Sunday, April 02, 2006

Wild about Harry

Consistent with the Bush administration's new public relations strategy, Alan Dowd at the Weekly Standard has turned once again to the Harry Truman analogy, this time to suggest that the unscrolling atrocity of Iraq may ultimately find vindication in the capable hands of historians, no matter what the contemporary evidence suggests. Reviving all the predictable points of comparison between Bush and Truman -- their religiosity, their blunt and ungrammatical speech patterns, their bold doctrinal pronouncements, and their refusal to pay attention to polls -- Dowd optimistically suggests that when the nation bids George W. Bush a hearty "fuck you" as he departs the White House in 2009, the two presidents will have much in common:
When Truman left the White House, he was generally considered neither particularly successful nor popular. His decision not to seek a third term (even though he was the last president permitted to do so) was evidence of his waning political strength. Yet today, he is ranked among America's greatest presidents.

This is not to say that Bush is destined for a Trumanesque legacy, of course; but neither is he doomed to failure. Tomorrow's historians--not today's polls or pundits--will render the final verdict.

It's hard to know where to begin dis-assembling this train of thought. Since Bush's speechwriters began plagiarizing the Truman Doctrine in the weeks after 9/11, the Truman meme has been reiterated by various species of hawk who insist -- depending on the occasion -- that Bush is merely carrying on the triumphant foreign policy legacy that brought victory in the cold war, or that Democrats have wandered so far into the thickets of lunacy that they can no longer recall the "muscular liberals" of the 1940s. Neoconservatives have always spoken fondly of Truman, deploying heroic couplets and bathetic arm gestures to emphasize what a Mighty Fine Man he was; disaffected Democrats invoked Truman's memory during the early 1970s to scald the McGovernites, and Truman became something of a billiken for Reagan's supporters, many of whom laid breezy and ahistorical claims to the mad hatter's legacy of toughness.

We might suggest that the neocons love Truman because he was the only president with the raisins to drop The Big One, but that would be a bit uncharitable. Their affection for the Truman Doctrine is evidence enough of their deranged nostalgia. A masterful instrument of presidential rhetoric -- and a must-read for anyone who wishes to undertand the early history of the cold war -- the Truman Doctrine was not an unequivocally good thing for the United States. It presented a simplified image of a world carved up between the forces of freedom and totalitarianism, and it pledged unqualified support for free people "resisting armed subjugation" from outside forces anywhere in the world. Contemporaneous realists like Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan believed Truman had lost his marbles. The next year, in fact, Kennan wrote that Truman's "universalistic approach has a strong appeal to U.S. public opinion, for it appears to obviate the necessity of dealing with the national peculiarities and diverging political philosophies of foreign peoples; which many of our people find confusing and irritating. In this sense, it contains a strong vein of escapism.” Over the next few years, the evident "escapism" of the Truman Doctrine would help land the United States in a disastrous and unpopular war in Korea. While the US succeeded in that war by defending South Korea from absorption by the North, few of Truman's more recent celebrants seem to recall that the US also failed in its attempt to "roll back" communism North of the 38th parallel -- nearly 80% of American casualties occurred after Truman decided (unwisely, as it turned out) to remake the Korean conflict into a campaign of liberation. Truman's war, moreover, froze US-Chinese relations for over two decades; helped to lock the nation into the awful monotony of ever-rising defense budgets; and provided the rationale for American commitments to the defense of French Indochina.

Alan Dowd and other Bush supporters are certainly welcome to use whatever historical analogies come to mind, but their preference for Truman might ultimately reveal more than they wish to know about the future that awaits their beloved W.