The Bush fantasies that are guiding history

By Stephen Graubard

Financial Times

Published: February 3 2005

To visit Washington in the fortnight after George II's inauguration is to know that the chasm separating the US from Europe is vast. Here in the imperial capital, there is talk only of Iraq; Europe, Asia and Africa scarcely exist.

Those who supported the president's decision to invade Iraq on the basis of taking out Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction, now defend it by dwelling on the destruction of Saddam's regime and the happy outcome of Iraq's elections. Two former Republican secretaries of state, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, warn that the American forces must be kept there; to leave precipitously would be to court catastrophe in the Middle East - shades of arguments once used to explain why a rapid retreat from Vietnam would lead to disaster throughout south-east Asia.

Because the White House fortress is closed to all who doubt the wisdom of its policies, rumours fly of what at least some in the Pentagon believe is now required: an early retreat from a "war" that cannot be won. These are words no one dares utter in the presence of the true believers, courtiers and pseudo-warriors, who insist that the pledges made by the "elected monarch" - Theodore Roosevelt's description of the presidential office - must be taken seriously.

George W. Bush, more than Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan - all presidents who tried to reshape the international order - insists there is no time more perilous than the present, no period more propitious for making fundamental change throughout the world. In the president's skewed version of history, the dangers posed by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin fade beside the far greater hazards created by terrorists. The military policies that led to the defeat of the Nazis and the diplomatic strategies that brought down the Soviet Union are never alluded to by a monarch intent on creating a "new world order" - a phrase Mr Bush avoids, recalling its use by his ill-starred father.

Many in Washington know there is no strategy for realising the objectives set forth by the president on January 20. The knowledge of radical Islam in the US remains primitive and rhetorical. The Bush administration has undertaken nothing analogous to the efforts made to understand the Soviet Union in the time of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. The federal government has yet to engage the leading independent think-tanks or universities to encourage them to discuss the context of foreign policy as it has been transformed by recent events. America once prided itself on helping instruct the world about arms control, and on how that knowledge helped contain the Soviet Union. There is no comparable command of the problems represented by terrorism.

For those who can recall a time when foreign leaders were able to contribute to US foreign policy, it is obvious that no such statesmen exist today. The efforts of Tony Blair, the prime minister, to influence the president have had little effect. Similarly, the opinions of leaders in France, Germany, Russia, China and Japan do not weigh heavily with those who serve Mr Bush, and the country's traditional alliances are at risk. None of these conditions is significantly altered by America's success in enabling so many Iraqis to troop to the polls on January 30.

The administration has a habit of prophesying difficulty and disaster and then claiming to have averted it by its firm resolve. Still, when a scholar as distinguished as John Lewis Gaddis argues in Foreign Affairs journal that the challenge to the president is to prove himself a latter-day Bismarck, exchanging his "shock and awe" policies for ones based on "attention to detail", it is clear that the tolerance of Mr Bush registered in the November elections is not extinct, even among academics.

The myths about the current president are of a greater order than those of other recent presidents whose talents were sometimes exaggerated. The king's courtiers, experts in spin, remain in full control.

Nonetheless, in the imperial capital, no less than abroad, doubts exist about Mr Bush's first-term accomplishments. The auguries for his second term, given the record of most 20th-century presidencies, are scarcely more favourable. Mr Bush may in time choose to take roads different from those in the past but the indications are that he will simply persist with his utopian fantasies.

The writer is emeritus professor of history at Brown University and author of The Presidents: The Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush (Allen Lane)