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Bush Invokes Truman in Promoting Global Strategy

Foreign policy overhaul strikes a chord with voters. Critics say vision falls short of reality.

September 08, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush, in his drive to rebuild support for the war in Iraq, appears to have drafted an unlikely ally: Harry S. Truman.

As he frames the nation's foreign policy debate in sweeping terms, Bush is arguing that like President Truman after World War II, he is restructuring America's national security strategy to meet a transcendent new threat.

In his speech last week accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Bush compared his effort to democratize Iraq to Truman's commitment to building a democratic Germany after World War II.

Administration officials and conservative intellectuals also have asserted that Bush's responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- such as his emphasis on preemptive action against potential threats to the U.S. -- represented the most fundamental rethinking of American foreign policy goals and tactics since Truman's era.

Truman and aides later known as the "wise men" built a system of international alliances to contain the spread of communism. Now, Bush says he is reorienting American foreign policy around a strategy to shrink the risk of terrorism by encouraging the spread of democracy in the Middle East.

"I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century," Bush said in his acceptance speech.

Democrats consider it outrageous for Bush to reach for Truman's mantle, given the strains the Iraq war and other White House decisions have placed on the system of collective security Truman helped to construct.

"If this is anything, it is the un-Truman," said Madeleine Albright, secretary of State under President Clinton and now an advisor to the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry.

Albright argued that what Bush administration officials were "pretty much doing is dismantling all the things that Truman put into place."

But Bush's effort to depict the war in Iraq as part of a generation-long effort similar to the containment of communism could provide two important campaign benefits.

The argument may help Bush build public tolerance for reversals in Iraq by portraying the conflict as just an early skirmish in a struggle against Islamic radicalism that leading conservatives call World War IV (with the Cold War serving as World War III). And it could enable him to burnish the image he sought to summon in his acceptance speech, in which he presented himself as a big-picture leader.

These efforts appear to have struck a chord. In a post-convention CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday, the percentage of Americans who said the war in Iraq was a mistake plummeted by 10 points, to 38%.

Still, it remains unclear whether Bush has fundamentally changed opinion about the war. Public attitudes have proven extremely sensitive to events in Iraq, and that could prove true again as the U.S. death toll there has surpassed the grim milestone of 1,000.

Democrats also insist that voters are hesitant to embrace the financial and military costs inherent in the vision Bush has laid out.

But Republican strategists think the president's insistence that "the wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom" will reassure voters that he has a more comprehensive view than Kerry of the security challenge America faces and a more coherent plan to combat it.

In one sense, Bush's convention self-portrait is uncontroversial: Across the ideological spectrum, analysts view his post-9/11 foreign policy as a basic change in the strategies America relied upon through the Cold War. Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Bush's actions merit comparison to Truman's in that they represent a reexamination of the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy.

"I wouldn't say they have completed it, or they have gotten every part of it right," Mead said.

But during the administrations of Clinton and President George H.W. Bush, Mead said, officials "were trying to make as little change as possible after the Cold War. We seem to be past that, for better or worse."

Bush has detailed his approach in several speeches and policy statements in the last three years. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks came the Bush Doctrine: the warning that the U.S. would treat states that harbor terrorists as indistinguishable from the terrorists themselves -- a threat quickly borne out in the invasion of Afghanistan.

In a 2002 speech at West Point, Bush developed his case for preemptive war against nations developing weapons of mass destruction -- a concept that, based on what now appears to have been faulty intelligence, led to the invasion of Iraq.

In these efforts, Bush also signaled a shift in tactics. While Truman sought to bolster cooperation with international organizations such as the U.N. and NATO, Bush declared his preference to operate with informal "coalitions of the willing."

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