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.

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

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