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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Politics 101, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Caliban Darklock says:

    This is such a massive WTF it’s almost not funny.

    A would-be President is actually whining about wanting the political landscape nicely cleaned and tidied before taking office?

    Sounds like someone who can’t handle the job.

  2. vnjagvet says:

    Truman inherited the end of WWII;

    Eisenhower inherited Korea;

    Nixon inherited Vietnam.

    Has Hillary been paying any attention?

  3. Anderson says:

    I think HRC’s point is that Bush announced a while back that we’d be in Iraq into the next term, without his having any particular idea what we’ll do in the interim.

    Duncan Black is right about this one: Bush is staying in Iraq to stay in Iraq, & wouldn’t leave if every single American voted in a referendum that we should go.

  4. vnjagvet says:

    So it’s your position, Anderson, that he is staying there just to be perverse?

    Pretty cynical.

    It certainly is not because he wants to be popular, though, is it?

  5. Anderson says:

    So it’s your position, Anderson, that he is staying there just to be perverse?

    Not to *be* perverse, but simply so that he’s not “the president who lost Iraq,” at least in his own mind.

  6. Christopher says:

    Why are we paying attention attention to Hillary’s silly statements anyway? She has about a dozen a day.

    And James: heuristics? LOL! Way to dig out the old and I mean old dictionary.

  7. Len says:

    “I came to this office to solve problems and not pass them on to future presidents and future generations.”— George W. Bush, December 1, 2003.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Len,

    So your contention is that all problems are solvable in a 7-year timeframe? The Cold War took over forty years.

  9. John Burgess says:

    Someone remind me, please… who was it that ‘passed on’ the dot-com bust? Or the terrorists and terror-supporting states of the 1990s?

    Who didn’t solve health care or social security in the 90s?

    Oh, right….

    Hard problems take more than 4 or 8 years, I guess.

  10. just me says:

    Anderson I actually disagree with you on your take with regard to Bush and getting out of Iraq or not.

    I actually think you are right that the whole country could probably vote to get out and he wouldn’t do it, but I think he is far more motivated by the fact that he seems to be a true believer in this mission.

    He might be wrong, history may prove that he totally screwed up, but at this point I think he truly believes this is the right thing to do.

    As for Hillary’s comments-she obviously is smart but is not a student of history. I think presidents have passed on one problem or another since the country was founded. Some problems were wars, other problems were political landscape. The fight over slavery wasn’t just the 1860’s, that fight was going on since the founding of the country, and led to various compromises etc but the fight continued and was a political landmine for many a president and presidential candidate.

    I think any candidate that things they should inherite a politically pristine landscape when they take office is probably not the best person for the job.

  11. DL says:

    Hillary -if upon becoming President, finds a mess she will blame it on that vast right wing conspiracy instead of accurately blaming the vast left wing obstruction of the prosecution of the war against terror. But when Bush leaves office I do hope he takes her silverware.

  12. Bandit says:

    Passed on like Kyoto and global warming? Like OBL? I always marvel at the weird combination of superficiality and hutzpah from the Clintonistas.

  13. M1EK says:

    “left his successor with a lit fuse to a major war.”

    Oh, BULLSHIT. Clinton’s guy Clarke told them al Qaeda was the biggest problem they’d face, and Rice and the rest of Cheney’s bunch couldn’t care less since they wanted to push ballistic missile defense and Iraq War II.

    Came out great, didn’t it.

  14. James Joyner says:

    Clinton’s guy Clarke told them al Qaeda was the biggest problem they’d face

    Right. Because Clinton hadn’t done much to solve said problem. Which had come to fruition almost entirely on his watch, with written notice of war and several acts of war from OBL and company during the Clinton years.

  15. M1EK says:

    “Because Clinton hadn’t done much to solve said problem.”

    He did as much as you or I would have tolerated him doing at the time. Remember the furor when he launched missiles and everybody thought he was trying to distract attention from Lewinsky?

    Whether or not you think he should have done more, the fact is that Bush’s crew made this mess a billion times worse by ignoring it. It’s as if I sell you a house and warn you that I’ve been doing patchy maintenance on the front porch but that I’m not sure it’s safe, and you ignore that advice and have a big party out there.

  16. James Joyner says:

    He did as much as you or I would have tolerated him doing at the time. Remember the furor when he launched missiles and everybody thought he was trying to distract attention from Lewinsky?

    I think that’s basically right, which is why I said in the original post “it’s only fully obvious in hindsight that more decisive action should have been initiated earlier.”

    But it’s not as if, absent further provocation, Bush and Company could have done much either. Too much time had passed since the Cole attack and so forth to sell, say, an invasion of Afghanistan.

    My point here isn’t to criticize Bill Clinton but to point to a concrete example where a situation that festered under one president came to a head during the early part of a successor’s administration. That’s just the nature of the job, not part of a blame game.

  17. C.Wagener says:

    The troops Bush sent to Somalia were withdrawn in April 1993 as scheduled. The troops involved in Black Hawk Down were sent by Clinton in August 1993 to hunt for a warlord.

  18. James Joyner says:

    The troops Bush sent to Somalia were withdrawn in April 1993 as scheduled. The troops involved in Black Hawk Down were sent by Clinton in August 1993 to hunt for a warlord.

    More-or-less. That’s what I meant by, “Unfortunately, after a nice “mission accomplished” march across the White House lawn, mission creep set in, which beget warlord hunting . . . ”

    It’s unlikely we’d have gone warlord hunting without the Bush mission, though. Once we were involved, then the incentive/pressure to leave the place as something other than a failed state was much greater.

  19. Len says:

    Len,

    So your contention is that all problems are solvable in a 7-year timeframe? The Cold War took over forty years.

    James,

    I was just passing along what your president said.

    He said it. I didn’t.

  20. M1EK says:

    “But it’s not as if, absent further provocation, Bush and Company could have done much either.”

    I disagree completely. They couldn’t have invaded Aghanistan, but they could have kept up the pre-existing intelligence and military focus on alQaeda, which only MIGHT (note, MIGHT) have made it harder for the 9/11 attacks to happen, but would DEFINITELY have made it easier to execute more effective military action afterwards.

  21. Wayne says:

    Len
    Bush statement in 2003 was obvious to show his intention to take on problems today and not just kick it down the road for future presidents. It was never intended to state all problems would be solve during his presidency.

  22. someone says:

    You guys are completely missing the point in arguing who was how responsible for which messes. Hillary needs to look beyond who’s fault today’s problems are and tell us how SHE would solve them, rather than tell us that it’s GWB’s responsiblity to solve them. That argument would only make sense if GWB were running for another term. When I think about who our next president should be, I could care less about what GWB would do if he was still going to be president in 3 years.

  23. Wayne says:

    Someone
    I would agree with that. Unfortunately, I think she only cares about pointing fingers and not solving the problems. Also, if she becomes President, she can blame Bush for leaving her unsolvable messes.