Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


The Education of a President

Might there be an alternative to the view that President Bush is inflexible? Might he say to the Republican Convention:
"Our initial strategy in Iraq failed, but we changed tactics, added a few troops, and turned the operation around. The same was true of hurricane Katrina. I was surprised by the scope of the damage and did not react quickly enough. But I have seen to it that we won't make that mistake again . . ."
Categories > Presidency

Discussions - 9 Comments

Not a chance

To what end?

[To either Mr. Adams or George Bush] What exactly was the "initial strategy"? What exactly was the "operation"? In both the teleological and the temporal sense, what exactly is the end of the "initial strategy" or the "operation"? What does any of this have to do with victory -- i.e., the repeal of the Patriot Act or the dismantling of the Department of Homeland Security?

JQA. Interesting definition of victory. To what specific provision of the Patriot act do you object? Compared to comparable acts in previous wars, they are relatively mild.

Not sure JQA would himself agree. After all, it's not as if his comment about not going abroad "in seach of monsters to destroy" was his final word. As president he described the advice in Washington's Farewell address as a council of prudence for a particular time and place:

"I can not overlook the reflection that the counsel of Washington in that instance, like all the counsels of wisdom, was founded upon the circumstances in which our country and the world around us were situated at the time when it was given. . . . [But] compare our situation and the circumstances of that time with those of the present day, and what, from the very words of Washington then, would be his counsels to his countrymen now?"

The context was American relations with the South American republics. Given close to two centuries more of development, he might asvise us to apply the same logic still further afield.

Mr. Adams: You entirely dodged my request for an explanation, in concrete, contemporary terms, about strategy and victory in the current military actions. Do not thinking citizens deserve (from the commander in chief, if not necessarily from you) a rigorous explanation for why the government has been making them give up so much treasure and blood?

As for my definition of victory, it's nothing more but nothing less than a restoration of the regime (i.e., domestic life) pre-Sept. 11. I mean, in other words, life without the very latest overgrowth of the national state and the annoying bureaucracy: no TSA drones to harass innocuous, peaceful Americans and to bloat the federal budget, (and to unionize); no surreptitious FBI searches of Americans' library and phone records, and homes; no further distrust of American citizens by their own public officials; and no further bovine acquiescence by American citizens in authoritarian government and its public policy of suspicion.

As for Quincy Adams, you take some liberties with his positions. The quote about Washingtonian foreign policy principles and how they address the times was indeed in reference to South American countries' recent development of republicanism (or, more precisely, their liberation from their colonial masters). But the greater context of this letter was Adams' request for the House to approve nothing more than an U.S. ambassador to a pan-American diplomatic summit -- certainly not troops, money, or government-building. Adams' moral support, guarded optimism, and prudent restraint toward republicanism in foreign countries are entirely consistent with the Washingtonian principle of no-political-connections. After all, could Americans safely presume that Bolivar had the moral and republican virtue of George Washington, or the populace of the former Gran Colombia the civic virtue of United States citizens? Can America ever reasonably presume such of a country's leader or its people (especially the more "afield" they are)?

Moreover, in his famous Monroe Doctrine address to Congress (authored by Adams), President James Monroe took a virtually identical stance toward the Greece's attempt to overthrow the Ottoman Empire. A noble struggle, in itself, but not a sufficient cause for U.S. intervention.

As for the famous maxim about not going forth in the world looking for dragons to slay -- well, that's always pertinent to foreign policy, unless a country has the resources (and the virtue) of God (cf. "Operation Infinite Justice," 2001). Don Quixote ought to be required reading for all U.S. internationalists, hard and soft, inside and outside of government.

But back to Quincy Adams. The dragons reference was, and is, the minor part of his July 4th address. The major part was an argument for the U.S.'s most important contribution to civilization or the world: the example of self-government.

To Adams, this is as worthy or worthier an accomplishment than any empire's foreign glories or external achievements (always a mixed blessing, at most). Being a free people, rather than trying to do things for (and to) other peoples -- even in the name of their freedom -- is America's true glory. It also is the United States' unalloyed contribution to foreign affairs. At least it was, a present-day Adams might say.

JQA. My instinct is that JQA would want the US to be fairly heavily engaged in the world nowadays. The 1821 address was aimed to suggest that Clay's wish for the US to do more for the Greeks was misguided. Instead, JQA helped to form the Monroe doctrine: this hemisphere would be the US's baliwick. His vision for US engagement in South America was probably rather more extensive than merely sending an ambassador. That was just a start. To be sure, he would have opposed the Southern fillibusters in the region in the 1850s who wanted to use the region to firm up Southern slavery, but he might have supported working with legitimate governments in the region against European intrusions. Given changes between then and today, the same goal would suggest a broder reach.

As for the goal in Iraq, I always took it to be to create a better situation in Iraq, and the region, than existed in 2002-03, when there was increasing pressure to stand down from the no-fly zone, and, should that have happend, Saddam Hussein was preparing to rearm, including by pursuing nuclear arms. I never took democracy seriously as a goal (I suspect that Bush and many around him did, however. They have learned the less. A better regime is all we could hope for). Perhaps I simply have a partcuarly dark view of how much of a mess the region is, but I would still claim that it's probably better now than it would have been had we simply got out of Iraq in 2002-03. Letting Saddam out of the box would probably have been worse. (It's a judgment call).

The goal was to try to change the underlying strategic calculation in the region. If the US and Iraq could be closely allied, then we would be less dependent upon the Saudis. Bush was on board with that briefly, but he seems to have deserted that goal.

I don't think that civil liberties in the US have taken much of a hit because of the war. I do, however, think that the growth of government since the presidencey of Wilson has made it much worse. The things that many conservatives and libertarians complain about in this war are a symptom of that change.

On a similar theme, what specific provisions of the Patriot act are you talking about?

Once again, many of the things that are being done are applying old principles in new contexts. JQA was no legal positivist. He beleved that constitutional government was a matter of applying the same principles in changing times. Look at his innaugural address as President, for starters. The specific way that those provisions applied, however, would change. For that idea, see, in particular, his "Society and Civilization" address (drafted in 1821 or so, but not published, if memory serves, until 1840s). (Truth be told, JQA probably was a bigger believer in historical change than was prudent. He and his father argued about it.)

One further point. The example of the Greek independence movement cuts slightly differently than you suppose. The question of "monsters to destroy" would not apply to the current US operation in Iraq, at least as JQA meant the phrase.

In 1821, the US had almost no connection with Greece. Hence JQA thought we had no business actively supporting one side or another. He did, however, write a long piece on the Russo-Turkish war of the 1820s (published in 1829 or so in the [American] Annual Register). There, he chastized Western Europe for not coming to the aid of the Greeks against the Turks. The relaionship of the US to Iraq in 2002-03 was much more like the relationship of Western Europe to Greece in 1821 than the relationship of the US to Greece in 1821. We were already there. We didn't have to go searching. If we follow JQA's princiles, therefore, we might have to favor an energetic policy.

Incredibly interesting exchange. I hope JQA continues to reply intelligently. I don't know that President Bush should compare Iraq to Katrina. In fact I would advise against it. Forgetting for the time being all the various reasons we had for going into Iraq, there was a point at which to speak in economic terms we reached a fixed cost point, at this point withdrawing was less advisable than countinuing on while paying only variable costs. Democrats who wanted us to cut and run neglected to figure that we probably had already spent enough so that what we had to spend from that point on actually yielded positive returns. I suppose in some sense the city of New Orleans is like this. It is built across from lake ponchetrain(sp?), near the damn mississippi right smack in the middle of the gulf of mexico and in constant Hurricane territory. New Orleans is butressed by considerable offshore oil, it is home to a rather unique culture rich in lore history myth and mardi gras excess. Because president Bush is seen to have fumbled on the Katrina aftermath and because most of those who were affected were african american, henceforth republicans are pot commited to being extra sensitive and bullish on the plight of New Orleans.

It is no accident that the Republican National Convention was interupted for Gustav, I almost figure McCain to call for a surge on behalf of New Orleans.

In this sense we have a city that already exists (fixed cost) and what we need to spend to assure that it continues to exist is variable costs. But as in Iraq this is no longer about economic costs perse because the real allegation is that republicans are racist if they give up New Orleans. So Republicans are really commited to New Orleans. What to do? Spend a ton of money to ensure that the levees in New Orleans will hold against any storm mother nature can bring and hope that Al Gore was wrong about rising sea levels. In fact you can even play this out to make Al Gore the bad guy...look republicans want to build up New Orleans but it is those damn environmentalist who keep predicting doom and gloom natural disasters that will swing the scales towards a cut and run approach. There will be talk about the prudence of sinking money into a city that is already bellow sea level and projected to sink further, of course in deciding the proper course of action the real question isn't simply the variable costs but the fixed costs as well.

So what is the republican legacy as it could be interpreted? Texas=cowboy diplomacy+oil. New Orlean/Lousiana= oil+racism. Alaska=oil+sexism. Iraq=oil+democracy dreams.

So the problem with Bush linking up Katrina to Iraq is that it is probably more likely to draw attention to this association of ideas/line of reasoning than it is to a debate concerning the historical position of John Quincy Adams.

The point is that President Bush is often portrayed as stupid, stubborn, and inflexible. Changing tactics in Iraq and the response to Gustav show that's not the case. He may be flawed, but he does have some virtues.

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