During his tenure as President George W. Bush's defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld often likened the administration's foreign policy decisions to those of the Truman administration during the first years of the Cold War. As President George W. Bush makes his way to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states with a stated agenda of advancing the goal of Palestinian statehood, it is worth examining president Truman's achievements and comparing them with those of President Bush.
President Harry S. Truman was in some ways an accidental president. Elected vice president in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fourth term in office, he assumed the presidency when Roosevelt died in April 1945, a month before the Allied victory in Europe and four months before the surrender of Imperial Japan.
As the war wound down, Truman was quick to understand the threat that Soviet imperialism and communist ideology posed to US national security. A world dominated by communism was a world in which America, as the beacon of human freedom and liberty, could not be safe. Consequently, he recognized that the rising Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US would be the defining contest of the postwar era.
DURING HIS tenure, Truman established the instruments of government and international affairs which, in the years to come, would counter and contain the Soviet threat. He also took military action to begin to combat the Soviets with the intention of rolling back Soviet domination of East-Central Europe and preventing the Soviet Union from expanding its influence globally.
Truman established the Defense Department, the National Security Council, the Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency. He set forth the Truman Doctrine, which prevented Soviet domination of Greece and Turkey and stemmed the political advance of the communists in France and Italy. He established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to provide for the military defense of Western Europe. Through the Marshall Plan, he enabled the postwar economic recovery of Western Europe.
Militarily, Truman conducted the Berlin airlift to ensure the economic development of western Germany as the anchor of postwar Western European unity against the Soviets. He also waged the Korean War to contain communist expansion in Asia.
After the Soviets surprised the US with their acquisition of the atom bomb in 1949, Truman moved speedily to test the hydrogen bomb. Moreover, quick to realize that with the advent of Soviet nuclear power the US could no longer rely simply on its nuclear deterrent to fight the Soviets, Truman revamped and expanded US conventional forces which had been largely scrapped in the rapid demobilization after World War II.
ON THE IDEOLOGICAL and political front, Truman worked to educate the American people about the threat of communism and took steps to root out Soviet agents from the US government. Truman also set up the infrastructure to combat the Soviets in a war of ideas inside of the Soviet bloc. He founded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty which brought American ideals, culture and credible news directly into the Soviet Union and Soviet-controlled East-Central Europe.
Beyond all that, Truman willingly took on his foreign policy bureaucracy when he felt that its members were wrong. Against the virulent opposition of his popular secretary of state George Marshall and what Truman referred to as the "striped pants conspirators" in the State Department, he recognized the State of Israel.
By the time he left office, then, Truman had ensured that the US had the institutional wherewithal and the political and ideological will to fight the Cold War, and had upheld the principle of presidential control over US foreign policy.
LIKE TRUMAN, Bush too was in some respects an accidental president. His electoral victory in the 2000 presidential race came despite his failure to win the popular vote. Like Truman also, Bush has been forced to contend with a foreign policy establishment openly hostile to his stated foreign policy objectives. Truman left office with the lowest popularity ratings in modern US history. The war in Korea was overwhelmingly unpopular and his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, based his campaign for office on his pledge to take US forces out of Korea.
Although Bush was considered a foreign policy lightweight when he entered office, the September 11, 2001 jihadist attacks on America made it clear that foreign policy would dominate his presidency. And, like Truman, Bush's legacy would be determined by his conduct of the war against the new epochal struggle with Islamic fascism and global jihad.
Bush clearly understands this. In his interviews with the Israeli and Arab media ahead of his trip to the Middle East this week, Bush claimed that, like Truman in his day, he hopes that history will remember him as the leader who clearly identified the threats of the 21st century and set up the institutional, military and ideological foundations for the current epochal struggle.
Yet although the historical parallels between Bush and Truman are clear, unlike Truman, Bush has not yet struck a clear course for fighting the war and so, with a year left in office, he has not ensured that those who follow him will have either the administrative and international tools to fight the war, or the ideological and political clarity to understand that the war with Islamic fascism is in fact the central security challenge of the new century.
Since September 11, Bush has made numerous speeches that have indicated that he does indeed grasp the challenges of our times. In a speech before the National Endowment for Democracy in October 2005 for instance the president said, "The murderous ideology of the Islamic radicals is the great challenge of our new century."
In that address and several others like it, Bush argued that jihadists must be denied control over any territory; that there can be no distinction between jihadists and their state sponsors – both have to be defeated – and that the message of democracy and human liberty has to be communicated clearly in an ideological war against those preaching jihad.
Bush eschewed appeasement, claiming, "No act of ours invited the rage of the killers – and no concession, bribe or act of appeasement would change or limit their plans for murder.
"On the contrary: They target nations whose behavior they believe they can change through violence. Against such an enemy, there is only one effective response: We will never back down, never give in, and never accept anything less than complete victory."
Yet speeches like this one have been in large part superseded by the president's actions. With al-Qaida and the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with Iraq's borders with Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia still unsecured, the president's sometimes assertive definition of the road to victory has been largely obscured by bumps in that road.
THEN TOO, although Bush, like Truman, set out to form institutional tools to fight the long struggle against the forces of jihad, these institutions have done little to advance the cause. The Department of Homeland Security has not stymied the strength of Islamic agents of subversion in the US. And the National Intelligence Directorate has caused grave harm to Bush's foremost objective of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In what has been cast as a bureaucratic assault on presidential power to determine US foreign policy, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran stripped Bush of the political capacity to act forthrightly to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The Defense Department's decision last week to sack Stephen Coughlin, the only expert on Islamic law in the Pentagon's joint staff, because his documented report on American Muslim
institutional support for jihad angered pro-Muslim forces in the Pentagon, is another indication that the foreign policy bureaucracy is successfully scuttling the president's agenda.
Most important, though, is the fact that the new centerpiece of Bush's foreign policy agenda is to establish a Palestinian state. Bush's support for Palestinian statehood, stated first just two months after 9/11, has always been difficult to square with his recognition of the global jihad and its radical Islamic ideology as the central challenges of our age.
After all, when America was attacked the Palestinians were entering the second year of their jihad against Israel. The Palestinians greeted those attacks with open delight. And now, after the Palestinian people popularly elected Hamas to lead them and transformed Gaza into an operating base for global terrorists; while Fatah leaders like Mahmoud Abbas refuse to accept Israel as a Jewish state and official Fatah security forces wantonly murder Israeli civilians, Bush's main foreign policy goal in his last year in office is to establish a Palestinian state.
WHILE BUSH argues that the Palestinians have to be shown what they can achieve if they eschew terror and accept Israel, he never mentions what price they must pay for their continued, open support for Israel's destruction and support for and involvement in the global jihad. In his treatment, then, of the Palestinian war against Israel and its central role in the global jihad, Bush has done more to undermine the coherence of his recognition of the challenges of the 21st century and his own legacy in shaping the free world's war against the forces of terror and jihad than anyone else.
Truman is today considered one of the great American presidents because his forthright clarity and consistent policies in office set the US on a steady course for victory against Soviet communism even as specific actions – like the Korean War – were deeply unpopular.
In his last year in office, Bush's central challenge is to clarify what he himself has allowed to become muddled about the nature of the current generational struggle. Unfortunately, though his commitment to Palestinian statehood, and his refusal to assert his own foreign policy against the wishes of a hostile bureaucracy, he calls to mind not Truman, but another American president who led his country at the cusp of another formative crisis. Like Bush, James Buchanan – the last president to serve before the Civil War – understood the nature of the gathering storm; yet rather than confront the dangers, he was overwhelmed by them.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.