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Commentary

Not the Worst President Ever, But a Definite Contender
Ivan Eland compares George W. Bush’s performance to other post-Second World War presidents


     
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Ever since historian Sean Wilentz first publicly raised the question in the May Rolling Stone magazine, even conservative voices are speaking out on the problem-plagued presidency of George W. Bush.

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Although George W. Bush is probably not the worst president in U.S. history (Woodrow Wilson may have that dubious honour), the president may be in contention for that title in the post-Second World War era.

Although he still has 2 1/2 years to go in his term and could conceivably orchestrate a late-inning rally, the way he has run his administration to date makes that doubtful. But Bush does have some stiff competition from other post-war administrations that failed—those of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon.

Because of his charisma and because he died before his time, Kennedy is still a pop icon more than 40 years after his death. But most historians believe the public overrates his presidency. JFK was meek on civil rights and approved the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles attempting to overthrow Castro’s regime—only to abandon them after they were under fire on Cuba’s beaches.

But his most dangerous actions came before and during the Cuban missile crisis, after which he was praised by many for making Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev withdraw Soviet nuclear missiles from the island.

The Soviets began to install long-range missiles in Cuba, in part because of fears of a full-blown U.S. invasion. Yet JFK and Robert McNamara, JFK’s secretary of defense, acknowledged privately the Soviet missiles in Cuba didn’t alter the nuclear balance, which favoured the United States.

The missiles in Cuba reduced U.S. warning time for an attack, but the United States didn’t (and still doesn’t) have an effective defence against missile attacks. When rumours first surfaced of Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba, JFK admitted privately that, if he hadn’t made tough public statements that this violated vital U.S. security interests, he could have done nothing about the missiles.

And information has recently surfaced indicating doing something about the long-range Soviet missiles created a greater risk of nuclear holocaust than even the widespread fears of the time imagined.

Despite the earlier Bay of Pigs fiasco, JFK was considering the invasion of Cuba as an option (to remove the missiles), this time using U.S. forces. But, unbeknownst to him and his advisers, the Soviets had installed short-range tactical nuclear weapons to deter or defend against any invasion aimed at taking out the long-range nuclear missiles being installed. If the United States had invaded, the crisis could have quickly escalated into a nuclear conflagration.

Although the favourable U.S.-Soviet nuclear balance was not in danger of being compromised, JFK’s competitive nature caused him to risk incineration of the world in order to best Khrushchev.

Johnson made many more breakthroughs on civil rights than JFK, but he started a war in an unimportant backwater region of the world that he knew he was likely to lose (just after the French had been defeated there) because he feared criticism about being soft on communism.

The war cost the lives of 58,000 U.S. troops and many more Vietnamese and destroyed the country in a failed attempt to save it from communism. The war caused widespread domestic unrest in the United States and, in response, prompted government surveillance of its own citizens.

Among liberals, LBJ gets credit for the massive domestic spending of the Great Society program, but he knowingly threw money at social problems without a clear idea of how the government could be successful in solving them. These programs weren’t successful and most failed.

Despite Nixon’s important diplomatic opening to China and detente with the Soviet Union, the massive corruption in his administration and the misuse of both the FBI and CIA condemn his record as president. Also, before ending the war in Indochina as he had promised, he invaded Cambodia, supported the invasion of Laos and indiscriminately bombed Vietnam—actions that either violated the Constitution or could be deemed war crimes.

In the end, Nixon obtained a diplomatic settlement—a fig leaf for U.S. withdrawal—that could have been obtained four years before, thus avoiding many war deaths.

But Bush can compete with each one of these lesser lights of the presidency. Instead of using all the U.S. government’s national security resources to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks, Bush invaded an unrelated country, has become bogged down in a quagmire and civil war and has unintentionally provided a training ground for and fuelled the hatred of a jihadist terrorist movement that will probably attack U.S. targets for decades.

If he had been president at the beginning of the Second World War, Bush would have responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Nazi declaration of war on the United States by invading Romania. But, surprisingly, this Iraq fiasco is not the most dangerous thing the president has done.

He has used the never-ending war on terror to claim unlimited power for the president during wartime. For example, he has flouted the Constitution by detaining prisoners without trial, spied on Americans without the constitutionally required warrants and blatantly said he will follow a congressionally passed law against torture when he feels like it.

None of the other post-war presidents has claimed unlimited power during wartime or crises. This is a truly dangerous claim, especially when the war is perpetual.

The individual liberties guaranteed to citizens—unique to the American system—could be threatened by even greater future executive authoritarianism.

In the Constitution, in reaction to the despotic monarchs of Europe, the founders narrowly restricted the executive’s power. Bush’s arrogant power grab, which attempts to eviscerate the checks and balances that are at the heart of the U.S. Constitution, probably makes him the most dangerous—and therefore the worst—president in the post-Second World War era.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

New from Ivan Eland!
NO WAR FOR OIL: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East

The grab for oil resources has been a major factor behind many conflicts and military deployments because of its perception as a strategic commodity. This book debunks the notion that oil is strategic and argues that war for oil is not necessary to secure the flow of petroleum. Learn More »»






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