I do not mean to suggest that this is a likely outcome, or that it would be a just one. The cost of the Iraq War, in lives and dollars and squandered opportunities, ought to far outweigh the possibility that a long-term American presence might push the Middle East in a direction it was headed anyway. But when things work out in the long run—and especially when we can claim the credit—Americans tend to forgive their leaders for the crimes and errors of the moment.
That’s why—to judge by the rankings that historians and pollsters regularly churn out—we’ve forgiven Teddy Roosevelt his role in the bloody and disgraceful occupation of the Philippines. It’s why we’ve pardoned Woodrow Wilson for the part his feckless idealism played in unleashing decades of strife and tyranny in Europe. It’s why we’ve granted Harry Truman absolution for the military blundering that prolonged the Korean War and brought us to the brink of nuclear conflict.
All of these presidents benefited, as Bush hopes to benefit, from the consonance between their sweeping, often hubristic goals and the gradual upward trajectory in human affairs. Despite our crimes, the Philippines turned out well enough in the long run, and so did South Korea; in the very long run, so did post–World War I Europe. (Indeed, if LBJ or Nixon had only found a way to prop up South Vietnam until the 1990s, they might have been forgiven the outrageous cost in blood and treasure, and remembered as Trumanesque heroes rather than as goats.)
But these well-respected presidents have benefited, as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge. A sometimes impressive, oft-erratic president like Truman is lionized, while the more even-keeled greatness of Dwight D. Eisenhower is persistently undervalued. John F. Kennedy is hailed for escaping the Cuban missile crisis, which his own misjudgments set in motion, while George H. W. Bush, who steered the U.S. through the fraught final moments of the Cold War with admirable caution, is caricatured as a ditherer who needed Margaret Thatcher around to keep him from going wobbly.
Few presidents have seemed as conscious of this reality as George W. Bush, perhaps because he had the example of his father—competent, cautious, and defeated for reelection—to look back on. The younger Bush’s governing style has been defined by an attempt to be everything his father wasn’t: by the pursuit of greatness, rather than mere competence; by an impatience with “small ball” and a yearning to play what The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes called the “rebel in chief”; by rhetoric that associated him as much with crusading liberals like Wilson and Kennedy as with his Republican predecessors; and by an abiding faith that his goals would earn him history’s blessing, whatever today’s polls might say.
In this sense, it might be said that a too-keen awareness of the American tendency to associate great leadership with world-historical ambition has wrecked the presidency of George W. Bush. But the enthusiasm for Barack Obama and John McCain suggests that the yearning, on the left and right alike, for presidents who will pursue greatness has only been enhanced by the debacle in Iraq. This is good news for Bush, who has to hope that the same propensity that ruined his administration will redeem his reputation. But it’s dangerous news for America. Those who rehabilitate the follies of the past are condemned to repeat them.