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Good morning, it’s Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. Twenty years ago today, a Republican presidential candidate outlined his views about the efficacy -- and limitations -- of U.S. military power.

The setting was The Citadel, where George W. Bush expressed skepticism that American troops should ever be used as “peacekeepers.” In what his campaign aides billed as the first major foreign policy address of the Bush campaign, Texas’ popular governor extolled a view of military intervention striking in its realism and sense of restraint.

“The problem comes with open-ended deployments and unclear military missions,” Bush said. “In these cases we will ask, ‘What is our goal, can it be met, and when do we leave?’ As I’ve said before, I will work hard to find political solutions that allow an orderly and timely withdrawal from places like Kosovo and Bosnia. We will encourage our allies to take a broader role. We will not be hasty. But we will not be permanent peacekeepers, dividing warring parties. This is not our strength or our calling.”

In speaking this way, Bush was treading a path many presidential candidates had walked before. Once in office, however, commanders-in-chief often find that their well-developed ideals give way to other exigencies and emotions. I’ll have a more on this idea in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

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As a first-time presidential candidate, George W. Bush seems to have thought that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton set dangerous precedents in abandoning Lebanon and Somalia, respectively. He believed, as did many others, that starting a fight like that, and not finishing it, only emboldened terrorist groups. But what was the alternative to cutting and running? Sometimes there were only two: staying indefinitely or not getting involved in the first place.

Bush seemed to favor the latter. On the campaign trail in 1999 and 2000, he expressed skepticism about the very idea of “nation-building.”

Candidates for political office often say such things. Journalists do too. I’ve written them myself. But presidents have other considerations. America’s commander-in-chief not only has to respond to attacks on our soil, which George W. Bush did two Septembers later, but they also must watch horrors unfold in places as remote from the United States as Rwanda and Kosovo -- knowing that only they have the ability to stop it. It’s a power that weighs heavily.

By mid-2007, as another field of presidential candidates was forming and circumstances in Iraq had united congressional Democrats against him -- and induced near-daily defections in his own party -- Bush tried to reassure worried Republicans by invoking Korea as an example of a long-term U.S. military deployment that succeeded.

This historic analogy was a stretch; it was also at odds with Bush’s own history. When running for president himself, he expressed skepticism that American troops should ever be placed as long-term buffers between two armed factions with ancient enmities. In his Sept. 23, 1999 speech at The Citadel, Bush made a convincing case for harboring such doubts.

Two months later, speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., to an audience that included Nancy Reagan and George Shultz, Bush declared that Americans were living in “the nation President Reagan restored, and the world he helped to save.” Bush stated that national defense must be a president’s primary focus and, indeed, is the first duty spelled out for a president in the Constitution. Once again, however, Bush offered a cautionary warning about what America can rationally expect to achieve on the international stage.

“In the defense of our nation, a president must be a clear-eyed realist,” he declared.

In all of his pronouncements about when, where, and how to use American military power, candidate Bush demonstrated a keen understanding that military operations of short duration were far more palatable to a free people than open-ended conflicts of uncertain outcomes. His guiding principle for going in seemed to be how fast you could get out.

In the third and final presidential debate, which took place in St. Louis on Oct. 17, 2000, Bush returned to this theme. “It must be in our vital interest whether we ever send troops,” he said. “The mission must be clear. Soldiers must understand why we’re going. The force must be strong enough so that the mission can be accomplished. And the exit strategy needs to be well-defined.”

To most Americans, these are sound instincts. In Bush’s own case, they did not prevail amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, the smoldering Pentagon, or a Pennsylvania field that was turned into a mass grave. The perpetrators of such barbarity came from places in the world where freedom was unknown, he emphasized. Spreading democracy to every corner of the globe -- by force, if necessary -- became his mission. It was, he proclaimed, “the calling of our time.” 

Carl M. Cannon  
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
[email protected]

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.



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