Delusions of Historical Grandeur: Comparing Bush to Truman

Mark Updegrove, writing for the Baltimore Sun, in an article reprinted in the San Jose Mercury News, compares George Bush with Harry Truman, who evidently faced similar difficulties in the last two years of his term.

Updegrove writes:

If the growing appreciation Truman enjoyed is any indication, Bush has at least one thing going for him: the indisputable historical significance of the post-9/11 period, offering him the greatest leadership test of his generation. President Clinton was cursed by ruling during relatively placid times, serving as president after the fall of the Iron Curtain and before the fall of the twin towers. Whether history determines that he acted responsibly in the face of the threat from Al-Qaida might not matter if his times aren’t ruled to have counted much anyway. Bush will face no such issue.

Clinton was cursed not “by ruling during relatively placid times,” but by Republicans determined to get something out of the Whitewater investigation, which after “[s]ix years and more than $50 million in taxpayer money,” found a blow job. I’m not going to take on the question of whether Clinton “acted responsibly in the face of the threat from Al-Qaida;” he and his aides seemed to have a fairly vigorous defense to allegations he didn’t:

“I think they ought to tell the truth, particularly if they’re going to claim it’s based on the 9/11 commission’s report,” Clinton told reporters in Arkansas on [7 September 2006].

“They shouldn’t have scenes that are directly contradictory to the factual findings of the 9/11 commission. I just want people to tell the truth.”

Updegrove’s article, published by the Mercury News as news, not an opinion piece, goes on:

And like Truman, Bush may have another thing going for him: the bold decisions he made without hand-wringing and focus-group measuring. Afghanistan had been “the graveyard of empires” before the United States led coalition forces over the border and drove out the Taliban.

Updegrove writes as if the war in Afghanistan were over. That would be news to the NATO forces fighting America’s war there. An article on casts Operation Baaz Tsuka, earlier reported to have several hundred Taliban fighters trapped, as apparently successful, yet acknowledges that the Taliban had not put up much resistance there:

“The assessment is there was a heavy concentration of Taliban in that whole peninsula but the ground force resistance wasn’t that significant,” said Lieut.-Col. Omer Lavoie, commander of the Canadian Battle Group.

“The Taliban, in typical insurgent type of tactics, are willing to take pokes at you and retreat quickly but when it comes to overwhelming combat power I think they learned their lesson in Medusa,” he said.

In other words, the Taliban forces either got away or melted away into the local population.

“The Jihad will be going on until we kick them out of Afghanistan,” said [Taliban spokesman] Qari Yousaf Ahmadi in an interview with The Canadian Press by satellite phone. “The non-Muslims came and occupied our country.”

Meanwhile, “Pakistan has decided to put in place landmines and a fence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as a ‘last resort’ to stop cross-border movement of terrorists,” according to DAWN, which also reports an angry Afghan reaction to the plan. This border, in mountainous country, is notoriously porous. Even if Operation Baaz Tsuka was successful, the Taliban are likely still to have several thousand recruits, and it seems unlikely that this entire border can be effectively fenced or mined.

Updegrove isn’t done yet. “But it is [Bush’s] decision to invade and occupy Iraq — overthrowing its malevolent dictator in the hopes of democratizing the country and having a transformative effect on the Middle East — on which his historical legacy hinges, particularly because he did so without direct provocation.” To believe this is to accept the last of several rationalizations the Bush administration used to justify the invasion. Even if it was true, no one now believes that Iraq can be “democratized;” it is now engulfed in an increasingly bitter civil war. The “transformative effect on the Middle East” can be seen in a disastrous Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, power struggles in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, and American sabre-rattling against Iran.

Walter Shapiro, writing in, asks rhetorically:

How bad a year was it for Bush? There are four distinct stages in the death spiral of a presidency — and Bush managed to reach three of them in 2006. He began the year with desperate, reality-defying belief in spin, as symbolized by this brazen line from the State of the Union: “We’re on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory.” Then came denial, as the president in his bunker believed Field Marshal Karl Rove’s assurances that the Republicans had wonder weapons they would deploy on Election Day. Now we are in the Harry Truman phase, as Bush frequently likens himself to that midcentury president whose approval rating hit 23 percent during the Korean War. Pretty soon the star-crossed Bush (whose own popularity score is barely hovering above 30 percent) may display this motto on his desk: “The Luck Stops Here.” All that is missing in this four-part saga is for Bush to start talking to the portraits on the White House walls — the political version of the Book of Revelation that truly heralds Nixonian end times.

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