Monday, December 12, 2005


Politicians and historians

Over at Cliopatria, Manan Ahmed asks why President Bush is "continuously comparing Iraqis to America's founders." I'm not sure I have an easy answer, but the question does bring to mind some thoughts I've been having about the way the Bush administration uses history in general.

President Bush and his spokespersons have a habit of saying that historians will be the best judges of their present actions. But they almost always add that, for this very reason, we should not judge those actions now. The historian is to the Bush administration as the kick returner is to the football team. Historians are the ones you punt to for analysis of your decisions or policy judgments.

Viz., Scott McClellan:
... historians are going to look back and make judgments in terms of the decisions that were made in the aftermath of going into Iraq. ... as Senator Lieberman said that we've made mistakes, and [the President] said he's right. And so, yes. I mean, but in terms of making judgments about what those are, I don't think you can judge that at this time. Historians over time will be able to look back and make judgments about the decisions-- [Reporter: "in acknowledging and agreeing with Senator Lieberman, what mistakes do you believe this administration has made?"] Again, we'll let the historians look back and make those judgments. I don't think you can do it in the current time. This is something that will be looked back over the course of history.

Viz., Ari Fleischer:
I think you're going to find the historians, legal scholars will have differing conclusions about these matters. But the conclusion the President reaches is that Iraq's failure to disarm presents a threat to the people of the United States and, therefore, he is prepared to use force.

Viz., President Bush:
I have made a lot of decisions -- some of them little, like appointments to board you've never heard of, and some of them big. And in a war, there's a lot of tactical decisions that historians will look back and say, you shouldn't have done that, you shouldn't have made that decision. And I'll take responsibility for them. I'm human.

Viz., President Bush:
... you know the interesting thing about Presidents and Prime Ministers is you're never going to be around to judge history, judge the true merit of the history, of the decisions you make. Short-term history is -- it's hard to call it unobjective. It's very subjective, I guess, is the best way to put it. After all, the person who has written the history hasn't had a chance to see the full effects of the decision-making.

And in my case, most of the short-term historians probably aren't that thrilled with me being President in the first place, which might color the short-term history. (Laughter.) But my only point is, I think a President must not try to write the legacy of every moment. The President just does what he thinks is right, and try to explain as clearly as I can -- part of the purpose of my visit to your great country is to use the opportunities I've had to speak directly -- like I'm doing right now -- to people about why I made the decisions I made.

Viz., Ari Fleischer, on why the fall of Baghdad is "historic":
I think historians will make judgments about what today means. But today certainly marks a wonderful day for the Iraqi people as they pursue the freedom to which they are entitled.

And, of course, President Bush's famous reply to the question of whether he had made any mistakes in his first administration:
I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it. (Laughter.) John, I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way, or that way. You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet.

Perhaps as an historian, I shouldn't complain too much about these deferrals to history. After all, they invest a great amount of cultural authority in my guild: according to the Bush administration, we historians are the ones who will settle all the scores, figure out where mistakes were made, assess blame and praise. There is even something Gadamerian about the Bush administration's view that understanding can only come as a result of the passage of time, that temporal distance from the original event is not an impediment to the interpretation of the past but an aid to it.

But the problem with that view is that it refuses judgment in the present. We cannot judge until later. [ed.--How much later?] The later the better. Indeed, once President Bush punts to historians to judge his present actions, he can always reply to criticism by saying the day for judgment has not yet come. If, for instance, historians venture to remark on the start of the Iraq war, he can dismiss historians as "revisionists" or argue that we are still in the "short-term." "I don't worry about our standing in history," he told one audience in 2002. "Plus, I know most historians didn't vote for me, so they're probably going to write something ugly anyway. (Laughter and applause.)" Historians can judge, but only future historians--historians who had no connection with the present. A generation must pass before a generation's sins can be accounted for.

President Bush ends up damning historians with high praise. On the one hand, they are described as the highly respected arbitrators of all the decisions he makes. But on the other hand, their day for judging him is always about to arrive while never yet arriving. The President's rhetoric leaves everything for the historians to decide, without actually giving historians anything they can do, since they can always be dismissed as not distant or detached enough to judge his policies. In the end, his policies remain safely beyond the pale of judgement, whether now or in the forseeable future.

To circle back to Manan's question, I think the President's frequent analogies between Iraqis and America's founders convey a respect for history that also ends up being illusory. Look closely at what President Bush said about the Founding in today's speech:
The eight years from the end of the Revolutionary War to the election of a constitutional government were a time of disorder and upheaval. There were uprisings, with mobs attacking courthouses and government buildings. There was a planned military coup that was defused only by the personal intervention of General Washington. In 1783, Congress was chased from this city by angry veterans demanding back-pay, and they stayed on the run for six months. There were tensions between the mercantile North and the agricultural South that threatened to break apart our young republic. And there were British loyalists who were opposed to independence and had to be reconciled with America's new democracy.

Our founders faced many difficult challenges -- they made mistakes, they learned from their experiences, and they adjusted their approach. Our nation's first effort at governing -- a governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed. It took years of debate and compromise before we ratified our Constitution and inaugurated our first president. It took a four-year civil war, and a century of struggle after that, before the promise of our Declaration was extended to all Americans.

It is important to keep this history in mind as we look at the progress of freedom and democracy in Iraq. No nation in history has made the transition to a free society without facing challenges, setbacks, and false starts. The past two-and-a-half years have been a period of difficult struggle in Iraq, yet they've also been a time of great hope and achievement for the Iraqi people.
What is the lesson that we learn from history? That chaos and disorder happen, that leaders make mistakes, that politicians face challenges and setbacks. But all of these points have the same rhetorical effect as punting to historians: they all draw, as their lesson, that we cannot judge mistakes and setbacks in the present, because in the future they could turn out to be the storm before the calm. How will we know which are the truly devastating mistakes and which are the growing pains? We won't, we can't, until some indefinite "later." It took "a century" for the Founders' heirs to smooth out their wrinkles, so, by implication, it could take a century before we can judge the President's mistakes. The appeal to American history, like the appeal to future historians, ends up being nothing but a prima facie vote of confidence in the status quo.

Perhaps the patterns I have pointed out in the Bush administration's rhetoric on history are not unique to this White House. I suspect that at one time or another, the nebulous idea of "future historians" has provided most politicians with a way to redirect criticisms of their policies. When described by politicians, perhaps history always suffers. But I think it's worth making a distinction between "politicized" history that actually uses historical evidence and reasoning to judge the present (which is how Fred Siegel at Slate classifies Sean Wilentz's recent book), and a political use of history that actually makes it and its practitioners useless as commentators on the present. It's one thing to flatten history into a comment on the mistakes of a sitting president; it's another thing to flatter history in order to dismiss any comment on those mistakes.

Collective Improvisation:
In Dubya's case, isn't the terrifying thing that, because he expects the Second Coming at any moment, he thinks he may *never* have to face the judgement of history?

Why he thinks the Lord is going to be any more favourable, I can't imagine.

Posted by Blogger Tony on 12/13/2005 07:22:00 AM : Permalink  

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