American Enterprise Online
September 22, 2004
By Alan W. Dowd 

“History doesn't repeat itself,” Mark Twain is credited with musing, “at best it rhymes.”  

Striking the same cadence and rhythm that paced international affairs a century ago, history seems to be in one of her poetic moods. 

Now, as then, a plain-spoken man with patrician roots and a cowboy’s spirit sits in the White House. And although it’s not a perfect parallel, one could argue that Theodore Roosevelt and George W. Bush ascended the presidency under similar circumstances.  

TR became president on September 14, 1901, after William McKinley succumbed to an assassin’s bullet. As historian Edmund Morris writes in Theodore Rex, TR rightly concluded that the attack was aimed not at a man, but “at the very heart of the American republic.” 

It was a hundred years later to the day—on September 14, 2001—that Bush climbed a pile of rubble in Manhattan and rallied Americans to respond to a far more deadly and shocking attack on the republic. As others noted at the time, it was only then that Bush shook off the doubts of a bitterly contested election and, with simple but sobering words, finally became America’s president. “I can hear you,” he boomed to an army of soot-faced rescuers. “The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” 

As with TR after he took the reigns of power, the world would never be the same. 

* * * 

In TR’s time, as in ours, European sentiment for America ran hot and cold. A century ago, Germany and Britain were prowling the Caribbean after Venezuela’s failure to make good on its debts. In doing so, the two powers were threatening America’s special role in the Western Hemisphere. Germany was even plotting war with America.

TR responded with an ultimatum and a big stick: After dispatching 53 warships to the waters near Venezuela, he gave Germany 10 days to back down. Morris captures TR’s sentiment well: “If Germany and Britain wanted to splash in the same water, they must play by American rules.”

Today, it is France and Germany that prowl the UN and undermine America’s special role as the lone superpower. America is not teetering on the brink of war with these countries, of course, but the relationship is certainly something less than friendship. Like TR, Bush has used deadlines and ultimatums to get his point across, and he has used American arms to enforce international norms and punish those who don’t play by the rules.  

As a result of the near miss in Venezuela, TR issued a statement of policy to put the world on notice about America’s intentions and responsibilities in the Western Hemisphere. It came to be called the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, but it was arguably a doctrine in its own right. In it, TR stated that the United States would intervene as a last resort to ensure that other nations in the Western Hemisphere fulfilled their obligations.   

Likewise, the Bush Doctrine would put the world on notice that the US was prepared to do what fragile governments like Georgia’s were unable to do inside their own borders, what feckless leaders like some in Europe were unwilling to do in Iraq and Afghanistan, what feeble institutions like the UN were prevented from doing by systemic shortcomings—namely, to fight terrorists and their patrons and partners on their territory but on our terms. “Our enemy,” Bush explained after 9/11, “is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” He promised that America would act against “emerging threats before they are fully formed.” 

TR argued that “There are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror as to make us doubt whether it is not our manifest duty to endeavor at least to show our disapproval of the deed.” Such crimes, in TR’s view, may even “require intervention by some civilized nation.”  

Bush borrowed from TR when he called regimes like fundamentalist Iran and Stalinist North Korea “evil;” when he rallied the world to save Africa from suicide; when he overthrew Saddam’s police state; when he shut down the Taliban’s medieval torture chamber. 

In other words, the war in Iraq and the broader effort to drag the Middle East into a new century are not so much “neocon” schemes to deform American foreign policy, but rather an echo of TR—that is, unless TR was somehow a “neocon.”

* * *

In 1904, as in 2004, America was embroiled in an unpopular and arduous occupation. For TR in the Philippines, as for the younger Bush in Iraq, the problem began on someone else’s watch. But it wouldn’t go away on its own.

The bloody guerilla insurgency in the Philippines claimed some 220,000 Filipinos and 4,000 Americans. As in Iraq, it also led to demoralizing reports of misconduct. US tactics in the Philippines, however, make the jailers at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay look like nursery-school teachers.

The Gardener reports detailed cruelty, race-motivated brutality, and outright torture—what we would call war crimes today. As Morris notes, some reports revealed that one US general even ordered troops to burn villages and kill anyone over 10 years of age.

In the Philippines, as in Abu Ghraib, reports of military misconduct came to light through the military itself; and in both instances, the military was trying to fix the problem. “Gardener” was Maj. Cornelius Gardener, a military governor in the Philippines. Even so, official Washington called for Secretary of War Elihu Root’s resignation or dismissal. Yet TR stuck with his embattled cabinet officer, who was juggling occupation operations in one country, a guerilla war in another and plans to reorganize and reform the War Department back in DC. (Sound familiar?)

Both TR and Bush were accused of playing politics with national security: When Ahmed Mohammed Raisuli kidnapped a purported American expatriate named Ion Perdicaris in hopes of pressuring the Moroccan government, TR responded with warships, his secretary of state with words: “A nation cannot degrade itself to prevent ill treatment of a citizen,” John Hay intoned.  

Then, during the Republican Convention, Hay leaked word that Washington (i.e., TR) wanted “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” If Pedicaris were harmed, TR was prepared to send in the Marines. Hitting all the right pressure points inside Morocco, TR won Perdicaris’ release without firing a shot—and without bargaining with terrorists.  

Later, as the Democratic Party selected TR’s challenger, a crisis brewed in Turkey, where the Turkish government was discriminating against American-supported missionary schools. When TR sent an armada of warships to underscore America’s displeasure, the press cried foul. As Morris writes, “The Brooklyn Eagle suggested he aimed his naval guns ‘at the Democratic enemy, not the sultan.’”  

A century later, newsmen ask whether terror alerts are timed to coincide with political conventions, whether Bush has some secret plan to mobilize more troops for a post-election surprise, whether US forces in Iraq are being garrisoned in order to keep casualty figures low. 

And a century after TR threatened war to free a man who wasn’t even an American, the Philippine government caved to terrorist demands, withdrew from Iraq and sacrificed its national honor rather than risk the life of a citizen. Spain did something similar after the 3/11 terror attacks, in effect making a separate peace with al Qaeda.  

Not everyone follows TR’s example—or history’s cadence.