Wilson in the Mirror

It was early in the new century, and an American President with fundamentalist Christian values declared war upon a foreign ideology. He took the nation to war to fulfill America’s mission to make the world safe for democracy, and to free oppressed peoples in developing nations.

That was President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s personal belief system would plunge an unwilling nation into World War I with the loss of untold lives, domestic liberties and capital. President Bush lends credence to the adage that history repeats itself. The men, their ideologies and their policies are eerily similar.

Both men left state governorships to ascend to the White House at the beginning of new centuries. Both men came from white Protestant backgrounds, although President Bush’s zeal for fundamental Christian values became an acquired taste. Both men were graduates of Ivy League institutions. One can only speculate as to how much better off the nation would be if the comparisons ended there. Tragically, they do not. President Bush appears to be embarked upon the same delusional path as his predecessor was at the turn of the last century.

One author describes this peculiar mindset as Gnosticism. This description accurately captures both Wilson and Bush. "They tend to divide the world into two camps — light and dark — and to interpret all political disagreements and wars as absolute struggles between the kingdom of God and the forces of Satan. Ordinary war becomes the Last Judgment, every battle becomes Armageddon." (Reassessing the Presidency, Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2001, Woodrow Wilson’s Revolution Within The Form, by Richard M. Gamble, p. 416)

Both men campaigned upon slogans which promised no foreign entanglements. Wilson’s re-election campaign slogan, "He kept us out of war," is credited with his narrow re-election victory. Campaigning for election in 2000, George Bush promised not to send the armed forces abroad for what he called nation building, a direct criticism of Clinton’s armed interventions in Somalia and Yugoslavia. Instead, Bush promised to bring troops home from their many foreign deployments, leaving nation building up to the people of those nations.

Within four months of his re-election, Wilson reversed course and took the nation into the very war he promised to keep the nation out of. In a bizarre distortion of the nation’s principles, Wilson argued that entry into the war was an unfulfilled mission of the Founding Fathers, that it was imperative for America not to hoard its freedom and liberty but to expand it throughout the globe. In his April 2, 1917 speech to Congress urging a declaration of war on Germany, Wilson argued that "The world must be made safe for democracy."

President Bush would reverse his campaign promises and take the nation to war within less than a year of his election to the Presidency. Bush would draw upon the same themes as Wilson in selling his war to a reluctant American public. "From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth…It is the honorable achievement of our fathers…The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

The struggle between tyranny and democracy would preoccupy Wilson, who became obsessed with defeating what he termed "[a] thing, not a people." (Ibid at 420) Wilson would not compromise upon what he viewed as the ultimate battle between good and evil. President Bush would strike the same chord in his 2005 inaugural address. "We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery." Bush drew a starker line by demanding that the entire world divide itself into two camps, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."

Wilson navely equated democracy with peace. "A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants." President Bush would ignore decades of history in asserting that "Free nations don’t wage wars of aggression…Free nations are peaceful nations."

Bush’s preoccupation with Saddam mirrored Wilson’s obsession with the Kaiser of Germany. Both men saw their foes as the devil incarnate, poster boys for the "evil" their crusades were designed to eliminate throughout the earth. Both Presidents also attempted to justify the mayhem they would unleash upon the opposing nation by telling the people of that nation that we had no quarrel with them, only their leader. Wilson’s apology, "We have no quarrel with the German people." President Bush produced a template apology in anticipation of multiple uses, "The United States respects the people of Afghanistan… but we condemn the Taliban regime." "The United States and its coalition partners respect the people of Iraq….Our only enemy is Saddam’s brutal regime…" The beleaguered peoples of these nations have no doubt been left to wonder, "With friends like this, who needs enemies?"

It can also be argued that despite their public pronouncements to the contrary, both Wilson and Bush desired a breakup of the nations they went to war against. Wilson’s target was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while Bush sought to end central control and splinter Iraq into Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni cantons. Neither President invented divide-and-conquer, but both were its willing students.

The similarities between Wilson and Bush do not end with their foreign crusades to banish evil from the planet. They also developed tandem domestic policies which were in part driven by their overly ambitious foreign adventures. Wilson used the war as his excuse for severely curtailing domestic dissent and private liberties. The Espionage Act of 1917 and its counterpart the Sedition Act of 1918 were written in terms so broad as to make virtually any criticism of Mr. Wilson’s war a treason punishable by up to twenty years in prison.

President Bush would produce the ironically-named Patriot Act to wield against those who dared oppose his crusade against the evil. More Draconian than either of Mr. Wilson’s laws, the Patriot Act provides virtually unlimited powers to the executive to monitor, arrest and imprison anyone whom the government deems a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer.

Also common to the agendas of Presidents Wilson and Bush, is an unending commitment to warfare to achieve their stated goals. As Gamble details, Wilson was adamant that "u2018There can be no compromise.’ As a minimal condition of peace, he promised, there must be u2018the destruction of every arbitrary power anywhere that can separately, secretly and of its single choice disturb the peace of the world.’" (Ibid at 418) Bush described his war on terrorism as "a task that does not end." "This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion….Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen."

Both Presidents would realize the opposite of their stated goals. Wilson’s legacy was the rise of Hitler and Stalin, the entrenchment of colonial rule, a global recession and the deprivation of liberty at home. Bush is blamed for making America feared and despised across the globe, giving rise to Islamic-based governments, creating an enhanced terrorist threat, and abandoning constitutional protections for Americans. Both Presidents staked their political fortunes upon their foreign campaigns, which initially saw their poll numbers soar only to see them plummet once a gullible public finally came out of its war-induced intoxication.

When George Bush looks in the mirror is Woodrow Wilson looking back?

May 23, 2006

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