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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

The Fickle Finger of History and George W. Bush

By Michael E. Berumen

Is the history of mankind moved by the great tidal forces of culture and society, and the multifarious factors that amass to produce them, or, alternatively, is it primarily the result of individual actors and their unique shaping of events, which some have called “The Great Man" theory of history? The latter perspective was famously promoted by Thomas Carlyle, who said, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Others, for example, Tolstoy and Karl Marx, see history as the product of sweeping forces lying outside of any one individual’s control, his actions being merely the necessary yield of social influences. Historians and philosophers have long debated such things. It seems to me, however, that both views are essentially correct, and that it is difficult to ascribe historical outcomes exclusively to the effects of outstanding personalities or solely to broad, underlying social forces. The influence of society on individuals and the influence of remarkable individuals on society are inextricably bound, and, it seems to me, they both suggest explanations for historical events that are complementary rather than in opposition to one another.

However, even these general explanations are insufficient to understand all of the forces that underlie historical reality; for example, it would be sheer folly to discount the effects of random, fortuitous occurrences, or even exogenous forces such as the weather. The latter, quite alone, has caused human privation on a grand scale and altered the outcome of battles and even the course of civilizations. Setting such deeper considerations aside, it is especially remarkable to observe how seemingly isolated, minor events, when taken by themselves, can alter the trajectory of history, events that sometimes seem inevitable to us only in retrospect, but that would have been overlooked or thought insignificant at the time of their occurrence. What often seems to us to have been an obvious outcome occurs only because of an improbable, fortuitous event.

Abraham Lincoln is considered to be the greatest American president by most historians and Americans. I would not argue with that point of view. During much of his presidency, however, he was seen as an abject failure. Indeed, many in the chattering classes of the time thought him to be something of a country bumpkin, a buffoon. Things had not gone well for the Union in the first two years of the Civil War, and Lincoln had made unpopular decisions on a host of other matters. Had the Civil War not been won by the Union, which was not an altogether implausible outcome given some of the political realities of the time, I rather think that history would have judged Lincoln as an ineffective, unsuccessful president, perhaps even among the worst we have had. If circumstances were only slightly different on the war front, a great many people would have been willing to let the obstreperous South go its own way, either fully independent or virtually so, thereby enabling it to keep its “peculiar institution,” as Southerners liked to call slavery.

Consider what might have occurred, for instance, had Ulysses Grant not rejoined the military at the onset of the Civil War. After an earlier, lackluster career in the Army, and having failed at both farming and business, the scruffy Grant seemed by all measures to be an unexceptional man, indeed, even something of a disappointment. He certainly was not someone whom anyone could have singled out for greatness at the time. Had he not successfully recruited and trained a company of Illinois volunteers, thereby gaining the immediate notice of his superiors, he might not have been quickly promoted to a combat command role, and the Union most likely would have lost several principal, course-changing battles. Then, President Lincoln, hitherto a failed wartime Commander-in-Chief, most likely would have lost a second term to the Democratic candidate, the puffed-up, supercilious, and inexplicably popular George McClellan, whom Lincoln had previously fired as head of the Army of the Potomac. Given McClellan’s conciliatory stances, along with a growing anti-war sentiment among Union citizens, it seems very likely that he would have come to an accommodation with the Confederacy. As a result, slavery would have continued on for some decades, and the reconstituted United States, with or without the South, would have evolved into a nation very different than it is today. Had this occurred, the world itself would undoubtedly be quite unlike it is now, perhaps, for example, possessing a much more Germanic or Russian quality, given certain events outside of the United States in the 20th Century.

American presidents have mostly been unexceptional, mediocre men. It is the price one pays for a democratically-elected, representative government, for the people who are represented, on the whole, are also quite average and unremarkable. It stands to reason that we would be disposed to select one of our own. This is not to suggest there is a better way, for there surely is not. It is just as well, too, for as others have observed, great men also have great appetites that sometimes are satisfied at the expense of those they would rule. The world cannot easily withstand the glories and devastations of another Alexander, Genghis Khan, or Napoleon.

In several notable cases, however, a man with the right combination of talents has risen to the presidency precisely when those talents are needed most. Posterity judges him as great or near-great, even when he might have failed miserably at other, comparatively minor things. Humans are especially susceptible to hagiography, and those who write about history are certainly no exception. While we seem to take pleasure in discovering our leaders’ foibles and clay feet, we also long to find greatness in them. So, when significant events have been favorably handled, failure recedes into insignificance, and character flaws are seen as mere eccentricities. However, those traits that are thought to have contributed to his triumphs are magnified and become the now obvious markers of his preternatural nobility, prescience, and strength. Had he failed on the major issue or issues that faced him, however, these would never have been identified as such, and he would have been consigned to the dustbin of mediocrity or worse.

Now, I do not wish to compare George W. Bush with Abraham Lincoln, either as men or as presidents. They are strikingly dissimilar. Their differences are so obvious that to point them out is gratuitous, even churlish. My present purpose is mainly to suggest that significant events and the way future generations will view them hang by a mere thread, and that it is not inevitable that history will be unkind to George W. Bush. Imagine, for a moment, that over the course of 10 to 50 years, Iraq becomes a prosperous, democratic nation, a country with a diverse population protected by laws ensuring individual liberties. Further, imagine that the seeds of liberty and democracy take root in the Middle East, along with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that this inspires a sea change in the Islamic world, and an Islamic Enlightenment of sorts takes place. Then, much as Lincoln’s war also had many, many instances of mismanagement and failure, and just as his public mission of holding the Union together gradually morphed into ending slavery and transforming the South, Bush’s several pronounced failures in managing the war and his own changing mission in Iraq will take a backseat in importance to how future generations judge the outcome and, ultimately, his presidency.

Even had things gone well from the outset of his administration, it is unimaginable that George W. Bush could ever be included with the likes of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, or FDR, rightly considered to be our greatest presidents; however, if things turn out favorably in Iraq and the Middle East, it is not completely farfetched to suppose that he could be judged to be just as good as, say, Presidents Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, or Truman, whom many historians believe to be in the near-great category, notwithstanding some notable failures and flaws. What today’s critics of Bush see as a combination of stubbornness and Wilsonian naiveté might one day be seen as unwavering courage, perseverance, and idealism. On the other hand, if Iraq is torn asunder by ongoing civil war and genocide; if it becomes the home base for spreading Islamic terror; or if it becomes a vassal state to an increasingly powerful, nuclear Iran, then I suspect George W. Bush, with no other accomplishments, will be accused of having made the greatest mistake in the country's foreign affairs and will be assigned to the unenviable class of failed and below average presidents, a category that include such unmitigated disasters as Presidents Pierce, Buchanan, and Hoover. Such is the utter fickleness of history.

The political left’s hatred for George W. Bush is so blinding that it causes them to set aside any desire for our country to succeed in Iraq or the Middle East, preferring the emotional vindication that history judge Bush a failure. Peace for the U.S. is not worth any price. And our nation’s duties towards other nations do not divide along political or ideological lines. It is simply feckless to leave in shambles a country that our nation invaded because a segment of our citizenry, albeit a major one, does not agree with the war's original purpose or how it has been managed. The left’s behavior in relation to Iraq is simply unconscionable. I do not admire George W. Bush. He is a decidedly mediocre man, and I continue to believe that the men he opposed in 2000 and 2004, and for whom I voted, would have been superior both as presidents and as wartime leaders. On the other hand, he is the president we have, and the outcome in Iraq is vital to American, indeed, world interests. I do not mind a more generous portrayal of the President by later generations if our nation is successful. Things seem to be going more our way in Iraq. Now is not the time to abandon the effort. We must do everything we can to build on this success, and, on a broader front, to reverse the insidious and growing trends towards theocracy and totalitarianism in the Islamic world. We are not going to do this without a significant military and diplomatic presence in Iraq for years to come. No matter how President Bush is ultimately judged, posterity will be even less kind to a nation that ignominiously left that unfortunate portion of the world with a bigger mess than had existed before it intervened.