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May 22, 2007 2:46 pm

Worst Adminstration Ever?

Mark Moyar, the historian who defends the Vietnam War in Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, argues in the WSJ today that Carter and the Democrats should be wary of claiming Bush is the worst president ever.

I agree.

First, it's a silly parlor game. Worst ever? How does one weigh matters like this? Is Nixon better or worse than Bush II? Nixon's pluses were big pluses: detente with the USSR and the opening to China. Bush doesn't seem to have any big plusses, save possibly for getting the Republican congress to approve more spending on health care, including malaria treatments for African nations. But how do we weigh the negatives? Nixon's include: a generation of cynicism because of Watergate and tens of thousands dead in Vietnam. Bush's negatives include Katrina and Iraq. But fewer died on his watch from presidential ineptitude and connivance than under Nixon. So Is Bush better than Nixon?

My grievance with Moyar is more substantial, however. He argues that Bush is better than JFK or LBJ because they arranged their national security policies with the elections in mind. JFK refused to stop Ambassador Lodge from supporting the coup against Diem because the president, with an eye on the upcoming 1964 presidential election, feared Lodge, a Republican, might turn around and accuse the Democrats of weakness or ineptitude. LBJ rejected military advice to escalate attacks in 1964 because he too had his eye on the election of 1964 and feared the negative reaction of the American people.

Here's Moyar's conclusion:

At this point, it appears that the Iraq war resulted from decisions that the president sincerely believed would benefit the U.S. and the peoples of the Middle East. If that is what history concludes, President Bush won't be considered the"worst" American president -- he will certainly deserve more respect than war presidents who undermined the American cause by putting re-election before the national interest.

Here's where I disagree with Moyar. He leaves the misleading and wholly unsupported impression that presidents generally don't allow domestic politics to drive their foreign policy decisions. This is a restatement of the classic"politics stops at the water's edge" myth.

I know of no president except for George Washington who did not allow political considerations to shape their war policies. In the 19th century Polk and Lincoln declined to appoint generals from the opposition party out of fear of giving them the opportunity to use their victories on the battlefield to gain political victories in the next election. (Polk, a Democrat, insisted on giving Zachary Taylor fewer troops than needed because Taylor was rumored to be a Whig; Lincoln declined to put Grant in charge of the main army until he was assured Grant harbored no presidential ambitions.) In the 20th century both Wilson (in 1916) and FDR (in 1940) misled the country into thinking they'd keep us out of war when in fact war was coming and both knew it. Nixon of course kept the Vietnam War going because he refused to be the first president to lose a war on his watch.

And then we come to George W. Bush. Did he not use the war on terrorism to silence his critics and win in 2004? Did he not mislead the country into thinking that Saddam was behind 9/11 somehow to win his war resolution in Congress? Did he not stick with Rumsfeld month after month after month despite Rumsfeld's obvious shortcomings as a leader merely because it was inconvenient to fire him in the middle of an election?

Presidents are not saints. They are politicians. I do not think it is likely that we will find many acting in obliviousness to politics. Bush II has not and neither have any of his predecessors save Washington, the only president who was given the office on a platter.

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More Comments:

George Robert Gaston - 6/21/2007

Some future historian may write that by the turn of the century the United States had forgotten how to win wars, and this lack of will was the beginning of the end.

Stephen Kislock - 5/24/2007

Nixon, Inherited the Vietnam War, Bush started a War(s) with out End!

Tim Lacy - 5/24/2007


I'm with you. JFK and LBJ didn't have inside administration officials like Richard Clarke lambasting the original, seemingly personal motivations for the Bush administration's aggressive activities. Mark Moyar's wrong.

- TL