Thursday, November 09, 2006

Truman v. Bush

I have been reading David McCullough's Harry Truman biography. As I near the end, I am surprised by the sharp contrast between Truman's legacy and the unfavorable public opinion of his presidency around the time he announced he would not be seeking reelection.

In 1952, news polls reported that only 32 percent of the people approved of the way he was handling his job, despite his successes domestically and abroad. Sounding much like our current president Truman wrote:

I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he'd taken a poll in Israel? It isn't polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It's right and wrong.

In retrospect, Truman has been vindicated, his presidency considered an overall success.

President Bush appears to have much in common with Truman besides a disbelief in the utility of public opinion polls. Like Truman in 1952, Bush is overseeing an unpopular war, there is economic prosperity domestically and his approval rating is hovering in the 30's. Also like Truman, Bush has a stubborn belief in the decisions he makes and uses down-to-earth, straight forward rhetoric to appeal to the everyday person. The parallels beg the question; will history look back as favorably on George W. Bush? Admittedly, it is early to begin speculating, but I'll speculate no matter.

It worried me that despite all of Bush’s mistakes, he could be seen as perhaps one of the greatest presidents. But then I reflected on the leadership style of Truman and that of Bush. Because their presidencies’ have been consumed with foreign policy, I’ll focus there. Both faced their respective problems: Truman the rise of communism and Bush the emergence of Islamic extremism.

Truman was the reluctant leader. He admitted there were men more up to the task of being president than he, but the responsibility was his. In the first weeks in office Truman had to make decisions that brought an end to WWII, met with Stalin and Churchill to decide the fate of Europe and eventually implemented the Marshall plan. While Truman did not seek out these responsibilities, he made it clear that the buck stopped with him and he responded as he best knew how.

He was heavily criticized by everyone and expected to lose to Dewey in the 1948 presidential election, but won a stunning upset victory. He eventually committed American troops to fight an act of aggression in Korea, and was criticized by many for not taking General MacArthur’s advice to broaden the conflict to include China, which would purportedly bring a swift end to the war. Truman decided not to broaden the war, which he believed might risk starting World War III and end in a nuclear holocaust. While charged with being soft on communism, the Truman doctrine set the course to win the cold war.

Bush could be considered a victim of circumstances and the events on 9-11. In a way he was, but the country rallied around him and he took appropriate action in Afghanistan. After invading Afghanistan, the Bush doctrine broadened the war on terror to include Iraq.

Bush has pursued a war in Iraq that will likely be his biggest liability when historians start postulating about his legacy. It was the leadership he has shown in pursuing the Iraq War, which makes him vastly different than Harry Truman. The record will reflect that unlike Truman, Bush had a weak legal justification for going to war, pursued the war without international support and, ultimately, weakened the United Nations (UN). In setting the course for the fight against Islamic extremism, Bush has left the United States without strong international allies and the threat of military force to deal with emerging threats from Iran and South Korea.

In setting the strategy for winning the Cold War, Truman ensured the formation of the UN, bolstered its prominence in international affairs and strengthened our ties with international allies. Bush faces a new set of challenges, but one that he approaches with cowboy diplomacy, disdain for international institutions and air of arrogance, rather than humility and quiet confidence.

Two years from now I wonder what standard should be used to evaluate the success or failure Bush's presidency. One question that comes to mind is if when Bush leaves office, will the United States be better off then when he came into office? Truman certainly did.

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