Saturday, December 09, 2006

Bush, Truman, Iraq, and Korea

President Bush seems to be taking solace in comparing himself to Harry Truman. In a recent meeting, Congressional Democrats tried to convince Bush that he needs to shift his Iraq policies.

Instead, Bush began his talk by comparing himself to President Harry S Truman, who launched the Truman Doctrine to fight communism, got bogged down in the Korean War and left office unpopular.

Bush said that "in years to come they realized he was right and then his doctrine became the standard for America," recalled Senate Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "He's trying to position himself in history and to justify those who continue to stand by him, saying sometimes if you're right you're unpopular, and be prepared for criticism."

Durbin said he challenged Bush's analogy, reminding him that Truman had the NATO alliance behind him and negotiated with his enemies at the United Nations. Durbin said that's what the Iraq Study Group is recommending that Bush do now - work more with allies and negotiate with adversaries on Iraq.

Bush, Durbin said, "reacted very strongly. He got very animated in his response" and emphasized that he is "the commander in chief."

Bush is right that the Korean war was unpopular and that, in time, public opinion looked back at Truman with much more favor. But there are problems with the comparison. First, the Iraq War is much more unpopular than the Korean War. A recent Harris poll asked, ""Thinking about everything that has happened, do you think that taking military action against Iraq was the right or wrong thing to do?" Only 36 percent of respondents said it was the right thing to do, compared to 46 percent who said it was the wrong thing, and 18 percent who weren't sure. In 1952, the National Election Study asked a very similar question about the Korean War: "Do you think we did the right thing in getting into the fighting in Korea two years ago or should we have stayed out?" On that question, the public was almost evenly divided, with 46 percent saying that it was the right thing and 48 percent saying we should have stayed out.*

Americans today are much more supportive of getting out of Iraq ASAP. A new AP-Ipsos poll has 71 percent of Americans favoring getting out of Iraq in the next two years and 60 percent in favor of getting out in the next six months. In contrast, only 10 percent of Americans in 1952 favored pulling out of Korea entirely. Forty-nine percent wanted to keep on fighting to getting a peaceful settlement and 40 percent wanted to expand the war by bombing Manchuria.

That last response suggests the most fundamental difference between Korea and Iraq. With Korea, large numbers of Americans favored a tougher approach to the war. Much of Truman's unpopularity was not because he chose to fight in Korea, but rather because he seemed unwilling to expand the war in order to acheive a clear-cut military victory. This was especially true after Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur for publicly criticizing his war strategy.

With the passage of time, this view shifted. Most Americans now view Truman's decision to fire MacArthur as a necessary assertion of civilian control of the military. In addition, the consensus is that Truman's limited war strategy achieved an important goal (a non-communist South Korea) and avoided an even bloodier war with China and, perhaps, the Soviet Union that might have easily escalated to include nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, there is no constituency, outside of the editorial boards of the National Review and the Weekly Standard, for expanding the Iraq War into Iran or Syria. Perhaps, in time, Americans will come to appreciate Bush's handling of Iraq just as they did with Truman and Korea, but it seems highly unlikely.

*Update: A new CBS News/NYT poll uses almost the exact question wording as the 1952 NES question on Korea: "Looking back, do you think the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, or should the US have stayed out?" On that question, 39 percent say it was the right thing and 55 say we should have stayed out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who finds it a depressing fact about this country that as many as 39% still think that invading Iraq was the right thing to do?