Should George W. Bush go down in history as one of our worst presidents?
Woodrow Wilson should go down in history as one of the worst presidents of the United States. And George W. Bush should be right next to him.
These are not judgments of these historical figures as men — Bush, by all accounts, was the better man than the segregationist, racist, arrogant, uncompromising Wilson. But history judges leaders not by their attitudes and intentions, but rather by the consequences of their actions and decisions.
Wilson was initially reluctant to get the United States involved in World War I, but once committed to the war, Wilson framed the conflict as a fight between good and evil, when in reality there were good and evil on both sides. More consequentially, Wilson portrayed the war as a Utopian crusade to "make the world safe for democracy," while at home Wilson acted as an autocrat and despot, prosecuting political opponents and suppressing civil liberties. At the peace conference, Wilson's arrogant approach antagonized even our allies, while his inability to brook opposition at home doomed the League of Nations to irrelevance.
Perhaps Wilson's worst legacy was his clarion call for America to be the champion of all nations and his rhetorical commitment to "humanity" — his Progressive internationalism that infected American foreign policy with a crusading instinct that continues to bedevil our nation's approach to the world. He coupled this with an arrogant dismissal of Americans who wanted only to be left alone and who believed that our government should focus narrowly on America's well-being. The latter attitude, for Wilson, was evidence of an uneducated, parochial mindset. Professor Wilson — like many of our modern academics — believed he knew what was best for the American people.
The United States entered the First World War in April 1917, began to fight significantly in the war only in early 1918, and fought until November 11, 1918. In that short time period, America suffered 116,516 deaths and more than 300,000 wounded and sick. The result of Wilson's wartime leadership and postwar diplomacy was the fall of four empires, the rise of fascism and communism, and a "peace" that set the stage for the Second World War. Wilson's arrogance made impossible a compromise with Senate Republicans and prevented the United States from having any significant role in the League of Nations. And toward the end of his presidency, stricken ill by a series of debilitating strokes, Wilson, his physician, his wife, and his aides hid this crucial fact from the American people. The consequences of Wilson's presidency were catastrophic.
George W. Bush suffered from none of Wilson's personal demons, but after the September 11, 2001, attacks, he pursued a Wilsonian foreign policy that involved the United States in two "endless" wars and wasted American lives and treasure in a failed crusade to spread democracy to the Middle East. At home, Bush imposed surveillance operations and restrictions on civil liberties that, while not as onerous as Wilson's, fueled an appetite for domestic spying among our intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies, who collected reams of personal data on unsuspecting Americans. It appears that some of those agencies later ran amok by conducting surveillance operations against political opponents. The full extent of these activities may never be known.
Like Wilson, Bush used the rhetoric of universalism to support his global war on terror. He became a Wilsonian to his core, and American foreign policy suffered as a result. A byproduct of his crusade for democracy was his egregious expansion of NATO to include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, and his offers of NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine.
Bush did not appear to have the personal arrogance of Wilson, but the consequences of his Wilsonian approach to the world were detrimental to American interests. Bush's foreign policy produced two unsuccessful wars and a resurgent and antagonistic Russia that increasingly allied with China against U.S. interests.
Unfortunately, Wilsonianism and Bushism still influence our foreign policy establishment, which is committed to multilateral solutions to the world's problems like "climate change," nuclear weapons, and other liberal causes that they prioritize over U.S. interests. And there is still widespread appeal among the foreign policy community of the notion that America can and should remake the world in its image. That is the height of Wilsonian and Bushian arrogance.
Image: CBS Sunday Morning via YouTube.