Melvyn Leffler is no conservative, or at least if he is, he’s managed to conceal it well: A long-time history professor at the University of Virginia, he is a past winner of the Bancroft Prize given by Columbia University and past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Policy—the kind of professional baubles that tend to be given to those who follow the familiar politics of academia. So it is all the more interesting to read what he has to say in the current issue of Foreign Affairs about President George W. Bush and his post-9/11 policies.
The standard critique of Bush is that he engaged in unprecedented unilateralism and militarism. Not so, writes Leffler:
[T]he Bush administration’s use of force to bring about regime change in countries perceived to be threatening in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks comported with what most Americans believed to be desirable at the time. The administration’s military buildup, meanwhile, was neither especially bold nor unprecedented. … It has become fashionable in some circles to excoriate the ideological fervor of the Bush team. But the affirmation of democratic values was hardly new. It was integral to the Wilsonian and Achesonian visions of the world, if not that of Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon. One should recall Kennedy addressing the people of Berlin or launching the Alliance for Progress, President Lyndon Johnson explaining U.S. actions in Vietnam, President Jimmy Carter talking about human rights, and President Ronald Reagan extolling the U.S. role in the world. Their rhetorical tropes resemble Bush’s, as do Obama’s in his recent speeches. And like his predecessors (and his successor), Bush had little trouble deviating from this message when it suited his administration’s strategic or material interests.
Many argue that U.S. policy after 9/11 was distinguished by its unilateralism. But the instinct to act independently, and to lead the world while doing so, is consonant with the long history of U.S. diplomacy, dating back to President George Washington’s Farewell Address and President Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural speech. During the Cold War, U.S. officials always reserved the right to act unilaterally, even while they nurtured alliances.
Leffler is right to place Bush in the long sweep of American history, and to find that his actions were in line with those of many of his predecessors. This should not be a great revelation—but to the legions of Bush haters it is. One wonders if Leffler’s article may be the start of a reevaluation of Bush by the historical profession similar to that undergone by Eisenhower, Reagan, and other conservative presidents widely derided by the cognoscenti during their terms in office.