Sign Up

Bush and the "H" Word

Does George W. Bush need to take some history lessons?

December 19, 2002

Does George W. Bush need to take some history lessons?

For President Bush to be a true history buff would require evidence of a feeling on his part that history has a pattern — and that it offers up precedents and parallels, as well as cautions.

Clio, the Greek Muse of history, offers a sad lesson to all humans: The highest hopes can lead to — indeed provoke — chain reactions which ultimately lead to the deepest debacles. Self-glorifying kings, emperors and presidents have learned such a lesson — but only after surveying the ruins of their dreams and domains.

Wise leaders study those examples, striving to avoid those mistakes. Which brings us to George W. Bush. It's too soon to see how history will judge him — but it's easy to see how he misjudges history.

To be sure, he likes to throw around the "H" word a lot. In his speech to Congress on September 20, 2001, he declared that all those terrorists who attacked the United States nine days before will follow the "path all the way to where it ends — in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies."

In a similar vein, he told the United Nations on November 10, 2001, that "history will record our response — and judge, or justify, every nation in this hall."

And at West Point on June 1, 2002 he said to the cheering graduates, "West Point classes are also commissioned by history — to take part in a great new calling for their country."

That all sounds great, in its oozy-woozy Hegelianism — that is, deterministic view of the world. But the greatest value of history is the practical lessons it teaches — not the poetry it provides. And so if one misapprehends history, one is likely to make policy mistakes, too.

Let's examine some of the problems arising when President Bush misstates the historical record. For example, just recently when he spoke in Bucharest on November 23, 2002, he welcomed Romanians into alliance with NATO — and, more to the point, with the United States.

He started by praising them for their "moral clarity," thus conveniently neglecting the salient historical fact that Romania is one of the least reconstructed of the Soviet-bloc countries.

New York City-based Freedom House, for example, gave the Balkan country a "not free" rating for two years after the Ceaucescu regime was overthrown — and a "partially free" rating for five years after that.

Mr. Bush's statement glossed over the fact that the country holds a mottled political record. That not only undercuts any "moral clarity" — but also any clear lesson that Bush sought to draw from that record.

But maybe George Bush didn't know that record. He didn't seem to, as he plowed through his speech, pushing reams of weighty words toward his audience: "The people of Romania understand that aggressive dictators cannot be appeased — or ignored. They must always be opposed."

And so, he concluded, Romania should join the United States in the struggle against the likes of Saddam Hussein.

But the lesson of the Cold War for Romanians was just the opposite. They eventually prevailed against totalitarianism through internal rebellion, not external invasion.

With that experience in mind, the Romanians might look back at their own history — and remember how they were badly bloodied in World War I and badly defeated in World War II.

Given those painful experiences, they may well conclude that multilateralism — being part of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — is a much better route to freedom and security than more war.

It was the English writer Alexander Pope who warned us to either drink deep from history, or drink not at all — because, he wrote, "a little learning is a dangerous thing."

Had President Bush been better read in history — as opposed to being merely cue-carded — he might have hesitated before he declared in 2001 that he would get Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive."

That was a good "Texasism" — but it was a poor plan for statecraft. After all, history abounds with rebels and freedom fighters who could not be caught, from Robin Hood to Ho Chi Minh.

Now, with Bin Laden still on the loose, critics can say that Mr. Bush might feel compelled to go after Iraq because at least he can occupy Baghdad. Where's the caution from the annals of history? Once again, there's no guarantee that he can actually bring Saddam Hussein to the bar of international justice.

That's why wise leaders, who know that Clio can be hard to please, shy away from sweeping black-and-white pronouncements. They have learned in their dealings with human affairs that ambiguity can be as good a tool as clarity.

But the incumbent President of the United States of America may not be worried. To him, things are simple. History is rhetorical garnish, not intellectual meat.

But all Americans will have to live with the consequences of his actions, actions which will be a chapter in some future syllabus. And so history will judge. But those who don't learn its teachings will be judged most harshly.