A review of War and the American Presidency, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
To be sure, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has spent at least as much of his career engaged in partisan activities as in scholarly ones. Nevertheless, when the author of The Age of Jackson (1945) publishes a book with the title War and the American Presidency, the reader expects a tome that sheds light on the intellectual history of American foreign relations. What he gets is a screed for the 2004 presidential campaign.
Thankfully, the outpouring is small. The contents are recycled from the author's unconnected opinion pieces in Foreign Affairs and The New York Review of Books. The back-cover endorsements from professional partisans Walter Cronkite ("astuteness," "brilliance"), Douglas Brinkley ("an essential manifesto"), and Robert McNamara ("contrasts the Bush foreign policy with two centuries of American experience") are what one would expect. But the blurb by accomplished historian Robert Dallek ("a book for all seasons… an American classic") is a sad indication of how partisanship has crushed academic standards.
Such a little book, so much embarrassment. Here is a professional American historian who wants to call Jefferson and John Quincy Adams imperialists. He cites their high regard for Cuba's value to the United States, and their recognition that its future would be intertwined with America's. But he ignores their oft-stated, forceful opposition to governing the Cuban people or any other foreigners. In Schlesinger's circles, truth does not get in the way of a good cause.
Everywhere there are non sequiturs. For example: "Since we [i.e., George W. Bush] arrogate to ourselves the exclusive right to wage preventive war, we ignore the dark warning of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams against 'going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.'" Even to someone who knows nothing of Bush or Adams, Schlesinger's proposition "B" is unrelated to "A." Add to this that it is impossible to make a case that Adams's speech opposed "preventive war," that there is no evidence for the proposition that Bush's claim to the right of attacking before his country is attacked is novel, and that no U.S. official has ever claimed that this right is exclusive, and you have a feast of non sequiturs consisting of pure baloney.
Then there are the conspiracy theories. Did you know that Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad, knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) but helped inveigle the Bush Administration to invade Iraq nonetheless? So for Schlesinger the invasion of Iraq was in part a Jewish conspiracy to further Israel's interests over America's. Hmmm….
Next to this sort of thing mere double standards are small stuff. And so Schlesinger, while chastising George W. Bush for invading Iraq without specific U.N. authorization and with only the American people's express permission, praises Harry Truman for having waged the Korean War—which he did without even trying to gain the U.N.'s permission as required by Article 43 of the U.N. Charter, not to mention without asking Congress for its permission. He tops off what he regards as the invidious contrast between Bush the warmonger and Truman the peacemaker by quoting the latter: "There is nothing more foolish than to think that war can be stopped by war. You don't 'prevent' anything by war except peace."
Our Best and Brightest fawn over these and many other heroics because they are pursuing what Schlesinger calls "regime change in Washington."
The book's main point is in the second of the six reworked essays, "Eyeless in Iraq." It seizes on the fact that the first of Bush's expressed reasons for invading Iraq, its WMDs, turned out to be invalid, and that Bush himself on September 17, 2003, disavowed his halfhearted talk of Saddam's connection to international terrorism in general and 9/11 in particular. All true. Readers of the CRB and of my "Victory" series on the war did not have to wait for the invasion— or for Schlesinger—to learn that Bush was making big mistakes by believing his advisers at the State Department and CIA regarding both the presence of WMDs and the absence of responsibility for terrorism.
In fact, Bush endorsed the CIA's official story about terrorism and 9/11 because doing otherwise would have led to confronting militarily all the Middle Eastern regimes that similarly incite, recruit, finance, and harbor terrorists. Hence the Bush team, like the Clinton team, found it more convenient to refer publicly to terrorism as the action of rogue groups, and to limit the regimes' culpability to not doing enough to stop it. Schlesinger and his friends at the New York Review of Books would not listen to anything else. Solicitous of their sensitivities, Bush was afraid to say that Saddam's regime— and others—had come to embody a burgeoning anti-American enterprise that we had to crush lest we really end up in a world war. But his shifting rationalizations were too clever by half, and invited his opponents to take him at his word. Thus Bush earned every last brickbat that the likes of Schlesinger and Michael Moore have thrown at him.
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Enjoying the troubles of adversaries hoisted by their own petards, however, does not relieve academics from the responsibilities of intellectual integrity. It was good political fun for Democrats in the 2004 campaign to charge that Bush's invasion of Iraq was preventing victory in the war on terror because it had taken resources from the search for Osama bin Laden. But when an eminence such as Schlesinger joins the chorus, should he not at least try to explain what victory, if any, bin Laden's capture would have achieved? It seems that beating up on Bush so consumed Schlesinger, he had few thoughts for anything else.
He had expressed one of these thoughts— that the American people endanger the world by insisting on deciding for themselves how to deal with it—in a 1995 Foreign Affairs article, "Back to the Womb?" Now, supercharged with disdain for ordinary Americans, it is the book's first chapter.
What Schlesinger calls, interchangeably, "unilateralism" and "isolationism" are, he says, part of the American people's DNA. He describes American history in the 20th century as a struggle against this tendency. He quotes Franklin Roosevelt, "foreign-policy spokesman for the Democratic Party" in 1928, writing that "only by acts of international collaboration could the United States 'regain the world's trust and friendship and become again of service.'" In a nutshell, the American people are bad because they prefer pursuing their own interest as they understand it rather than placing themselves at the service of internationalists of all nations whose agenda is broader, more intelligent, and worthier than that of the American people. Great leaders are needed who can suppress this tendency and harness the American people's horse to the United Nations' cart.
Fortunately, he writes, "support for international institutions is especially strong among opinion makers and among thoughtful persons in both parties." In Schlesinger's view, the worst thing about Bush is that he has encouraged those crazy little Americans, those religious fanatics, of whom he says "God is their God," to oppose their betters' wisdom. One wonders who or what is Schlesinger's god?
Schlesinger does not argue that Americans are unique, nor that they are uniquely bad for pursuing their interest as they see it. He simply assumes that the rest of the world is filled with disinterested, world-loving internationalists, and that the American people have a duty to serve the collective world-mind. That seems to be his religion. He does not question it.
Only once does a bit of reality creep in. It is cold-water-in-the-face of anyone, Right or Left, who is tempted to play global chess with others' lives:
How to persuade the housewife in Xenia, Ohio, that her husband, brother, or son should die in Bosnia or Somalia or some other remote place where vital U.S. interests are not involved? Nor is it just the Xenia housewife who must be persuaded. How many stalwart internationalists in the Council on Foreign Relations are sending their own sons to die in Iraq?
Or how many members of the Bush team? But the reader will search in vain for sincere discussion of any topic here.
Schlesinger's indictment of Bush for a multitude of imaginary insults to civilization and American history detracts from the one indictment that is obviously on target and that could have been the kernel of a valuable study of war and the American presidency. Namely, since war is by its very nature a set of extraordinary events, it may naturally require that the chief executive who wages it exercise extraordinary powers. Several presidents, chiefly Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR, have exercised such powers, for better or worse. But all have done so intending, mostly sincerely, that these powers be temporary. George W. Bush is the glaring exception. He has given every indication that the powers that he and the rest of the U.S. government have accrued since 9/11 are permanent.
A historian worthy of the name would have explained how Lincoln combined the pursuit of rapid victory with concern for the restoration of full legality. He would have shown how Wilson tried to compensate for the fuzziness of his war aims by indirectly criminalizing criticism of them. Nevertheless, a scholar would show that the nation's commonsense understanding of war as a temporary, extraordinary event made it impossible for Wilson's wilder tendencies to do much harm. A serious historian would tell us how Roosevelt and Truman, for all their arbitrariness, led the nation in war by pointing to concrete prospects of peace. Then the historian would describe how Cold War notions of practically endless "twilight struggle" fudged the difference between war and peace, and how the ideas associated with such fudging—as well as another legacy of the Cold War, the association of the cause of civil liberties with that of anti- Americanism—made possible George Bush's thus far uncontested claim of effectively permanent war powers.
But how is serious history to come from the modern academy if it celebrates rubbish like this?