TCS Daily


Visionary... and Incendiary

By James Pinkerton - January 21, 2005 12:00 AM

President Bush's second inaugural address was not only visionary, it was incendiary. "By our efforts, we have lit a fire," he proclaimed, "a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world."

So watch out, Osama Bin Laden -- we might not be able to catch you, but we can burn your house down. But of course, Bush's aim reaches way beyond mere terrorists: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

And so the course of Bush's second term is clear. No matter what happens in Iraq in the next few days or months, for the next four years America will be pushing outward. Indeed, we don't have a choice, declared the President: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands."

Moreover, the outward expansion of American power and influence is likely to extend well beyond Bush's presidency -- indeed, if history is any guide, well into the 21st century.

Some might protest that Bush's agenda is too ambitous. And the polls show more than a little concern about Iraq; by a 52:40 margin, a majority of Americans now say that the war hasn't been worth the cost. But of course, no president straining for greatness ever allows himself to be constrained by polls. And besides, as W. put it earlier this week, he already confronted and hurtled his "accountability moment" last November, in the form of a national election, in which he won a record 60.6 million votes -- and for good measure gained seats for his party in both chambers of Congress.

So now the 43rd President finds himself in an elite category: he is one of just 15 commanders-in-chief who were elected and then re-elected to second terms.

The ghost of one of those re-elected presidents, in particular, must be smiling, because their White House stories are so eerily similar. That would be William McKinley.

In 1896, the Ohio Republican was swept into office on a domestic-issue platform. The Democrats had been discredited, economically, by the Panic of 1893, and McKinley's bland personality and broadly upbeat pro-business pronouncements -- "Good money never made times hard" -- were well received by voters looking for businesslike normalcy. Moreover, McKinley made inroads among America's new immigrant population, the millions who saw America's future as factories and big cities. The Democrats, meanwhile, were still locked into a reactionary agrarian populism. And so a political realignment took place: the Republicans would dominate politics for most of the next four decades.

Indeed, the 1896 election was such a watershed that more than a century later, none other than Karl Rove, Bush's top political dog, cited the McKinley campaign as the role model for the 2000 Bush effort. "A successful party," Rove told The Washington Post five years ago, must relate to "the new economy, the new nature of the country and the new electorate."

But of course, for better or for worse, Bush in 2005 will not be remembered as a New Economy President; he will be remembered as a War President. Yes, he has much that's valuable to say about creating an "ownership society," but little was heard of that idea yesterday. Such intended domestic transformation has been crowded out by planetary transformation. And it's on this shift, from homefront to warfront, where the McKinley-Bush parallels become truly profound.

In his first inaugural address in March 1897, the new president declared, "We want no wars of conquest. We must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression."

Yet history, or fate, imposed its own kind of aggression. Less than a year after McKinley took office, the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, killing all 266 on board. The deed was at the time seen as Spanish sabotage. "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!" was the instant war cry. (A 1976 US Navy inquiry headed by Admiral Hyman Rickover concluded that the sinking of the Maine was most likely due to sparking of accumulated coal dust in one of the ship's bunkers.)

But two facts were indisputable:

First, the Spanish, who still controlled Cuba as a colony, were conducting a ruthless campaign of counter-insurgency. The Spanish general, Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, was labeled "The Butcher" in the American penny press; press lords moguls such as Hearst and Pulitzer delighted in shocking the conscience of their readers with lurid and oftentimes true tales about El Carcinero.

Second, in the new McKinley administration, a small but influential coterie of officials resolved that it was time for America to find its rightful place in the international arena. As detailed by the diplomat-turned-historian Warren Zimmermann in his book, First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power, these advocates of a so-called "large" policy included Secretary of State John Hay and Secretary of War Elihu Root, joined by others, including Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Republican of Massachusetts, and naval officer/author Alfred Thayer Mahan. And oh yes, a young up-and-comer named Teddy Roosevelt, at that time an assistant secretary of the Navy.

These men came into office with a vision, and then when the Maine disaster struck, they were well poised to seize the moment to advance their ideas -- first with their president, then with the country, and then upon the world. In that sense, they were a bit like the neoconservatives of today. Which is to say, figures to be reckoned with.

As everyone knows, the US declared war on Spain, and won easily. Commodore Dewey annihilated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, and on July 1, Colonel Roosevelt, having left his Navy civilian post, came to glory at San Juan Hill.

In the immortal words of Secretary of State John Hay, the United States had its "splendid little war." But even if "splendid" is not today the politically correct adjective to use about a war, the adjective fit fine at the time. Americans cheered as the US took control of Cuba and the Philippines. In the famous words of Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge, a fan of the "large policy," the new territories were the beginning of an epic "march of the flag" around the world.

Events and enterprise had combined to change America forever. For his part, McKinley adjusted well. "And so it came to pass that in a few short months," he said with some wonder, "we have become a world power." And of course, the Buckeye pol was pleased to be re-elected in 1900.

Thus the McKinley-Bush parallel: two modest homefront presidents became famous for immodest warfront achievements. Two sudden tragedies, the Maine and 9-11, occurring less than a year into their respective presidencies, took two leaders and their country in directions envisioned by only a few plotters and schemers. Ideas do have consequences.


So what happened to McKinley after 1901? And what might be portended for Bush after 2005? Here historical parallelism must give way to speculation, but some second-term commonalities seem evident.

The 25th president's inaugural was heavy on military pageantry, as troops from recent military campaigns -- not just veterans of the Spanish War, but also vets from yet another American military triumph, the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion -- paraded in front of a proud commander-in-chief. In his address, McKinley took his audience back in time: "Four years ago we stood on the brink of war without the people knowing it and without any preparation or effort at preparation for the impending peril." That was a clear whack at his predecessor from the opposite party, Grover Cleveland. Interestingly, on Thursday, Bush took the same approach, observing that his predecessors -- Bill Clinton and also his own father, George H.W. Bush -- took "years of sabbatical" as the terror threat mounted.

Unfortunately, victory over Spain had not ended the fighting. An anti-American guerrilla war erupted in the Philippines after 1898, and there was trouble in Cuba, too. In other words, empire had a price. And in the US, a new group, The Anti-Imperialist League, attracted wide support, including such luminaries as Mark Twain, William James, Andrew Carnegie, and Samuel Gompers.

But McKinley did not shrink from either the political or military challenge. As he said in his second inaugural, the new territories have "imposed upon us obligations from which we cannot escape and from which it would be dishonorable to seek escape." The President continued in words that almost sound as if they were said by Bush about Iraq a hundred years later:

"We are not waging war against the inhabitants of the Philippine Islands. A portion of them are making war against the United States. By far the greater part of the inhabitants recognize American sovereignty and welcome it as a guaranty of order and of security for life, property, liberty, freedom of conscience, and the pursuit of happiness. To them full protection will be given. They shall not be abandoned."


The Philippines were not abandoned, although the fighting was hard. The Filipino Christian insurrectos were put down by 1902, at a cost of more than 4,000 American lives -- ten times the fatalities in the Spanish-American War -- not including those who died from disease. Nobody really knows how many Filipinos died; estimates run upward of 200,000. And sporadic fighting against the Muslim Moros continued for another decade.

So was the military effort worth it? Over time, US-Filipino relations improved. A nationwide system of public education was put in place by US administrator William Howard Taft, who recruited idealistic Americans eager to help the people Taft dubbed "little brown brothers." Americans and Filipinos both fought against the Japanese in World War Two; the islands finally achieved independence in 1946. And while Filipino nationalism necessitated the removal of American military bases in 1992, over the decades the two Pacific nations have been mostly allies.

Meanwhile, in another hemisphere, the legacy of McKinleyism has been even more complicated. Cuba quickly gained independence from the US, although Uncle Sam continued to intervene; for the last half century, of course, US-Cuban relations have been in the deep freeze.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the "large" policy was enlarged further. Crucially, that expansion continued under presidents of both parties -- the sure proof that the "large" policy had become bipartisan property. Moreover it was inevitable that American power would expand southward. In 1903 President Roosevelt, who had gained the presidency after McKinley was assassinated late in 1901, used US forces to help Panama declare its independence from Colombia, whereupon the new country immediately signed a treaty allowing the US to dig a canal across its isthmus. And in the decades that followed, presidents of both parties routinely intervened in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, and Nicaragua. America was animated both by a cynical banana-republic commercialism and also by high-minded idealism; as President Woodrow Wilson declared as he sent Marines to Mexico in 1913, "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!"

Did all this intervening south of the border succeed? A century later, debate continues. The Monroe Doctrine has held firm; Latin countries are independent of European control, and mostly free of communism. Yet in 1938, Mexico nationalized all American oil industries in that country: "Yanqui Go Home!" is a reliable crowd-pleaser. And in 2003, the two rotating members of the United Nations Security Council from South America, Chile and Mexico, both refused to support the US position on the Iraq war. On the other hand, America seems like the numero uno destination for immigrants and flight capital.

For his part, President Bush came into office pledging to improve relations with Mexico and with other countries in Latin America, but it's fair to say that, once again, events have turned American attention elsewhere.

That is, to the Middle East. The Bush Doctrine needs no new treatment here. Suffice it to say that Bush's commitment to democratic change around the world echoes with past efforts to bring the blessings of liberty -- like it or not -- to other regions of the world. American power has been radiating outward for two centuries, and now it's likely to radiate a lot more, especially toward the Muslim world. As Bush said yesterday on the steps of the Capitol:

"For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny -- prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder -- violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom."

Those words seem directly aimed at a lamentably large number of Muslim governments. The only question is whether or not 43 will focus on, say, Iran or extend his vision to other Arab and Muslim countries.

Will Bush face obstacles as he pursues his inaugural vision of world-transformation? In terms of domestic politics, probably not many. On Sunday's "Meet the Press", Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Chicago, was asked twice by host Tim Russert if he still endorsed the military removal of Saddam Hussein, even knowing, as we do now, that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found. Twice Emanuel said, yes, he would still support Bush's military action. Emanuel doesn't speak for all Democrats of course, but he may well speak for enough. He is certainly no fringe figure in his party; he is the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, charged with recapturing the House.

Emanuel and other leading Democrats are eager to criticize Bush, and they may chip away at his agenda, foreign as well as domestic. Maybe they will even regain the White House in four years. But few party hierarchs seem willing to challenge Bush's fundamental premise: that the 21st century should be "liberty century." And so even a future Democratic president, whenever there is one, is likely to carry on the new "large" policy put forth by this visionary Republican. The American flag is still on the march, and the flag-bearers are bipartisan. Just as the "large" policymakers of a century ago saw their ambitions ratified by subsequent presidents, so today it's likely that the "neocons" will see post-Bush presidents carrying out their agenda. That's the power of a powerful idea.

Meanwhile, thanks to our military might, our economic abundance, and our moral clarity, American power is, truly, the "untamed fire" in the world today. Yes, occasionally it fizzles and gutters out, tragically, as in Vietnam. But for most of our history, around much of the world, it has transformed everything it has come near. And that transformation process is likely to continue for a long, long time.

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