Bush’s War

Eminent historians H. W. Brands and Doris Kearns Goodwin on whether Iraq will be the president’s legacy, the trouble with the Vietnam analogy, and how bad times for the country often produce great leaders.

March 2006By Comments

Evan Smith: Right before Christmas, Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who is no Howard Dean Democrat, told the Washington Post that he believed that Iraq would be the totality of George W. Bush’s legacy. Do you agree with that?

H.W. “Bill” Brands: It depends on how it turns out. If Bush accomplishes what he set out to accomplish—to establish democracy in Iraq—then I think he will be seen as one of the boldest, greatest visionaries ever to occupy the White House: He took a position that most people thought was a long shot, he acted on his belief that this was necessary to change the dynamics in the Middle East, and he pulled it off. If he doesn’t pull it off—if Iraq dissolves into civil war and the Republicans take a hammering in 2006 and the Democrats reclaim the White House in 2008—then things are going to look a lot different.

Is it all or nothing?

Brands: Actually, there’s a middle ground. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bush announces sometime between now and the elections in 2006 that the mission is substantially accomplished and begins to draw down American forces. If he can basically get American forces out of there before things collapse all at once, then he might be able to say, “Well, we tried, and we got Iraq on its feet, and then, you know, a democracy is a democracy. They choose the leaders they want. And if they choose bad leaders, that’s their fault and not ours.”

Smith: Doris, what do you think about that?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I agree with Bill that if Iraq became a model democracy or even just a democracy, and in doing so changed the whole complexion of the Middle East, then obviously that would be a legacy that would justify what Bush did and what our troops did. But short of that, it’s going to be measured not only in terms of itself but if it really helped the war on terror. Did it make us more secure here at home? We can’t forget that we don’t know whether there’s going to be some other attack here or on American forces somewhere or on American interests somewhere. If that should happen, then people will begin to question whether Iraq was the wrong battle. So I think it depends on what happens with the war on terror, not only during this administration but in the future.

Smith: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the war in Iraq and the war on terror separately, because they’ve been conflated in the minds of so many people.

Goodwin: At the beginning, I think, they were definitely conflated, especially with the idea that the weapons of mass destruction were there and that Saddam [Hussein] was truly a threat and that Al Qaeda might be using Iraq as a training ground. But I don’t know that they’re conflated now in the minds of the American people, because it’s not clear that the war in Iraq and the war on terror are the same thing.

Brands: The question of whether the two wars have been conflated is really interesting, because if the Bush administration is looking for an exit strategy, and I have to think it is, this provides an opening. The Bush people were the ones who defined the war in Iraq as an aspect of the war on terror. Well, they can undefine it. They can say, “Okay, we’ve overthrown Saddam, and we’ve established a democratic or at least an elected government in Iraq, and therefore Iraq is more or less going to stand or fall on its own. Meanwhile, though, we have kept the terrorists busy, and we have prevented another 9/11.” One of the great things about the war on terror from the standpoint of an administration is, absent another disaster like 9/11, no one can tell whether you’re winning or losing.

Smith: They’re already saying that, at least in part. They’re saying, “Look, we haven’t had another attack. It must be working.”

Brands: One comparison, of course, is Iraq to Vietnam. If Vietnam went communist in 1975, it was clear you lost. But what exactly is defeat in Iraq going to look like? Unless Al Qaeda takes over the place, which isn’t going to happen, then you can’t say that this was clearly a defeat in the war on terror. Maybe people unfriendly to America get elected in Iraq, but it’s hard to believe that they’re going to turn the place over to terrorists. So I think there’s a way of getting out of Iraq without acknowledging a defeat in the larger war on terror. And this might become increasingly attractive to Bush over the next couple of years.

Smith: Bill raises the V-word. A lot of people want to make Iraq into Vietnam and Bush into LBJ. 

Goodwin: Well, you know, there are obviously similarities that have to do with the question of whether a president who goes into a war is able to sustain the support of the American public when the war turns out to be more drawn out. We haven’t reached that point yet in Iraq. There was some thought that when [Pennsylvania] Congressman [John] Murtha came out against the war, it might be like Walter Cronkite after the Tet offensive—the point at which Middle America was beginning to question the war and support was dropping. But the scale of this war is so different from Vietnam. Not only the smaller number of lives being lost but the absence of a draft mean that the intensity of the American public’s interest in Iraq is so much less than it was during Vietnam, when many people knew somebody who had fought or was fighting over there.

Another major difference is that a primary responsibility for a president who sends troops into war is to sustain the support of the American public behind them. What was terrible for those troops in Vietnam was being spat upon when they came home.

Smith: That’s not happening this time.

Goodwin: And it won’t happen. I think we learned from Vietnam. Looking back at the history, people are aware of how unfair it was to put any kind of blame on the troops. This time, the troops are being lionized, as they should be, for carrying out what the country is asking them to do. Except, obviously, in the case of Abu Ghraib, which has some similarities to My Lai, if you think about it.

Brands: It seems to me that there’s a fundamental similarity and a fundamental difference between Vietnam and Iraq. The similarity is that in both cases, these were discretionary wars. These were not wars that were brought upon the United States; in both cases, the United States could decide to walk away. The difference, though, is that the importance of Vietnam from the very beginning was primarily symbolic, because Vietnam was not strategically important to the United States or really anybody else. It was a matter of “Can we stop communism?” If the communists win in Vietnam, then it will give them courage to go on and declare revolution elsewhere. That’s the reason the U.S. became involved in the fifties, and by the sixties our credibility was on the line. Iraq, by contrast, is strategically important because it sits right in the middle of the Persian Gulf, the epicenter of the world oil industry.

When we lost in Vietnam, in 1975, we could walk away embarrassed, and with nearly 60,000 casualties, but with no particular damage to America or American allies’ strategic position. The fact of the matter is that nobody thinks of Vietnam today. Nobody in the United States has thought of Vietnam, except for the MIA issue, for the last 25 years. But that’s not an option in Iraq. The U.S., Western Europe, and the world will be thinking about Iraq and the Persian Gulf for the next 50 years. The world economy is going to run on oil for the next generation or two at least, and so what happens in the Persian Gulf will have great importance. If Iraq dissolves into civil war, Saudi Arabia could be destabilized. Iran may become expanded. Turkey won’t know what to do. This is something that’s going to have really important consequences and not simply symbolic consequences.

Goodwin: Which brings up another point: What if Bush, instead of going into Iraq, had used all of his authority and power in the moment after September 11 to really put on a full-court press for alternative energy here at home? During World War II, Roosevelt was able to mobilize the home front to do what was necessary to support the larger goal of defeating the Nazis. That included rationing, aluminum- and rubber-scrap drives, blood drives, auxiliary fire and police, people working in the factories—millions of them—as well as the Army going over to Europe. What it meant was that you were getting people at home to fight the war. Given what’s happening in the Middle East, if part of the war on terror had been to make some sort of move on alternative energy, to have a Marshall Plan for that, the country would have been ready.

Smith: And it would have been a big legacy point for the president.

Goodwin: Huge.

Smith: Doris, you mentioned that one of the differences between Vietnam and Iraq is the number of casualties. Yet every casualty, it can be argued, is a casualty too many. We’ve had somewhere north of 2,200 deaths so far and many more thousands wounded, with lingering effects no matter how the war ends. I assume that will be part of Bush’s legacy in the same way the casualties in Vietnam are part of Johnson’s.

Goodwin: What we want for our soldiers—what we want as a country—is the idea that this struggle was worth it, so that the people who died, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, died for some larger purpose. On the other hand, as Cindy Sheehan has said, what if our staying there now is not really helping the cause, yet by doing so, more people are going to die? And the thing that’s troubling about this war is not just the casualties but who’s doing the fighting.

Smith: Like Cindy Sheehan, you’re the mother of someone who fought in this war.

Goodwin: Yes, he was in Baghdad for a year. For so many of our friends, our son was the only person they knew who was over there. Congressmen’s sons aren’t there, by and large, and kids from Ivy League colleges, like my son, are not there, and that means that the country as a whole, even though it has a spectator’s interest in this, doesn’t have that emotional draw toward it that you should have when you’re sending people to fight.

Smith: It’s the difference between having a draft and not having a draft.

Goodwin: Exactly. And I think I’m probably in favor of the draft.

Brands: The colleges aren’t going to get involved until there’s a draft, and the colleges were essential to the opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Smith: Let’s come back to the mission of this war.

Brands: There’s something about it that’s a little bit confusing, or at least problematic. What exactly is the goal of the Bush administration? They say it’s to establish democracy in Iraq, but it seems to be more than that, because the Iraqis have to elect the right kind of people.One can easily imagine a democracy in Iraq where the three groups decide they want to go their own separate ways. And that’s not going to be acceptable.

Smith: Doesn’t the best outcome at this point seem to be that we’re spreading theocracy across the Middle East? The chance for a Jeffersonian democracy taking over Iraq is pretty small.

Brands: I thought from the beginning that this idea of democracy in Iraq was strange, because who did the Bush administration think the Iraqis were going to elect? People who like us? It’s not exactly clear what we’re aiming for.

Smith: Bill, you’re here with me in Texas, which has sent to Iraq more fighting men and women than any state other than California and North Carolina but has sustained the second-highest number of fatalities, behind only California. As you know, the president is more popular in Texas than in pretty much any other state. Do you think Texans view this war and its relationship to Bush and the Bush legacy differently than people do elsewhere?

Brands: To some extent, because Bush is one of ours, there will be greater support for Bush, and it will take longer for people to reconsider their support for Bush. But Texas is also a place that is very patriotic. And there is this notion that if the country is at war, then Texans rally behind it.

Smith: Last question: Help us put Bush in the context of the war presidents you’ve written about.

Goodwin: In looking at presidents Lincoln and FDR on the one hand and LBJ and Bush on the other, what comes to mind is the way each of them carried out a central responsibility for a president during war: to sustain the morale of his countrymen throughout the dark days so that public opinion does not cut short the engagement before its purpose is realized. Lincoln had to struggle with a war-weary North and with copperheads who wanted a compromise peace that would have left the blacks enslaved. His ability to keep his coalition intact rested in large part on his understanding of when and how to speak to the American people—through long, reasoned public letters that were then reprinted in full in newspapers and pamphlets and through speeches, most notably his Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, both of which provided a soaring purpose for the war. FDR understood when to time his fireside chats to bolster morale, admitting, for example, after Pearl Harbor that there would be many more losses before victories but insisting that the history of the country and the character of the people suggested that eventually this war would be won. Both LBJ and Bush—until his recent spate of speeches—failed to convincingly communicate the rationale for war, so that when the going got rough, public support began to falter, leading in LBJ’s case to the need for his withdrawal from the next presidential election. Whether the diminished public support will lead to an earlier withdrawal from Iraq than otherwise would have happened remains to be seen.

Brands: The irony of American politics is that the great presidents are ones who presided over bad times for the country. The greatest, Abraham Lincoln, served during the worst four years in American history, in terms of damage to American life and cost to the country at large. Franklin Roosevelt, whose historical reputation runs close behind Lincoln’s, presided over depression and world war. Calvin Coolidge and Bill Clinton will never be considered great presidents, but theirs were much happier times for most Americans.

By taking the country to war, Bush has raised the bar for himself. Now he’ll be measured against other wartime presidents. This gives him the potential for greatness; if he establishes peace and democracy in Iraq and the larger Middle East, he will be seen as a bold visionary, on the order of Woodrow Wilson, who envisioned an organization like the United Nations. But it also holds the potential for disaster. Bush may be remembered as another LBJ, a president who allowed a discretionary foreign war to derail his domestic agenda and ultimately doom his presidency.

» Participants

H.W. Brands is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of TR: The Last Romantic, The Wages of Globalism: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of American Power, Woodrow Wilson, and most recently, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times.

Doris Kearns Goodwin won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1995 for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. Her other books include Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, and most recently, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

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