Defined By War

History will ultimately judge President Bush by how he handles the defining crisis of his presidency, and not by the political rhetoric of his campaign.

March 23, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

IN OCTOBER 2000, the man who has ordered U.S. troops into Afghanistan and now Iraq was very cautious about a president's asserting American authority on the world's stage.

As a candidate for the country's highest office, George W. Bush criticized the administration of his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, for being too eager to use the might of the United States to correct the wrongs in the world.

"I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, `We do it this way, so should you,'" Bush said in one debate.

"I think the United States must be ... proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course," he continued.

In the three debates with Gore, Bush openly disparaged using U.S. forces for nation building.

"I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations," he said. "Maybe I'm missing something here. I mean, we're going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not."

And Bush made clear several times that troops should not be sent in unless it is clear how they are coming out.

"I'm going to be judicious as to how to use the military," he said. "It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious."

That was then. This is now.

Little is clear about the exit strategies in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Much of the administration rhetoric has emphasized using military force to help establish democracy, to build new nations. And the fact that the ugly American perception is now common in much of the world is deemed beside the point.

To be sure, Bush's later actions do not wholly contradict what he said in the campaign. He emphasized that military force should be used whenever the United States or its interests are threatened, a message he has continued to deliver. And he made clear that he was concerned about Saddam Hussein.

"The coalition against Saddam has fallen apart or it's unraveling," Bush said. "The sanctions are being violated. We don't know whether he's developing weapons of mass destruction. He'd better not be or there's going to be a consequence, should I be the president."

But if there were a contradiction, it would hardly be the first time that has happened in American history - nor will it have much to do with the way history judges Bush's presidency. The 2000 campaign - like most campaigns - will be largely forgotten. What will be remembered will be what Bush did after it was whispered in his ear - as he sat waiting to address a group of schoolchildren in Florida - that planes had been crashed into the World Trade Center towers.

Presidents are judged on how they react to crises they are confronted with. Little attention is paid to how those reactions jibe with previous political rhetoric.

Wilson's U-turn

Historians point most definitively to Woodrow Wilson as a president who did a U-turn.

"He more or less campaigned in 1916 on the promise to keep us out of war," says Ted Widmer, director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. "Now his chief fame is not only that he led us into World War I and through a fairly effective performance in that war, but also through a glorious performance afterward."

In April 1917 - only months after his 1916 campaign emphasized keeping the United States out of The Great War raging in Europe, Wilson was asking Congress to declare war on Germany. The reason, says Keith Olson, a presidential historian at the University of Maryland, College Park, was that Germany declared open season on ships in the Atlantic for its U-boats.

Wilson's decisions paved the way for the United States' involvement with Europe and the rest of the world that continued through World War II, the Cold War, the first Persian Gulf War and into the current war on terrorism. Some have described Bush's recent aggressive international policy as "Wilsonian."

But at the time Wilson forged those policies, it was far from clear that they would be fundamental to the future of the United States. In the prelude to World War II, many in this country saw yet another ruinous European war that the United States should avoid. It had been raging for a year when Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term in 1940.

"Very near the end of that campaign, Roosevelt said `I have said it and I will say it again, I will not send your boys into a foreign war,'" says Keith Olson, a presidential historian at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It was a phrase he used over and over again."

Then came Pearl Harbor. The rest is history, which has judged Roosevelt as perhaps the greatest president of the 20th century.

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