Presidents Inherit Messes and Responsibilities
Lee Harris takes issue with Hillary Clinton’s recent assertion that it is President Bush’s responsibility to extract us from the messy situation in Iraq before his term ends, so that his successor isn’t left holding the bag.
No one is under any obligation to run as a candidate for the Presidency; but those who elect to do so are under a high and serious obligation to understand the nature of the office to which they are aspiring. If, like Lincoln, a future President Clinton finds herself confronted with a mess made by her predecessor in office, it will not be enough for her to blame Mr. Bush for his incompetence and mismanagement. It will avail her naught to continue to declare that Iraq is Bush’s responsibility. By then, whether she likes it or not, Iraq will be her responsibility, and no one else’s. If she refuses to recognize this unpleasant truth now, while still a candidate, how prepared will she be to recognize it when she is President and it is too late to throw the responsibility on someone else?
“We cannot escape history,” Lincoln once said sadly and solemnly. We cannot undo what has been done; we cannot wish it away or blame it into oblivion; we cannot arbitrarily decide which parts of the past shall influence our future. We are stuck with what has been, and are constrained to make the best of it. History may or may not agree in blaming the mess in Iraq entirely on George Bush, as Senator Clinton has done; but history will not absolve his successor for refusing to take his—or her–responsibility for cleaning up the mess, regardless of who made it, or how it came about.
Indeed, there’s a bit of irony here in that Bush inherited a rather large mess from her husband, who in turn inherited at least a small one from Bush’s father.
Bush Sr. sent U.S. forces into Somalia on a humanitarian mission as a lame duck, geniunely meaning to spare his successor the agony of having to make that call during his transition period. Unfortunately, after a nice “mission accomplished” march across the White House lawn, mission creep set in, which beget warlord hunting which beget “Blackhawk Down” which beget a hasty withdrawal which beget a whole bunch of things, including an emboldened al Qaeda.
Clinton, like James Buchanan to Lincoln, left his successor with a lit fuse to a major war. As in 1860-61, it’s only fully obvious in hindsight that more decisive action should have been initiated earlier. Still, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are legacies of that unfinished business. Indeed, “regime change” in Iraq was Clinton’s goal, too.
Ultimately, Harris is right. Presidential terms are nice heuristics for studying American history but history doesn’t start anew in nice four year packages. Whoever assumes the Oval Office on January 20, 2009 will do so in medias res.