Magazine | December 29, 2008, Issue

Lincoln, Churchill, Bush?

(Matthew Cavanaugh/UPI)
Of the president’s strengths and weaknesses as supreme commander

During his August vacation at his Texas ranch in 2002, George W. Bush was said to be spending the hours not spent cutting brush immersed in Eliot A. Cohen’s Supreme Command. The book presents an argument about the proper course of civil-military relations together with four case studies of the masters of wartime leadership: Lincoln, Churchill, Clemenceau, and Ben-Gurion. Whatever wisdom the president may have extracted from his studies, the effort suggests that, during the summer before the invasion of Iraq, he intuited the challenges he would face and set a high standard for meeting them.

Perhaps even this never-look-back man would acknowledge that he has fallen short of the bar he seemed to set. But a summary judgment of George W. Bush as supreme commander is less informative than an examination of the reasons things didn’t work out as planned. It is too early to undertake a thorough assessment of Bush’s performance, but perhaps we can begin to distinguish the troubles of the man from the troubles of his times.


The first step away from the heat and toward the light is to recover some sense of the context surrounding the events of the Bush years. The attacks of September 11, 2001, may not have “changed everything,” but they surely called into question the conventional wisdom about international relations. Bush’s presidential candidacy was very much a product of the 1990s zeitgeist. Conservatives have never been able to get the hang of post-historical “flat world” rhetoric, but Bush’s “Vulcans” — the foreign-policy advisory team he assembled for his 2000 run — did believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union had resulted in a “strategic pause,” possibly lasting several decades. Perceiving international politics as a great-power struggle, Bush’s inner circle focused on the rivalry with China. During the 2000 campaign, Candidate Bush spoke of China as a “strategic competitor” — distancing himself from the Clinton administration’s policy of promoting a “strategic partnership” with Beijing — and described a transformation of U.S. military forces that would exploit technology to discourage the People’s Liberation Army from accelerating an arms race it could not hope to win.

The new administration’s first test came in April 2001, when a Chinese fighter collided with a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft. The Chinese MiG crashed, and the Navy surveillance plane was forced to land on Hainan Island, where it and its crew were seized, provoking a hostage standoff that caught Bush and his lieutenants flat-footed. The bellicose rhetoric coming out of Beijing did not follow the script: The Chinese seemed ready for confrontation immediately, not in the distant future, and what transpired was not a coldly calculated long-term strategic competition but an immediate crisis. The episode uncovered rifts in the senior Bush team. Neither Bush nor national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was able to fashion a decisive policy. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld agitated for a muscular response, but in the end Bush turned to Secretary of State Colin Powell to resolve the problem diplomatically. Bush acted as the “decider,” choosing rather than leading.

For his part, Rumsfeld embraced the project of defense transformation as his top job. From the moment he assumed office, he plainly meant to reform an entrenched military bureaucracy resistant to change. He regarded the Army as the epitome of Cold War irrelevance and planned to reduce its numbers by 15 to 20 percent. His defense transformation was to take the form of a corporate restructuring of the Pentagon, substituting capital for labor and divesting the military of outmoded missions. Portending troubles to come, Rumsfeld seemed to consider this transformation to be the military’s main mission, rather than a means to military ends.


George Bush saw that the 9/11 attacks were acts of war. “Global War on Terror” is now so much a part of our vocabulary that we forget how long it took to recognize that we were at war. Despite the Khobar Towers bombing, the  attacks on American embassies in East Africa and the USS Cole, and the repeated war declarations of Osama bin Laden, the Clinton administration was paralyzed in its response, first treating terrorism as a job for law enforcement, then responding with irresolute military action. We now see jihadi groups through Bush’s eyes: as ruthless and implacable enemies.

We “struck” into Afghanistan — even today our action is seldom described as an invasion. To a significant degree, this reflects Rumsfeld’s continuing influence. The image of special-operations forces on horseback, calling in satellite-guided bombs, remains seductive. And, to be sure, the initial invasion succeeded beyond the imagining of even the transformation enthusiasts. U.S. forces deployed rapidly to the far side of the world, fought a creative campaign, and toppled the Taliban in weeks. The president’s popularity soared, and the bitter partisan divisions of the 2000 election were submerged, for a time, as Democrats rallied behind the victorious commander-in-chief. The crusty defense secretary became the far-seeing prophet of a new way of war. Americans were overwhelmingly prepared to follow where Bush might lead.

The conventional wisdom is that, at this fraught moment, Bush, Dick Cheney, and their shadowy neoconservative cabal turned away from the real enemy and indulged their obsession with Iraq. But the truth is that once the Taliban had dispersed and al-Qaeda’s leadership had fled to Pakistan, it was far from clear what the next step ought to be. The invasion removed any immediate prospect that Afghanistan would again become the large-scale base for al-Qaeda that it had been in 2001. By early 2002, Bush had good reason to conclude that the war in Afghanistan, at least as he and his advisers understood it, had been won.


The most lasting effect of Bush’s presidency probably will be his reframing of American strategy in the Islamic world. At some point in 2002, the Global War on Terror evolved into the Long War, at once a larger and a more specific project: the long-term political transformation of the greater Middle East, particularly its Arab heartland. To take this on was an audacious decision, and it is not clear how that decision was made or how rigorous the internal administration debate was. The most unfortunate result of the fixation on the question of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was to obscure this larger and, it is now clear, more consequential objective.

The 9/11 attacks made it incontestable that the traditional U.S. strategy in the Middle East, built upon devil’s bargains with oil princes, autocrats, and tyrants, was a shambles. To paraphrase the president, the United States had subordinated the cause of liberty in pursuit of stability but had realized neither. Bush began the attempt at regime change with the march to Baghdad, but his larger goal lay beyond. It is uncertain whether that greater object will be achieved, but the prospects appear far brighter now than they did in 2006. Whether progress since then outweighs the failures that immediately followed the invasion is an even more uncertain calculation. The errors in the conduct of the Iraq War already have filled many books, but the great puzzle of the Bush presidency remains the president’s combination of penetrating strategic insight with reprehensible sloth in managing his lieutenants and generals. The failures of Rumsfeld and the rest amount to gross negligence, but ultimate responsibility rests with Bush.

Yet thanks to Bush’s much-disparaged stubbornness, and his implementation of the “surge” strategy, success in Iraq now is within reach. The situation in Baghdad remains fragile, but the real measure of the surge is not tactical. It was not so much about adding troops, employing traditional anti-insurgency strategies, the Sunni Awakening, the Sadr ceasefire, or Nouri al-Maliki’s ambition, as about whether the United States would stick it out in Iraq. Bush refused to accept defeat, so the project of regime change continues, at least for now. The Obama years may be a time of consolidation rather than new ambition, but the new president will find it difficult to undo what Bush has done, either in Iraq or in the wider region. But Bush has left it to his successors to develop a viable strategy for reshaping the Middle East. The Bush Doctrine is a vision, not a set of priorities, let alone a how-to plan.


The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be the only benchmarks of George W. Bush’s tenure as supreme strategist and commander-in-chief. But the pattern of mixed results is apparent in other measures of his performance.

Candidate Bush promised to preserve America’s global preeminence. The chattering classes have declared the “end of unipolarity” or the “sorrows of empire” for the better part of a decade. With the onset of the financial crisis and global economic troubles, they’re belting out the chorus of American decline with renewed enthusiasm. Bush has not solved the puzzle of China’s rise as a great power; his combination of engagement and hedging is essentially a continuation of Clinton’s policy. The administration’s biggest great-power success is the developing partnership with India, but balancing that is the failure to foresee or respond to Russia’s revanchist polices under Vladimir Putin. The peace of Europe, taken for granted since the end of the Cold War, is once again in question. As a practitioner of grand strategy, Bush has been mediocre at best. The impulse to delegate rather than to lead has been dominant, with the result that problems — North Korea and Iran, to name two — fester.

Bush has also been an uncertain steward of the armed forces. As a vice-presidential candidate, Dick Cheney promised the armed forces that “help is on the way.” In fact, the Bush administration has failed to fix the underlying gap between America’s strategic ends and its military means. In the aftermath of 9/11, the president might easily have reversed the policy of transformation-on-the-cheap — even in the face of bitter anger over the Iraq War, Democratic Congresses have granted Bush every penny requested for defense — but he has been content, per Secretary Rumsfeld, to go to war with the force we have rather than the force we would like to have, or the force we need.

When he announced the Iraq surge, Bush also agreed to an increase in the size of the Army and Marine Corps. The good news is that the growth has happened much faster than expected — the active Army will reach its goal of 547,000 before Bush leaves office — but that bad news is that this is only an 8 percent increase in troop strength. The active Army and Marine Corps, currently employing about 750,000 troops, probably should grow to a combined strength of 1 million over the next decade. The American military is hardly broken; its performance under the stresses of prolonged counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is astonishing. But it needs help.


In the 1960s, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked about the consequences of the French Revolution. His answer: “It’s too early to tell.” At this early date, we ought to be allowed some circumspection in judging President Bush. The final tally depends on the late returns from Baghdad.

As with classical tragic heroes, Bush’s greatest failures were born from his greatest successes: The rapid and supposedly decisive invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be merely the opening acts of protracted, irregular conflicts and subordinate campaigns in a sprawling Long War. It is a further irony that any rehabilitation of Bush’s reputation will be rooted in his alleged “state of denial” — which is to say, his unwillingness to accept a defeat that the Washington smart set had ordained. And it may fall to Barack Obama to legitimate the central insight of the Bush Doctrine, which, at least in the greater Middle East, is born of clarity about American interests and a commitment to liberal principles.

It is worth remembering that prolonged and inconclusive small wars tend to destroy rather than create reputations. Would Lincoln really have managed Reconstruction as well as he did the Civil War? Grant could not. Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was lost in Vietnam. The Philippine insurrection made the Spanish–American War less splendid, and eventually took a good deal of the shine off of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Rider image. It is nearly impossible to emerge as a decisive wartime leader when the conflict at hand is indecisive.

George W. Bush’s best argument for a place in the company of history’s supreme commanders comes from the constancy of his commitment. Starting in 2006 — which is to say, in the nick of time — the president began to see his wars with fewer illusions, and turned what had been mere stubbornness into moral courage of the sort that can make a real difference in the world. The 2008 presidential campaign proceeded from the presumption that leadership in wartime demands experience. But it was Napoleon who understood why 3 a.m. is such a critical hour: He spoke of “two-in-the-morning courage.” That has been George Bush’s singular quality. We will see whether his successors have equal perseverance. They will need it.

— Mr. Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of The Military We Need: The Defense Requirements of the Bush Doctrine, and with Fred Kagan is the co-author of Ground Truth: The Future of U.S. Land Power

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