How will history look back at the legacy of this presidency?
Oh my. Take a look at sentiments expressed in the Dec. 3, 2001, issue of Newsweek, not quite three months after 9/11, and you’ll see just how deeply disenchanted we’ve since become.
President Bush, the magazine wrote, “has been a model of unblinking, eyes-on-the-prize decisiveness. His basic military strategy ... has proved astute. He has been eloquent in public, commanding in private. He had survived the first blows, made the right calls and exceeded expectations — again.”
The commander in chief doesn’t read much in the way of history books, the article continued. “He’s busy making history, but doesn’t look back at his own, or the world’s. ... Bush would rather look forward than backward. It’s the way he’s built.”
But now, it seems, the president is desperate to find his place in history, to search its tomes, old and new, and grill its authors for redemption and justification. Posterity has suddenly become the focus group about which he cares the most.
Three weeks ago, a front-page, 3,000-word article in the Washington Post began, “At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. ... What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I’m facing? How will history judge what we’ve done?
“... These are the questions of a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation. Not generally known for intellectual curiosity, Bush is seeking out those who are, engaging in a philosophical exploration of the currents of history that have swept up his administration.”
And yet, indications are that despite what the books and scholars try so hard to tell him, he still only hears the parts he wants to hear.
One of the books he admires is Sir Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace,” about France’s defeat in the Algerian War for Independence nearly 50 years ago.
As Salon.com’s Gary Kamiya wrote in May, “(It) recounts the inevitable defeat of a colonialist power at the hands of a small but determined group of insurgents, the National Liberation Front, who effectively used terrorism to win their nation’s freedom.
“Bush officials are looking for clues that will allow them to prevail over a stubborn insurgency, or failing that, find a viable exit strategy. But there do not appear to be many useful lessons in Horne’s book for Bush except ‘don’t.’”
As a result of the Iraq war’s alienation of the Muslim world, “Osama is rubbing his hands in glee,” Horne told Kamiya. “Everything’s going his way. ... I think I would have kept out of Iraq altogether and used special operations to track down al-Qaida.”
Another of the favorite reads at the 1600 Pennsylvania Book Club has been historian Lynne Olson’s “Troublesome Young Men,” an account of the Conservative members of Parliament, led by Winston Churchill, who opposed Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler. Their resolve eventually led to Chamberlain’s resignation and Churchill’s ascendancy to 10 Downing St.
Yet despite what Olson describes as Bush’s “wrapping himself in the Churchillian cloak,” she believes, “the more you understand the historical record, the more the parallels leap out — but they’re between Bush and Chamberlain.”
Writing in the July 1 Washington Post, she noted, “Like Bush and unlike Churchill, Chamberlain came to office with almost no understanding of foreign affairs or experience in dealing with international leaders. Nonetheless, he was convinced that he alone could bring Hitler and Benito Mussolini to heel. He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers and refused to heed anyone who told him otherwise.”
What’s more, she wrote, Chamberlain laid claim to “unprecedented executive authority” and ran roughshod over civil liberties.
Despite the presidential reading list, those who forget history still tend to repeat it, and this White House even forgets history of its own devising. Thus, despite the absence of a plan for rebuilding Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam — the administration’s downfall — there now is no plan for the inevitable withdrawal from Iraq, a task that will be an enormous, time-consuming and dangerous undertaking of logistics, lives and resources.
Instead, in response to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s query about such preparations, Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman accused her of reinforcing “enemy propaganda.”
President Bush, better start leafing through your biographies of Churchill to learn more about strategic retreat. Look in the index under “Dunkirk.”
Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, is a freelance television writer in Manhattan.