President George W. Bush is not known for his love either of books or of history.
Nonetheless, he has frequently been compared to two former presidents who were
both avid readers and even writers of history Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow
Both former leaders also figure large in the historical imagination of some
of Bush's key cabinet officials and supporters.
Likewise, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney
have extolled "TR" as a model of presidential leadership and nationalism.
"Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,"
goes one of Roosevelt's pithier proverbs (along with "Walk softly and carry
a big stick"), which is engraved on a bronze plaque that sits proudly on
the desk of Rumsfeld's Pentagon office.
Indeed, the "national greatness" thesis propounded by the neoconservative
founders of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose charter members
in 1997 included Rumsfeld, Cheney, and more than half a dozen others who would
occupy top foreign-policy posts in the Bush administration, derives directly
from Roosevelt and his "imperialist" associates of the late 1800s.
While TR has been held up as one key historical model for Bush, a second predecessor,
Woodrow Wilson, whose entry into the First World War was justified as a "crusade
to make the world safe for democracy," has been cited as another.
Indeed, the allegedly pacifying, as well as freedom-loving, impact of democracy,
according to the "Bush Doctrine," has become the after-the-fact justification
for his invasion of Iraq and the "Greater Middle East Initiative."
To the administration's neoconservative boosters, Bush represents a synthesis
of the wisdom of the two presidents the Republican realist and the Democratic
idealist who are among the most beloved in the generally hazy historical
memory of the nation.
But according to the The
Folly of Empire, a book published this fall by John
Judis, this interpretation of history is nonsense.
Judis, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
and a veteran journalist who, rare among the breed, has actually studied U.S.
history and the ideas that have animated it, agrees that both Roosevelt and
Wilson, like Bush, were very interested in spreading U.S. influence and ideals
to other countries.
But unlike Bush, he argues, both predecessors learned from their experience
that doing so unilaterally and through the use of force was destined to fail.
Those lessons were also learned exceptionally well by Franklin Delano Roosevelt
one generation later, and, with occasional but predictably disastrous deviations
such as the Vietnam War generally followed by post-Second World War presidents
to the great benefit of the United States, according to Judis.
The problem today, in his view, is that the accumulated wisdom of those precepts
has been cast aside by the unilateralist and coercive trajectory of Bush's foreign
policy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Judis' analysis, which usefully covers the religious antecedents of the sense
of "mission" that has characterized much of American foreign policy
thinking since the Mayflower discharged its Puritan cargo at Plymouth Rock nearly
400 years ago, focuses in particular on two more-or-less forgotten guerrilla
wars that deeply affected his two main president-protagonists.
In Roosevelt's case, the bloody insurgency against the U.S. occupation in the
Philippines that followed the 1898 Spanish-American War soured his youthful
war spirit, which was itself based largely on the theories of Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon
racial superiority widely held by U.S. and European elites at the time.
Promoting those ideas and the notion that Washington had a moral responsibility
to spread "civilization" to the darker races was a small, somewhat
incestuous group of Anglophile "imperialists" who bear an uncanny
resemblance to the neoconservatives and their nationalist fellow travelers of
The group consisted of influential lawmakers, defense officials, authors, journalists
and essayists, including Roosevelt himself, who, working with sympathetic media
magnates, prepared the ground for war with Spain as the first step toward making
the United States a global player on a par with or even exceeding Europe's imperial
To these war boosters, the idea that Cubans and Filipinos would welcome U.S.
troops as "liberators" rather than "occupiers" was gospel.
Washington's swift victory over Spain confirmed to them and indeed much
of the nation that Washington could indeed work its will on the world at
a relatively small price. But as Roosevelt presided over the fierce nationalist
insurgency and the rising cost in U.S. and Filipino lives, he and the public
appeared to lose their appetite for the "noblest sport."
By 1907, TR had determined the United States would have to give independence
to the islands "much sooner than I think advisable from their own standpoint."
He called the Philippines "our heel of Achilles" in the face of rising
Japanese power, saw that the U.S. position in Asia could only be protected through
cooperative action with its allies there, and pulled Washington's defense perimeter
back to Hawaii.
By 1910, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize for concluding the Russo-Japanese
War, Roosevelt was actively promoting a "League of Peace" based on
international agreements and a "world movement" for civilization.
The Roosevelt of 1910 was a very different man from the youthful warrior whose
aphorisms are beloved by the war hawks of today.
Wilson's own religious roots and sense of mission were even stronger than Roosevelt's,
according to Judis, but it was his 1913 intervention against Gen. Victoriano
Huerta in Mexico that tempered his conviction that Washington's role, as he
had applauded it in the Philippines, was to teach Latin Americans "to elect
After expecting that Marines landing in Tampico would be greeted as liberators,
Wilson found instead all of Mexico united in a nationalist backlash. He asked
Argentina, Brazil, and Chile to negotiate a face-saving solution.
The lesson was conveyed to war secretary, Lindley Garrison, who had urged that
U.S. forces march on Mexico City. "There are in my judgment," wrote
Wilson, "no conceivable circumstances which would make it right for us
to direct by force or by threat of force the internal processes of what is profound
revolution, a revolution as profound as that which occurred in France."
The experience was to inform his belief in self-determination, even for those
whom Roosevelt believed to be inferior peoples, set the stage for the Fourteen
Points that Wilson brought to Versailles after the First World War, and confirm
that unilateral U.S. action was not only morally questionable, but counterproductive
at a practical level.
And although Wilson failed to bring the country into the League of Nations
due to personal inflexibility and a devastating stroke, he had set the ideological
stage on which 25 years later Franklin Roosevelt would found a new multilateral
order designed in major part to dismantle the imperialism of the previous century.
"[Theodore] Roosevelt quietly abandoned the project of [U.S.] imperial
expansion that he had advocated as a young assistant secretary of the navy,
but Wilson had made explicit what was merely implicit in Roosevelt's actions,"
according to Judis.
"Americans would differ over the next decades as to how zealously they should
attempt to dismantle other nations' empires, but no president for the remainder
of the twentieth century would advocate the growth of an American empire."
The 21st century, of course, has so far taken a different course.
(Inter Press Service)