Without a second resolution of the U.N. Security Council, and despite continuing protests and demonstrations in Europe and in some U.S. cities, President Bush has declared his determination to change the regime in Iraq by military force. Although the American people seem to be supporting the president, many of the Democratic leadership who formerly endorsed the U.S. position, and even voted for the president’s plan in Congress, are beginning to buckle under weight of opposition from the American left and world public opinion. This is a telling measure of what kind of leaders they would be if given power, and the American people should pay attention.
Leaders we have always considered great achieved that status because they staked their leadership on policies that were initially unpopular — or considered wrongheaded — but were ultimately proved correct and farsighted. This does not suggest a flaw in democracy, but that great political leadership in a democratic country often means being ahead of public and world opinion, and that requires taking great political risks. Politicians who do not have this steel in their makeup should remain in subordinate offices; the presidency is not for them.
Abraham Lincoln was pilloried for his stubborn prosecution of the Civil War, as the Union — through almost four years of hideous casualties — suffered almost nothing but humiliating defeat. He was pressed constantly by seemingly sensible people, and public demonstrations in northern cities, to sue for peace with the Confederacy, and would probably have lost the election of 1864 had the Union not achieved unexpected — almost miraculous — military successes during the late summer and early fall preceding the election. Had Lincoln been defeated in 1864, the war might have ended — as many war-weary northerners then wished — and there would be no monument to him today on the mall in Washington. If there was a Washington.
In the modern era, Winston Churchill provides the best example of a leader who disregarded popular opinion to achieve greatness. Before he became prime minister, Churchill opposed his own government’s willingness to appease Hitler, although the appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain was popular at the time. The Oxford Union, after debate, overwhelmingly adopted a resolution that the members — the educated elite of Great Britain at the time — “would not fight for King or country.” After Churchill’s uncompromising position on German expansion brought him unexpectedly to leadership, he refused to consider suing for peace with Germany, despite the relative weakness of England and the defeatism of his own foreign secretary, Lord Halifax. Had Churchill not been able to rally the British people — and incidentally obtain the support of the United States — he might today be seen as a foolish adventurer who led his country to defeat and servitude because he could not see reality when it stared him in the face.
Among modern U.S. presidents, Ronald Reagan stands out as one who achieved greatness by staking his presidency on an idea that was unpopular at the time. The recession of 1981-82 was the most serious downturn in the U.S. economy since the Great Depression, and it began shortly after Reagan’s tax cut and economic plan were put in place in July 1981. All through the balance of 1981 and most of 1982, Reagan was pressed to abandon his economic program and raise taxes again. The prevailing economic theory — much like Rubinomics today — was that the deficits then forecast for the U.S. economy would keep interest rates high, preventing an economic recovery. The pressures on Reagan came from every side — most particularly his own White House staff and Republicans in Congress, who feared severe losses in the elections of 1982 if the economy remained weak. As his approval rating fell to 41 percent, Reagan wrote in his diary: “The recession has worsened, throwing our earlier [revenue estimates] off. Now my team is pushing for a tax increase to help hold down the deficits. I’m being stubborn. I think our tax cuts will produce more revenue by stimulating the economy. I intend to wait to see some results.”
If Reagan had not been correct about the effect of his tax cuts — if the economy had not roared back from the recession in early 1983 as he had expected — he would not have been reelected in 1984, and his administration would have entered the history books as another one-term failed presidency, undone by the mysteries of economic cycles. Instead, by staking his presidency on a supply-side theory that had not been proven and had few adherents among economists or the public, Reagan became an icon for his party and a shaper of his country’s and the world’s history.
Now George W. Bush confronts his own challenge. He will follow in Reagan’s footsteps, ignore popular opinion abroad and vocal opposition at home, and move to disarm and liberate Iraq. If his fateful decision proves correct, he will be accounted a great president and carry all before him; if not, he will likely serve only a single term, and be judged a failure by history. All presidents face these stakes; that’s how we winnow the great from the rest.
— Peter J. Wallison is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and former counsel to President Reagan. He is the author of Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency.