TCS Daily

Mr. Bush's War

By Lee Harris - February 5, 2003 12:00 AM

Not long ago, in an essay entitled "Bush's Wanton War," Mr. Michael Hammerschlag wrote that "if we invade Iraq, it will be only because George Bush wants to...."

This is a statement that deserves serious consideration, though, at first blush, there are two different ways of interpreting it, one silly, one profound.

Let me start with the silly one.

Picture George Bush in your mind the way Maureen Dowd sees him, sitting in his Boy Emperor suit and throwing darts at a map of the world suspended on the wall in the Oval Office, first nailing Andorra, and then Denmark, and then finally going, for no particular reason of course, with Iraq.

Now if this is what Mr. Hammerschlag has in mind, then I think we can safely say that there is a certain element of exaggeration in his portrayal. It is probable that the people around the President might well try to dissuade him from making war on countries simply because he didn't like their shape or their color.

That is the silly interpretation.

The profound interpretation recognizes that if there is an invasion the decision for it and for its sweeping historical consequences will be in the hands of one man, The President of the United States, and that he - and he alone - must take complete moral responsibility for this massive intervention in the fate of our species. And this fact is conveyed in the title of Mr. Hammerschlag's article: it will forever be Bush's War, no matter what the outcome.

But to grasp the possible profundity lurking behind Mr. Hammerschlag's remark, let us look at another President with a war of his very own, the academic intellectual who made the Great War, Mr. Wilson's War.

On May 7, 1915, the British luxury liner, Lusitania, was sunk by a German U-boat. William Jennings Bryan was Secretary of State, and he, along with the President and the rest of the Cabinet, were struggling with the dreadful question of how the United States government should officially react to the killing of 128 utterly harmless American men, women, and children.

Wilson wanted to write a very stern reprimand to the Germans, with a diplomatic suggestion that the situation was intolerable.

Bryan, however, urged the President not to send the note. It wasn't that he feared the Germans would declare war on us in response to the note, for no one feared this. Instead Bryan was opposed to the diplomatic note because he grasped what the others present, including the President, did not, and it was this: Once we start down this path, we cannot turn back.

This is the argument Bryan made, and when it was rejected, he sent his resignation to the President, an act for which he was subsequently pilloried in the press.

Quite unfairly.

While others merely dreamed of peace, Bryan knew its actual price, and he knew that this price was extraordinarily high, since it meant abandoning any effort to defend American lives on the high seas, even through something as seemingly harmless as a diplomatic note of protest.

This, however, was a price that Bryan was fully willing to pay, as were many of his passionately devoted followers in the rural Midwest.

Two years later, the Germans broke their final promise and resumed unrestricted submarine warfare; and this meant Wilson had two choices. He could go to war, or he could get in a time machine and go back to the day William Jennings Bryan resigned, take the advice he was offered then and tear up the diplomatic reprimand. But, now, after the passage of two years, in order to obtain the position he could have once obtained by merely doing nothing, Wilson-bereft of a time machine-would have to do something unthinkable. He would have to say to the Germans, after two years of protests and reprimands and warnings, "Oh, don't pay any attention to me. I was just bluffing. Do whatever you want to us, and we will not lift a finger to stop you." And this, as Bryan foresaw two years before, was the inevitable choice that awaited even the first most timid step.

Consider the following parallel universes: In one Bryan wins the debate over the Lusitania note and, as a consequence, America resigns itself to never insisting on its rights, if insisting on such rights requires even the merest hint of a whisper of a threat.

Would you have wanted this world on your conscience? And would it have weighed greater or less than the one that came about from Wilson's protracted dithering and delay?

A tough choice, but not the only one, since there is another imaginary universe, and this is the universe in which Teddy Roosevelt was sitting in the Oval Office the day the Lusitania note was being discussed.

Only there would have been no note.

Roosevelt, like Bryan, instinctively realized that there were only two choices, Surrender now or war now; and, like Bryan, he saw at once that all the other seeming choices were only illusionary. He would have declared war at once, as he publicly urged Wilson to do at the time, and scolded him for failing to do, behaving rather like an anti-Carter.

What difference might those two years have made if Roosevelt had made the decision to throw America in world war at once? If the Great War had ended sooner, would there have been a Russian Revolution, or a Soviet State, or a Stalin? A Hitler or a World War II?

We will never know, since Roosevelt was not President and since Wilson did not take this road. Or, rather, he did, but only when it was two years-and a whole lost world-too late.

Thus is fulfilled, once more, the proverb of that subtle Jesuit, Gracian: "The wise man does at once what the fool does eventually." Though Gracian failed to add, always at a much higher cost.

The current President, I am convinced, understands this. And that is why I am quite sure that he would have no argument with Mr. Hammerschlag's statement. "If we invade Iraq, it will only be because George Bush wants to...." Though there must be many moments when Mr. Bush wishes it were otherwise even more ardently than Mr. Hammerschlag.

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