Say what you will about the sins of the Bush Administration. But credit it with one small but welcome accomplishment: It has moved Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to give a vigorous lesson about the peril of keeping an arrogant moralist in the White House. The great liberal historian made his name by writing long, sympathetic, popular books about great liberal politicians: The Age of Jackson, The Age of Roosevelt, A Thousand Days, Robert Kennedy and His Times. Meanwhile, Schlesinger was never shy about making some history himself; he helped found Americans for Democratic Action, advised Adlai Stevenson’s campaigns for President and was a special assistant in the Kennedy White House. At 86, he remains a passionate liberal who is friendly with leading Democrats and is eager to point out the follies of the Bushian right.
Yet, away from the bestseller lists, Schlesinger has often been a counselor of caution–about the twin dangers of breakneck ideology and unrivaled power. His cold war classic, The Vital Center, urged fellow liberals to resist Stalinism with as much fervor as they spurned the anti-Communist right. The Imperial Presidency, published just as Watergate became a crisis, stuck a lasting name on the grab for supremacy by the executive branch. And in The Disuniting of America, Schlesinger took radical multiculturalists to task for viewing American nationalism as little more than a device for the oppression of ethnic minorities.
His books, always written with supreme confidence and arresting prose, have seldom found favor in the pages of this magazine. Most leftists wrote off Schlesinger as the court historian of the liberal establishment, at least when such an animal truly existed. But his most thoughtful and provocative work has always been critical of dogmatic and domineering officeholders rather than a tribute to liberal heroes. Inspiring much of that writing is the ironic judgment Schlesinger learned from his friend, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: Moralists who divide the world between absolute evil and spotless virtue usually impede the progress of the good. As Niebuhr wrote, smack in the middle of the Korean War and at the height of McCarthyism, “A too confident sense of justice always leads to injustice.”
How apt that sounds half a century later. The debacle in Iraq provides, for Schlesinger, a perfect illustration of why would-be messiahs make bad Presidents. Based on intelligence that was little more than a compilation of wishful thinking, George W. Bush went to war for an idea–that “converting the Arab world to representative democracy” was both feasible and right. In so doing, he made a radical change in the doctrine of American foreign policy. Instead of containing and deterring potential enemies, as during the cold war, Bush declared that the United States had a duty to make war so that others would not do the same.
Schlesinger delivers this now-familiar indictment with a dash of wit. He compares Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to the relentless “precogs” in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, who can “see” crimes and stop them before they occur. But, writes Schlesinger, “in the real world, preventive war depends on accurate intelligence, which is all too often unavailable, supplemented by dubious historical analogies.” The Bush team imagined the invasion of Iraq would look like the liberation of France or Italy near the end of World War II; instead, it stirs memories of Vietnam.
Although there’s nothing particularly original about Schlesinger’s argument, he does ground it in a more sober historical critique than most antiwar critics have offered. Unilateralism, he points out, is a venerable tradition in US foreign policy. Until World War I, George Washington’s doctrine of no “permanent alliances” governed America’s relationships with the outside world. Woodrow Wilson broke the habit of going it alone when he sought to pin the nation’s security to a powerful League of Nations. But his own unbending moralism sabotaged the enterprise, and it wasn’t revived until the 1940s, when the more pragmatic FDR converted a wartime alliance into the United Nations, and Harry Truman mobilized the anti-Soviet governments of Europe into NATO.