Note to Bush: A leader knows when to quit
Cut Your Losses, Save Your Legacy -- In Iraq, the decider need to learn to un-decide
President Bush is taking the long view. He has been reading biographies of George Washington. He recently bemoaned "short-term historians." He keeps mentioning Harry Truman, a President reviled when he left office but rescued by posterity. Bush says he doesn't think about his legacy, but more and more, it's what he seems to think about most.
I wish he wouldn't. In theory, thinking about your legacy should be humbling. But in Bush's case, it's making him increasingly reckless. Bush knows that historians will see him through the prism of Iraq: if the war is a failure, so is he. So he's paying any price to win. Were he focused on the present, he might see that the war is already lost. Instead, he's gazing over the horizon, trying to dig himself out of his Iraq hole and making it ever deeper as a result.
Bush seems to think that historians smile upon Presidents who never give up, even when the going gets tough. But that's not quite right. Take Bush's hero, Truman, who regularly ranks among the top 10 Presidents of all time. One of the things historians admire about him is his willingness to acknowledge when victory was beyond reach. It started with China. In 1949, America's man in Beijing, Chiang Kai-shek, was steadily losing ground to communist rebels. Hawkish politicians and pundits demanded that Truman intervene, and when he didn't and China fell to Mao Zedong, they accused his government of appeasement and worse. Joseph McCarthy, who rose to prominence in the wake of China's fall, cited Truman's refusal to rescue Chiang as evidence that his State Department was infested with communist spies. And in 1950, those charges helped sink Democrats at the polls. But historians generally think Truman did the right thing. He would have liked to save China's pro-American regime, but he recognized that the cause was hopeless. And by cutting his losses, he kept the U.S. out of an unwinnable war.
On Korea, Truman also refused to go all out for victory. In June 1950, communist North Korea invaded the capitalist South. With Seoul unable to hold off the assault, Truman sent in U.S. troops, which quickly turned the tide. Giddy with success, he announced that the U.S. would not simply push the communists back to the border; it would liberate the North as well. That seemed like a good idea until China, terrified by the prospect of American soldiers on its border, joined the war, forcing the U.S. into a headlong retreat.
At that point, Truman faced a choice. His commander on the ground, General Douglas MacArthur, demanded victory, which meant full-scale war with Beijing. Dropping 30 to 50 atom bombs on Manchuria, he suggested, would do the trick. But Truman refused. He fired MacArthur, refused to bomb China and, in a humiliating reversal, abandoned the dream of a liberated Korea. Instead, the U.S. fought to an unsatisfying draw, with an eventual cease-fire reaffirming the border between North and South. MacArthur denounced the new strategy, and Truman's approval ratings--already damaged by the loss of China--sank below 30%, where they stayed for most of the rest of his presidency.
But once again, historians cheered. Although famed for his strong convictions, Truman changed his goals in response to changed circumstances. So did Ronald Reagan, another President whom Bush admires. In 1983, Reagan sent 2,000 Marines to try to end Lebanon's civil war. That October, suicide bombers truck-bombed their headquarters, killing more than 230. Reagan vowed that the U.S. would not be driven out, declaring the Marines' presence "central to our credibility on a global scale." But four months later, the Marines were gone, withdrawn from a mission they could not possibly achieve. Reagan loathed terrorism, just as Truman loathed communism. But each man recognized that there were limits to what the U.S. could do about it.
Those limits should be blindingly clear today as an exhausted American military tries to stitch Iraq back together, in a country and a region where the only thing Sunnis and Shi'ites agree upon is that they hate us. Bush seems to think historians reward Presidents who never give up hope. And when that hope is justified by the facts, they do. But sometimes they reward Presidents for abandoning their hopes so they don't become obsessions. The best thing Bush can do for his legacy is to stop trying to change it. The more he accepts that history's die is already cast, the more merciful history will be.