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Sorry, Mr. Bush, but you're no Harry Truman


WASHINGTON -- In his speech before graduating cadets at West Point, President Bush made clear who he sees as his historical guide: Harry Truman, whose name he invoked 17 times.

"By the actions he took, the institutions he built, the alliances he forged, and the doctrines he set down," Mr. Bush declared, "Truman laid the foundations for America's victory in the Cold War." And now, the president argued, "like Americans in Truman's day, we are laying the foundations for victory."

It's easy to see why Mr. Bush and others in the administration regularly invoke Mr. Truman when explaining their circumstances and choices. Like Mr. Truman, Mr. Bush takes pride in being plain-spoken and enjoys needling the political and policy elite.

The Truman administration responded to unprecedented challenges with sharp analysis, bold policies and courageous leadership in the face of much hidebound skepticism and fear. The Bush team fancies itself as doing the same thing.

No less important is the belief that, like Mr. Truman, Mr. Bush will be vindicated by history, despite his historic unpopularity among the American people today. In this way, the Truman comparisons offer a kind of psychological comfort for the beleaguered Bush team.

It is true that Mr. Truman is held in far higher esteem today than when he left office in 1953. He is now considered one of America's greatest presidents, much admired for his humble style as well as for his decisive, gutsy leadership.

Yet what such comparisons overlook is that the Truman administration not only helped build Germany and Japan into two major new democracies and established the strategy of containment, but also developed the tools to implement its policy over the long haul. That administration created the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - institutions that have underpinned U.S. leadership in world politics for more than half a century.

This highlights the biggest difference between the Truman of 1950 and the Bush of 2006.

Mr. Truman created international institutions and bestrode U.S. foreign policy with bipartisan support, and so his successors - Republican and Democrat alike - were destined to operate within the framework he created.

So far, Mr. Bush has done nothing of that scale and scope. Not only has he largely disdained formal institutions, he has also spurned bipartisanship. There is, therefore, no lasting institutional or political legacy to ensure that his successors will adopt his general approach to world affairs.

There is one other Truman parallel that, unsurprisingly, the Bush team does not go out of its way to emphasize.

In the 1952 election, with an unpopular president mired in war in Korea, both Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson and Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower ran against the Truman record. The 2008 election will be the first since 1952 in which neither the sitting president nor the vice president presumably is running.

If Mr. Bush cannot turn things around in Iraq, it is hard to imagine any candidate embracing his record. The Republicans are heading into a difficult midterm election in November; in the 1950 midterm elections, Mr. Truman's Democrats were trounced, losing five Senate seats and 28 seats in the House to the GOP.

On his current course, the president will likely leave office politically hobbled, with his opponents emboldened and a country deeply disillusioned about his policies around the world. The result might be an America more withdrawn from the world and reluctant to take on significant challenges. And instead of evoking comparisons to Harry Truman, Mr. Bush would leave a more mixed legacy closer to another of his predecessors - Woodrow Wilson.

Derek Chollet is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. James Goldgeier is a professor of political science at George Washington University. This article is adapted from an essay in the Summer 2006 issue of The American Interest. Their e-mails are dchollet@csis.org and jimg@gwu.edu.

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