's a dangerous sign when politically ailing sitting presidents read biographies of Harry Truman, as Bush has apparently been doing for a while. It's like failing artists who take solace from the fact that van Gogh didn't sell many paintings in his lifetime either. Maybe they'll end up like van Gogh, too, appreciated years later. Then again, maybe they're just lousy artists....

And so it's distressing to read in the Washington Post of a meeting last month at which Bush told congressional leaders "that Truman's approach to dealing with the Cold War was not initially popular but that he was vindicated by history—the implication being that Bush would be vindicated about Iraq as well."

White House spokesman Tony Snow downplayed this implication, saying Bush didn't mean to liken himself to Truman. But look at Bush's commencement address last May at West Point, where he drew the comparison explicitly:

By the actions he took, the institutions he built, the alliances he forged and the doctrines he set down, President Truman laid down the foundations for America's victory in the Cold War. … Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before—and, like America in Truman's day, we are laying the foundations for victory.

But these comparisons are far from flattering. Where are Bush's institutions and alliances—his Marshall Plan or NATO? What (besides the discredited, and somewhat retracted, one about pre-emption) are his doctrines? Truman was unpopular in his day because many people didn't like the direction his Cold War strategy was taking them. Bush is unpopular because, it becomes clearer by the day, he doesn't seem to have a strategy.

It's as if Bush separated the wheat from the chaff when parsing Truman's presidency, and kept only the chaff. All stubbornness, unpopularity and defiance with none of the substance, strategic insight and institutional fortification that will bear fruit at some future point.

If Bush is looking for a Truman-esque legacy, then he should turn to Truman's actual playbook - not his stylistic trappings. Along those lines, Blake Hounshell recently wrote about Truman, and his most able Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, with an eye toward updating their approach to fit the current context.

Under normal circumstances, I'd hope that someone with access to the President would make the suggestion that he start listening to such arguments. But the failing artist in the White House cut off his ear a long time ago.

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