Michael Lind: Fifth worse president in history

Roundup: Talking About History

... To qualify a president for the Worst of All Time list, a war must be catastrophic as well as unnecessary. Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada, George H.W. Bush's invasion of Panama and Bill Clinton's invasion of Haiti don't cut it -- they were unnecessary, but minor. And presidents can be forgiven costly wars that were necessary or hard to avoid, such as Harry S. Truman's stalemated war in Korea and Lyndon B. Johnson's failed war in Vietnam, each of which was a Cold War battle more than a separate conflict. After 1950, U.S. strategy required Washington to go to war to prevent Soviet bloc proxies from taking over South Korea, Indochina and Taiwan -- the amazing thing is that the Cold War ended without a battle for Taiwan, too. Future historians are likely to be as kind to LBJ as they have been to Truman.

The two big, unjustified wars on my list are the War of 1812 and the current conflict in Iraq, and the first was far worse than the second. Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," was a great patriot, a brilliant intellectual -- and an absolutely abysmal president. In his defense, the world situation during the Napoleonic Wars was grim. The United States was a minor neutral nation that was frequently harassed by both of the warring empires, Britain and France. But cold geopolitics should have led Washington to prefer a British victory, which would have preserved a balance of power in Europe, to a French victory that would have left France an unchecked superpower. Instead, eager to conquer Spanish Florida and seize British Canada, Madison sided with the more dangerous power against the less dangerous. It is as though, after Pearl Harbor, FDR had joined the Axis and declared war on Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

It might have been worse. In 1812, Madison wrote Thomas Jefferson to ask what the former president thought of waging war simultaneously against Britain and France. Alarmed, Jefferson replied that this was "a solecism worthy of Don Quixote." Instead, the United States fought only the British, who torched Washington, D.C., while Madison and first lady Dolley fled to Virginia. Gen. Andrew Jackson's victory in the Battle of New Orleans (waged two weeks after the United States and Britain, unknown to Jackson, had signed a peace treaty) helped Americans pretend that the War of 1812 was something other than a total wipe-out.

By contrast, George W. Bush has inadvertently destroyed only Baghdad, not Washington, and the costs of the Iraq war in blood and treasure are far less than those of Korea and Vietnam. Yet he will be remembered for the Iraq conflict for generations, long after tax-cut-driven deficits, No Child Left Behind and comprehensive immigration reform are forgotten. The fact that Bush followed the invasion of Afghanistan, which had sheltered al-Qaeda, with the toppling of Saddam Hussein, will puzzle historians for centuries. It is as though, after Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, FDR had asked Congress to declare war on Argentina.

Why did Bush do it? Did he really believe that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Was it about oil? Israel? Revenge for Hussein's alleged attempt on Bush's father's life? The war will join the sinking of the USS Maine and the grassy knoll among the topics to exercise conspiracy theorists for generations, and the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib will join images of the napalmed Vietnamese girl and executed Filipino rebels in the gallery of U.S. atrocities.

Like all presidents, George W. Bush wants to be remembered. He will get his wish -- as the fifth-worst president in U.S. history [behind: Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Nixon, Madison].

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