November 14, 2006
By Alan Dowd 

Now that the dust has settled from last week’s political shift from red to blue and the shock of the expected has worn off, it is time for President George W. Bush to go back on the offensive. He needs to do so not in order to help his floundering party or change the electoral map’s hues, but because America is a nation at war—and he is the commander-in-chief.  

He can start by learning from two Democrats who didn’t surrender their command after midterm defeats. 

It pays to recall that after a pair of foreign policy fiascos in Haiti and Somalia, and then a truly historic trouncing in the 1994 midterms, Bill Clinton was written off politically and thought to be mortally wounded on the foreign policy front.  

Haunted by the ghosts of Mogadishu, Clinton seemed unable to summon the will to act in Bosnia, where an ethno-religious war had claimed perhaps a quarter-million people and was threatening to metastasize into a wider war.  

US foreign policy, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And by mid-1995 Congress began to openly challenge not just Clinton, but the foreign-policy prerogatives of the Executive branch itself. In August of that year, the Bosnia Self Defense Act cleared Congress, overwhelmingly passing both Houses. It ordered the lifting of an arms embargo on Bosnia and repudiated the president’s non-policy. Using Candidate Clinton’s own words against President Clinton, Senator Bob Dole began advocating a “lift and strike” policy to arm the outgunned Bosnian Muslims and target their Serb attackers.

The president was challenged overseas as well. Soon after Jacques Chirac became president of France, he sneered that “the position of leader of the free world is vacant.” 

Clinton finally shook off his shackles of self-doubt in August of 1995, leading NATO in an operation to end the Bosnian phase of Milosevic’s war and bring a measure of stability to the Balkans. He then forced the warring factions to the peace table (in Dayton, Ohio, of all places), committed US troops to an open-ended peacekeeping mission and dared Congress to stop him. 

Later, during the second term his critics thought he would never win, he bombed Sudan and Afghanistan even as Ken Starr dropped his own bomb in Washington, D.C. As the House passed articles of impeachment, Clinton launched air strikes to degrade Saddam Hussein’s nuclear capabilities. (That’s right: Bush wasn’t the first president to worry about WMDs in Iraq.)

After the impeachment, Clinton’s lame-duck status seemed beyond question. What could be weaker than a minority-elected, impeached, second-term president, whose political opponents control Congress?  

Yet it was after impeachment—immediately after—that Clinton unleashed NATO’s second war on Milosevic, this one in defense of Kosovo. Clinton then pushed hard—too hard, some might say—for a comprehensive Mideast peace. And through it all, he waged what came to be known as low-grade war against Saddam, authorizing countless air attacks in the north and south of Saddam’s vast prison state. 

In short, he resembled a hawk more than a lame duck. And there’s a lesson in that for the current president. He will become what chooses to be—not what Congress or MSNBC or Europe labels him to be.  

Like Bush, Harry Truman was punished for fighting an unpopular war in an ineffective manner. We know today that Korea was a necessary war, arguably a turning point in the Cold War. But at the time, it, too, was called a fiasco and adventure, derided as a waste of blood and treasure, misunderstood as a police action, condemned for schizophrenic tactics and ill-thought strategy, hamstrung by a dangerous mix of confusion and hubris. And as in Iraq, after early promises of quick victory, Americans lost focus and interest. One combat veteran of the Korean War returned to find "a nation which gives every indication of not caring, which appears to prefer looking the other way, which concerns itself virtually not at all with the fearful casualties, and which has dedicated itself almost exclusively to the betterment of its individual back yards." 

Those early promises of a quick war, as historian Niall Ferguson reminds us in Colossus, inflated Truman’s approval rating to 81 percent in the middle of 1950. But by the autumn of that year, as the body bags streamed back across the Pacific, Truman’s approval rating plummeted to 26 percent. Not surprisingly, Truman’s Democrats would lose 28 seats in the House and another five in the Senate in the midterms.  

Yet even after the midterm chastening, Truman continued to command. “It isn't polls or public opinion of the moment that counts,” he said. “It is right and wrong and leadership.”  

So the war went on. In Korea it was a hot war; in Europe it was a Cold War; and everywhere it was challenging the American people to change. Truman did whatever he could to keep a distracted, disinterested America on the path to victory. In 1951, he authorized an extension of the period of military service to two years and steered the US military toward a Cold War high of 3.5 million men—putting fully 2.1 percent of the population under arms. Then, as war raged in Korea, he created the super-secret National Security Agency by executive fiat in the autumn of 1952, with the goal of having a central node for monitoring and deciphering information from all over the globe.

Contrary to what most history books tell us, Americans didn’t immediately rally around Truman’s battle plan. As historian Walter LaFeber recalls, Truman’s critics “tore apart” his doctrine and policies. They warned that Truman was weakening the Constitution, over-inflating the presidency, militarizing US foreign policy and destroying the UN. (Sound familiar?)

When Truman left the White House, he was considered less than successful and less than popular. If nothing else, his decision not to seek a third term (even though he was the last president permitted to do so) was evidence of his waning political strength. Yet today, he is ranked among America’s greatest presidents; aircraft carriers bear his name; and politicians in red and blue states alike claim his mantle.

But Bush should not follow Truman’s example to secure his legacy—he should follow it to secure America. In fact, it is precisely because he cared more about his country than his own legacy that Truman was rehabilitated and vindicated by history.

If Bush acts like a lame duck, he will be a lame duck. And America will be far less secure. But if he acts the part he was elected to play—the commander-in-chief, the architect of a doctrine that has protected 300 million Americans from another 9/11—then America will be better off. And history will quite likely be kinder.