Monday, July 02, 2007

Bush And Winston Churchill : The Only Thing They Have In Common Is The 'W'

It's no exaggeration to state that President Bush is all but obsessed with how history will view his presidency, but more importantly, how historians will write him up, in his words, as "a war fighting president."

He admires Winston Churchill, who used the power of a good speech and the then current media monolith that was radio, to rally a nation not only into fighting in Europe in World War 2, but fighting back on the homefront when it seemed, under the onslaught of Hitler's air raids and rocket attacks, that all hope was lost.

Bush did make some good speeches before the Iraq War, and in the first few weeks, as lose with the truth as they were, and he can be credited with rallying the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but the world, and history, is far more cynical today than it was in Churchill's days.

Even if the Iraq War ended tomorrow, with a democratically elected government in place that could provide security for the people and open up the country to global trade and new money,
many historians will pound Bush for dragging the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and Japan, primarily, into such a deeply unpopular, and civilian-death heavy, war.

He will not be remembered as fondly, or as vitally, as his hero. Bush will go down in history as a reckless troublemaker, who ignored the will of the world, at large, and threw hand grenades into the already churning chaos of the Middle East.

A column from the Washington Post argues that the debate and discussion should not be about drawing parallels between Bush and Churchill, but between Bush and Churchill's predecessor as British PM, the now nefariously, notoriously viewed "Hitler appeaser" Neville Chamberlain :
The president admires the wartime British prime minister so much that he keeps what he calls "a stern-looking bust" of Churchill in the Oval Office. "He watches my every move," Bush jokes. These days, Churchill would probably not care for much of what he sees.

I've spent a great deal of time thinking about Churchill while working on my book "Troublesome Young Men," a history of the small group of Conservative members of Parliament who defied British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler, forced Chamberlain to resign in May 1940 and helped make Churchill his successor.

...I think Bush's hero would be bemused, to say the least, by the president's wrapping himself in the Churchillian cloak. Indeed, the more you understand the historical record, the more the parallels leap out -- but they're between Bush and Chamberlain, not Bush and Churchill.

Like Bush and unlike Churchill, Chamberlain came to office with almost no understanding of foreign affairs or experience in dealing with international leaders. Nonetheless, he was convinced that he alone could bring Hitler and Benito Mussolini to heel. He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers and refused to heed anyone who told him otherwise.

In the months leading up to World War II, Chamberlain and his men saw little need to build up a strong coalition of European allies with which to confront Nazi Germany -- ignoring appeals from Churchill and others to fashion a "Grand Alliance" of nations to thwart the threat that Hitler posed to the continent.

Unlike Bush and Chamberlain, Churchill was never in favor of his country going it alone. Throughout the 1930s, while urging Britain to rearm, he also strongly supported using the newborn League of Nations -- the forerunner to today's United Nations -- to provide one-for-all-and-all-for-one security to smaller countries. After the League failed to stop fascism's march, Churchill was adamant that, to beat Hitler, Britain must form a true partnership with France and even reach agreement with the despised Soviet Union, neither of which Chamberlain was willing to do.

Like Bush, Chamberlain also laid claim to unprecedented executive authority, evading the checks and balances that are supposed to constrain the office of prime minister.

...Churchill almost certainly would look askance at the Bush administration's years-long campaign to shut down public debate over the "war on terror" and the conflict in Iraq -- tactics markedly similar to Chamberlain's attempts to quiet his opponents.

Like Bush and his aides, Chamberlain badgered and intimidated the press, restricted journalists' access to sources and claimed that anyone who dared criticize the government was guilty of disloyalty and damaging the national interest. Just as Bush has done, Chamberlain authorized the wiretapping of citizens without court authorization; Churchill was among those whose phones were tapped by the prime minister's subordinates.

Churchill, by contrast, believed firmly in the sanctity of individual liberties and the need to protect them from government encroachment.

The president no doubt has his own Churchill. "He was resolute," Bush has remarked. "He was tough. He knew what he believed." But Churchill would snort, I believe, at the administration's equation of "Islamofascism," an amorphous, ill-defined movement of killers forced to resort to terrorism by their lack of military might, to Nazi Germany, a global power that had already conquered several countries before Churchill took office in 1940. Still, key members of the Bush administration have compared critics of the wars on terrorism and in Iraq to the appeasers of the 1930s, thus implicitly equating their boss and themselves to Churchill and the "troublesome young men" who helped bring him to power. During bleak days in Iraq, the administration's hawks can be forgiven for hoping that history will show them to be as far-sighted about a gathering storm as Churchill was in the 1930s.

But history has its own ways, and we cannot make the long-dead titans we admire give us their modern blessing. As the world's two most prominent and powerful democracies, the United States and Britain had a responsibility to serve as exemplars of democracy for the rest of the world, Churchill believed. But to be fitting role models, he argued, both countries had to do their best to ensure that the "title deeds of freedom" were strongly safeguarded within their own boundaries. "Let us preach what we practice," he declared in his 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Mo. "But let us also practice what we preach."