Woodrow W. Bush: Been There, Done That

Whom to compare GWB to? Nixon? There are similarities in terms of reckless Republican domestic policies but it's not a tight fit on foreign policy. The realpolitik of the Nixon-Kissinger team who inherited the Kennedy-Johnson Vietnam mess differs substantially from the millenialism of…why yes, Woodrow Wilson, that's the one.

Parallels are plentiful. Woodrow Wilson was a southerner, the first elected since Zachary Taylor in 1849. The former Princeton professor and president and New Jersey governor had "…a self-regarding arrogance and smugness, masquerading as righteousness, which was always there and which grew with the exercise of power," historian Paul Johnson wrote. In 1912 Wilson won with 41.8 percent of the vote, the lowest winning percentage since Lincoln's 39.9 percent in 1860. Wilson then won the 1916 election on a neutrality platform, although Wilson embraced force whenever he believed, as he always did, that he had truth, justice and the American way on his side. He intervened militarily, for example, in Mexico (1914), Haiti (1915) and the Dominican Republic (1916).

Wilson was not an international expert and so he told friends before his inauguration in 1913, u2018It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.' Yet this tender moment of modesty was exceptional. In 1912 he wowed the public with the vision (hallucination?) thing: "I believe that God planted in us the visions of liberty…that we are chosen and prominently chosen to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." It would be politically incorrect to bloviate the same rhetoric today but, as a born-again believer, it would hardly surprise if Bush confided as much privately.

It gets worse. Wilson famously said that the world must be made safe for democracy but today's neocons and Bush's speechwriters have lots more to crib from. Ol' Woodrow said that we shall fight "for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments…a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other."

Whew. Love that lost blood and treasure. One of his worst lies, however, was Wilson waxing on at Mount Vernon, of all places, claiming, "We are in this war to fulfill the promise of [the founders'] vision; having achieved our own liberty we are to strive for the liberties of every other people as well." Maybe I've missed something but at least Bush hasn't placed his foreign policy in the original tradition of no entangling alliances and nonintervention.

Wilson's "servant-nation" theory failed rather badly, condemning millions to the horrors of the twentieth century. "Wilson transformed the worthy principle of liberty for us into the limitless and bloody promise of liberty for all," historian Richard Gamble writes. "And he aimed this policy at Central Europe with devastating and lasting consequences." I wonder, can the limitless Bush and company produce comparable unintended consequences in the Middle East and Asia?

Probably not because public opinion won't embrace the invade-and-occupy strategy for long. The benefit-cost ratio worsens daily and that implies resource constraints soon will bind. Even the warmongers at the Weekly Standard sense this. Its lead editorial this week, titled "An Administration of One," slobbers all over the "grand strategy" speech in England in which "the president made the promotion of democracy his central theme." Funny, I don't remember that to justify invading Iraq. Oh well. Yet editorialists Robert Kagan and William Kristol lament "just how little the president's own advisers understand what's at stake in Iraq." Bush "has placed himself at the level of Reagan and Truman," although Bush has an odd problem: how to explain "his strategy to his own cabinet and commanders and insist that they begin implementing it."

Maybe he can erase doubts and rally his team by invading Syria. Then on to Iran? Then he'd probably be promoted to the level of Woodrow Wilson. Let's hope constraints bind before the editors put Bush's leadership on a par with Saint Abraham.

November 27, 2003