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May 23, 2006

Harry S. Bush?
Posted by Derek Chollet

Speaking yesterday in Chicago, President Bush returned to an historical analogy that he has used often during the past few months: Harry S. Truman.  “One thing history teaches,” the President said, “if you look back at some of the written word when Harry Truman had the vision of helping [Japan] recover from the war and become a democracy, a lot of people were saying, it's a waste of his time; hopelessly idealistic, they would say. But he had faith in certain fundamental truths.”

Bush and his team often harken back to the late 1940s and early 1950s to suggest that the new challenges facing America since September 11 are comparable to those that faced Truman -- and more important, that the quality of leadership to meet these challenges is the same.  Each president had to deal with a new threat to the American homeland, and each developed a new American strategic doctrine – containment in 1947, preemption in 2002.  (Jim Goldgeier and I critique this comparison in detail in this summer’s issue of The American Interest)

The appeal of the metaphor is easy to understand.  They want to believe that like Truman, whose popularity ratings were also in the toilet at the end of his term (and whose party got whipped in the 1950 midterm elections), Bush will one day be vindicated by history – that Iraq will turn out to be a stable democracy in the Middle East as Germany and Japan became in Europe and Asia in the 1950s, and that preemption will stand with containment as a brilliant strategy to combat a new enemy.

It is true that Harry Truman is far more beloved today than when he left office, and that he is now considered to be one of America’s greatest presidents, much admired for his folksy style and decisive, gutsy leadership.  Bush likes to call himself the “decider,” and with Truman, everyone knew where the buck stopped.  And Bush very much hopes that, like Truman, he will one day prove the naysayers wrong.

That Iraq will turn out to be a success on the scale of post-World war II Western Europe or Japan is very much in question.  And what such comparisons also overlook is that the Truman administration not only helped build up two major new democracies, but also created the institutions that shaped the modern world and embedded America’s global leadership: the Marshall Plan, NATO, the UN, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the IMF, the World Bank.  Just as important, it also left behind a consensus for America’s global leadership that was enduring and bipartisan.

These decisions had a practical effect: they established the international framework within which future Presidents operated, Republican and Democratic alike.  As of now, the Bush Administration will leave nothing comparable.  If anything, its legacy will be one that future Presidents will work to run away from, not emulate. 

So rather than bolster the President’s case for its foreign policy choices, the Truman analogy does exactly the opposite -- it only reminds one of his Administration’s shortcomings.


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No period after the "S" in Harry S Truman," by the way.

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