Hail to the Chiefs: Reflections on Presidents

Opinion May 15, 2013 0 Comments

by Harold I. Gullan

We are not likely to see all five together again – our four former presidents and the incumbent.

Even George W. Bush, surrounded by the others, got a bit emotional in reflecting on the occasion: the dedication of his presidential library. A symmetrical edifice, it encourages visitors to make up their own minds about his tenure.

The paths of the five presidents to this elevated office were hardly similar. Young George’s ambition had once been to become baseball commissioner. Jimmy Carter’s decision to leave the Navy when his father died and take over the family business nearly cost him his marriage. Bill Clinton’s candidacy was peculiarly propelled by an unsuccessful speech; Barack Obama’s by the most memorable one he ever delivered. The ultimate impact of each awaits history. Harry Truman once said that at least 50 years should pass before the evaluation of a presidency.

Terrorism is, of course, much on our minds today. Fairly or not, it implies the Middle East, and its antecedents go back well over half a century.

A double challenge is to determine just what constitutes a coherent country in that part of the world, and how sustained is any alliance. Our first Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union was over Iran. A few years later our CIA simply installed the young Shah in power there. Alas, all our military aid failed to save his regime from an uprising led by the Ayatollah he’d neglected to kill. We’ve been in trouble in Iran ever since. And the Cold War has been over for nearly a quarter-century.

In 1967 the Eisenhower administration for some reason stopped our established allies – Britain, France, and Israel in their tracks to save an aggressive Egyptian despot named Nasser. His successor, Anwar Sadat, steered into an actual peace agreement with Israel by President Carter, was promptly assassinated by his own troops. Yet somehow his despotic successor, Hosni Mubarak maintained both the peace and his friendship with the United States for thirty years until some participants in the “Arab Spring” decided he was a war criminal.

Unfortunately, the common denominator of all these popular revolts throughout the maze of tribes and societies that comprise the Middle East seems to be a residual anti-Americanism. Certainly, we’d have preferred that their prior governments had been more democratic, humane, honest, and equitable – had we been enabled to bring it about. But we also appreciate not being attacked.

What mix of movements will take their place? In a book called “Afghanistan’s Endless War,” Larry P. Goodson writes, “Sadly, for people throughout the developing world, there are many more weak states out there like Afghanistan, potential candidates for state failure, with all the suffering and misery that usually accompanies that process.” He wrote twelve years ago.

Consider that in 1980 we viewed Osama bin Laden as a freedom fighter opposing the Soviets in Afghanistan and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as the enemy of our enemy in Iran. Things don’t last very long in the state of volatility.

As Cold War has evolved over the decades to forms of terrorism that know no boundaries, it should be clear that only the most advanced, coordinated, and secretive of covert means can counteract it. Yet, despite everything learned in Asia, we embarked on open-ended wars throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, our “boots on the ground” leading to too many graves, shattered lives, and little ultimate resolution.

Perhaps George W. Bush was thinking about this as he surveyed his supportive audience at SMU. He is, as President Obama said, a good and well-intentioned man. The first task of any president is to defend this republic and its people. We have learned some hard lessons together. Hopefully we are finally catching up to the realities we and future chief executives will face.

Harold I. Gullan is an author who lives in Mt. Airy.

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