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Commentary

In Seeking War, George W. Bush Held True to Form


     
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In a recent post, I demonstrated that aspiring historians of the current U.S. war against Iraq need not go to the trouble of composing a completely new narrative. Patterns persist. To set out the character of the personalities and the actions that led to this war, historians need only employ the narrative of a past war, altering the names and places to suit the present occasion. My previous template originated in an account of President William McKinley and the U.S. war against Spain in 1898, which set the stage for the protracted, if nearly forgotten, U.S. war against the Filipino resistance fighters. McKinley in the war of ’98, however, is not the only presidential warmonger who might be employed as a model for George W. Bush in his war against Iraq. The following text, in which my changes appear in brackets, illustrates the relevance of a different precursor and the conditions that fostered his resort to war.


He had a driving imperious will that readily imposed itself on others, a will made steely by [Bush’s] conviction that those who blocked his path stood in the way of the light.

. . . [Bush’s] tendency to regard himself as an instrument of Providence and to define personal greatness as some messianic act of salvation.

Had he not been a devout [“born-again” Christian], [Bush] would still have been a vainglorious leader; had he not been vainglorious, he would not have been [George W. Bush].

[Bush] did not lie; he merely tried to deceive people.

[Soon] after his inauguration the new President began a course of meddling in [Iraqi] politics that would lead the United States to the brink of war by [early March 2003].

[Bush] began trying to persuade the American people that the true spirit of reform was to be expressed not at home, but in a new altruistic foreign policy, a policy . . . of “service to mankind.”

Finding “monsters to destroy” being [Bush’s] intention, [Saddam’s] brutal [dictatorship] was too opportune to pass up.

. . . [Bush] decided it was his unavoidable duty to overthrow [Saddam] and establish a “constitutional government” in [Iraq].

. . . unlike their altruistic President, the American people cared far more about themselves than they did about [Iraqis].

America, according to [Bush], was to become the first nation in history to put the interests of other countries ahead of its own. Mankind (minus the American people) would henceforth be the object of our government’s active concern and ministration.

Once convinced of the nobility of his own intentions—and the conviction always came easily—[Bush] could act without scruple, defy men’s reproaches, and ignore what to others was plain common sense. The most fanatical idealist does not cling to the principles of a lifetime more tenaciously than [Bush] could pursue a noble aim he had just invented to suit his ambitions.

Having decided to depose a foreign ruler [Bush] now persuaded himself that the “brute’s” refusal to go was forcing him to war.

To avoid international complications he curtly demanded that the European powers give him a free hand in [Iraq].

Like any other form of military aggression, “service to mankind,” too, requires a popular pretext.

. . . a squadron of the U.S. Navy standing menacingly off the [Persian] Gulf Coast port of [Abadan], [Bush] awaited his pretext for armed intervention.

Blinded by a vainglorious ambition, contemptuous of any views save his own, [Bush] had no very firm grasp of reality as it was seen and judged by his fellows. Reality for [Bush] was his will and his words and his power to impose them on others.

. . . accusing [Saddam] of doing to him what he was doing to [Saddam].

Apparently by ordering military supplies [Saddam] had defied the President of the United States so grossly that [Bush] was compelled to invade his country at once.

. . . [Bush] adhered to one consistent principle. For him the “best aspirations” of foreigners would invariably be those that required American intervention, for it was by his wish to intervene that he judged their “best aspirations.” Such was the stuff of “Bush’s idealism,” . . . . What the best aspirations of the [Iraqi] people actually were and how they might best be served were at bottom of no interest to [George W. Bush].

A less self-exalted leader than [Bush] might well have been chastened by the turn of events, but [Bush] was beyond the reach of other men’s reproaches.

. . . [Karl Rove] was considerably more than a successful courtier. He did much to help [Bush] overcome his peculiar personal defects as a political leader: the President’s lofty indifference to practical details and the opinions of others and a consequent want of resourcefulness in devising practical schemes. Eager to exercise power by privately serving the powerful, [Rove] was both [Bush’s] chief source of information about the outside world and his chief supplier of practical plans.

[Bush] had, of necessity, to forfeit every quality that makes a statesman great. Self-deception, self-elation, and self-regard were the chief ingredients of [Bush’s] celebrated “idealism.”

Quite deliberately and quite unnecessarily, [George W. Bush] had pushed the United States onto a collision course with [Iraq].

[Bush] intended, one way or another, to provoke [Iraq] into providing him with a casus belli. It would have been fatal to [Bush’s] intentions, however, if the electorate divined his intention or seriously doubted his determination to keep the peace. He could bring America into the war only if a substantial number of citizens became convinced that [Iraq] was forcing war on America.

. . . [Bush] had, at one and the same time, to act provocatively toward [Iraq] yet not appear to the general public outrageously provocative, provocative, that is, to the point of betraying a desire for war.

. . . the wonder is not that [Bush] got his war, but that he even dared to seek it. It was to be the lasting misfortune of the American Republic that [George W. Bush] had the courage to match his vainglory. That courage was in some respects, however, a bully’s courage, for . . . [Bush’s] war course would enjoy the support of most of the wielders of corrupt power and influence in America—most of the Republican oligarchy, most of the chieftains of the Democracy, most of the big-city party press, most of the financiers of Wall Street, most of the very rich.

International law for the President was merely a body of pretexts for doing what he wanted.

As far as the President was concerned, the secretary of state, whose views matched those of the vast majority of Americans, had ceased to matter, even as an obstacle to overcome.

. . . in the little world of the [Bush] cabal, the grave issues of war and peace were discussed without the slightest reference to the interests of America or its people. . . . Within the [Bush] cabal the United States of America was merely an instrument for furthering the President’s ambitions.

The truth is, [Bush] not only did not expect [Iraq] to bow to his demands, he did not want [Iraq] to bow to his demands.

More important, . . . the President rejected out of hand every sensible suggestion for averting the impending crisis.

[Bush’s] argument was no argument at all. It was simply one pretext for not averting a crisis piled on top of a pretext for forcing one.

Secretary [Powell], weary and humiliated by his long futile struggle with the President, was in a state bordering on nervous collapse. Regarded by the people at large as a man peculiarly devoted to peace, he was now scarcely more than a name attached to diplomatic notes which he bitterly opposed.

What alarmed the many, however, brought hope to a few. All those who thought they had anything to gain from war . . . saw in [Bush’s] diplomacy the chance—a quite unexpected chance—to begin actively pushing the country toward war with [Iraq]. . . . a small determined crypto-interventionist faction began to crystallize outside as well as inside the administration. Since the faction was recruited almost entirely from among the powerful, the rich, and the influential (and their inevitable clients, protégés, and fuglemen), it was they who, by definition, had primary access to the organs of opinion.

[Bush] would admit no compromise and make no retreat.

Even at its most clear and intense, the antiwar sentiments of the American people could do no more with [George W. Bush] than temporarily impede his war course.

The leaders of the Republican Party provided no such opposition and offered the electorate no recognizable landmarks. Instead they supported [Bush’s] diplomacy and worked to strengthen his hand in every possible way.

A drilled and disciplined electorate, submissive toward its rulers, expecting nothing of its government, was the civic condition the Republican Party needed and sought. . . . once [Bush] opened up the prospect of war Republican leaders were prepared . . . to muster all their political power to bring war about.

The first theme of the agitation was a frenzied propaganda of bogies and alarms.

. . . No absurdity of the [pro-war] agitation, however, was too great for the American press to swallow.

Day after day, week after week, for months the deluge of alarmist propaganda poured over the country from New York City [and Washington, D.C.].


So once again, boys and girls, it becomes ever so clear that leading the American people to war requires no great skill or imagination, only the usual character flaws in the nation’s political leaders and the usual governmental sleight of hand, aided by the establishment news media, which, in the guise of informing the public, only fan the politicians’ fires. Thus, the same basic recipe used to cook up past wars serves for the preparation of today’s. Many people always crave the taste while the dulce et decorum is being concocted, though afterward some always complain that it tasted bitter when they had to swallow it.

For those who wish to examine the original source of the preceding template, it is as follows:

Notes on Woodrow Wilson, from Walter Karp’s Politics of War

The following statements are excerpted from Walter Karp, The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic (1890-1920) (New York: Harper and Row, 1979). Page numbers appear in brackets.

He had a driving imperious will that readily imposed itself on others, a will made steely by Wilson’s conviction that those who blocked his path stood in the way of the light. [145]

. . . Wilson’s tendency to regard himself as an instrument of Providence and to define personal greatness as some messianic act of salvation. [147]

Had he not been a devout Presbyterian, Wilson would still have been a vainglorious leader; had he not been vainglorious, he would not have been Woodrow Wilson. [148]

Wilson did not lie; he merely tried to deceive people. [154]

Seven days after his inauguration the new President began a course of meddling in Mexican politics that would lead the United States to the brink of war by April 1914. [157]

Wilson began trying to persuade the American people that the true spirit of reform was to be expressed not at home, but in a new altruistic foreign policy, a policy, in Wilson’s words, of “service to mankind.” [159]

Finding “monsters to destroy” being Wilson’s intention, Huerta’s brutal usurpation was too opportune to pass up. [159]

. . . Wilson decided it was his unavoidable duty to overthrow Huerta and establish a “constitutional government” in Mexico. [160]

. . . unlike their altruistic President, the American people cared far more about themselves than they did about Mexicans. [160]

America, according to Wilson, was to become the first nation in history to put the interests of other countries ahead of its own. Mankind (minus the American people) would henceforth be the object of our government’s active concern and ministration. [161]

Once convinced of the nobility of his own intentions—and the conviction always came easily—Wilson could act without scruple, defy men’s reproaches, and ignore what to others was plain common sense. The most fanatical idealist does not cling to the principles of a lifetime more tenaciously than Wilson could pursue a noble aim he had just invented to suit his ambitions. [161]

Having decided to depose a foreign ruler Wilson now persuaded himself that the “brute’s” refusal to go was forcing him to war. [162]

To avoid international complications he curtly demanded that the European powers give him a free hand in Mexico. [162]

Like any other form of military aggression, “service to mankind,” too, requires a popular pretext. [163]

. . . a squadron of the U.S. Navy standing menacingly off the Gulf Coast port of Tampico, Wilson awaited his pretext for armed intervention. [164]

Blinded by a vainglorious ambition, contemptuous of any views save his own, Wilson had no very firm grasp of reality as it was seen and judged by his fellows. Reality for Wilson was his will and his words and his power to impose them on others. [165]

. . . accusing Huerta of doing to him what he was doing to Huerta. [165]

Apparently by ordering military supplies Huerta had defied the President of the United States so grossly that Wilson was compelled to invade his country at once. [166]

. . . Wilson adhered to one consistent principle. For him the “best aspirations” of foreigners would invariably be those that required American intervention, for it was by his wish to intervene that he judged their “best aspirations.” Such was the stuff of “Wilsonian idealism,” . . . . What the best aspirations of the Mexican people actually were and how they might best be served were at bottom of no interest to Woodrow Wilson. [167]

A less self-exalted leader than Wilson might well have been chastened by the turn of events, but Wilson was beyond the reach of other men’s reproaches. [167]

. . . [Edward] House was considerably more than a successful courtier. He did much to help Wilson overcome his peculiar personal defects as a political leader: the President’s lofty indifference to practical details and the opinions of others and a consequent want of resourcefulness in devising practical schemes. Eager to exercise power by privately serving the powerful, House was both Wilson’s chief source of information about the outside world and his chief supplier of practical plans. [172]

Wilson had, of necessity, to forfeit every quality that makes a statesman great. Self-deception, self-elation, and self-regard were the chief ingredients of Wilson’s celebrated “idealism.” [175]

Quite deliberately and quite unnecessarily, Woodrow Wilson had pushed the United States onto a collision course with Germany. [186]

Wilson intended, one way or another, to provoke Germany into providing him with a casus belli. It would have been fatal to Wilson’s intentions, however, if the electorate divined his intention or seriously doubted his determination to keep the peace. He could bring America into the war only if a substantial number of citizens became convinced that Germany was forcing war on America. [190]

. . . Wilson had, at one and the same time, to act provocatively toward Germany yet not appear to the general public outrageously provocative, provocative, that is, to the point of betraying a desire for war. [191]

. . . the wonder is not that Wilson got his war, but that he even dared to seek it. It was to be the lasting misfortune of the American Republic that Woodrow Wilson had the courage to match his vainglory. That courage was in some respects, however, a bully’s courage, for . . . Wilson’s war course would enjoy the support of most of the wielders of corrupt power and influence in America—most of the Republican oligarchy, most of the chieftains of the Democracy, most of the big-city party press, most of the financiers of Wall Street, most of the very rich. [192]

International law for the President was merely a body of pretexts for doing what he wanted. [199]

As far as the President was concerned, the secretary of state, whose views matched those of the vast majority of Americans, had ceased to matter, even as an obstacle to overcome. [202]

. . . in the little world of the Wilson cabal, the grave issues of war and peace were discussed without the slightest reference to the interests of America or its people. . . . Within the Wilson cabal the United States of America was merely an instrument for furthering the President’s ambitions. [204]

The truth is, Wilson not only did not expect Germany to bow to his demands, he did not want Germany to bow to his demands. [206]

More important, . . . the President rejected out of hand every sensible suggestion for averting the impending crisis. [207]

Wilson’s argument was no argument at all. It was simply one pretext for not averting a crisis piled on top of a pretext for forcing one. [208]

Secretary Bryan, weary and humiliated by his long futile struggle with the President, was in a state bordering on nervous collapse. Regarded by the people at large as a man peculiarly devoted to peace, he was now scarcely more than a name attached to diplomatic notes which he bitterly opposed. [210]

What alarmed the many, however, brought hope to a few. All those who thought they had anything to gain from war . . . saw in Wilson’s diplomacy the chance—a quite unexpected chance—to begin actively pushing the country toward war with Germany. . . . a small determined crypto-interventionist faction began to crystallize outside as well as inside the administration. Since the faction was recruited almost entirely from among the powerful, the rich, and the influential (and their inevitable clients, protégés, and fuglemen), it was they who, by definition, had primary access to the organs of opinion. [211]

Wilson would admit no compromise and make no retreat. [213]

Even at its most clear and intense, the antiwar sentiments of the American people could do no more with Woodrow Wilson than temporarily impede his war course. [214]

The leaders of the Republican Party provided no such opposition and offered the electorate no recognizable landmarks. Instead they supported Wilson’s diplomacy and worked to strengthen his hand in every possible way. [216]

A drilled and disciplined electorate, submissive toward its rulers, expecting nothing of its government, was the civic condition the Republican Party needed and sought. . . . once Wilson opened up the prospect of war Republican leaders were prepared . . . to muster all their political power to bring war about. [218]

The first theme of the agitation was a frenzied propaganda of bogies and alarms. . . . No absurdity of the preparedness agitation, however, was too great for the American press to swallow. [224]

Day after day, week after week, for months the deluge of alarmist propaganda poured over the country from New York City. [225]


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications

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CRISIS AND LEVIATHAN (25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION): Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government

The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups. Learn More »»






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