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Edward Luttwak: Bush Might Surprise His Critics in His 2nd Term (Clinton and Reagan Did)

Edward Luttwak, in the NYT (11-28-04):

With the prudent Colin Powell to be replaced by Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, and with the more warlike Donald Rumsfeld remaining as secretary of defense, many feel that President Bush is set to follow an even more forceful foreign policy in his second term.

As a re-elected president who will never again have to face the voters, and with loyal Republican majorities in Congress aiming to remove legislative impediments, Mr. Bush could, it seems, have a second term that would make the first seem tame. But a closer look at the history of second terms - and at Mr. Bush's current circumstances - shows that the conventional wisdom may not be that wise.

First, what do his critics fear that Mr. Bush will do? Some speculate that he will want to challenge Iran over its nuclear initiatives, spurning the freeze recently negotiated by Britain, France and Germany. Or they fret that he will unilaterally increase the pressure on North Korea after years of multilateral frustration. Some are more concerned that he will widen the campaign for democracy in the Middle East beyond Iraq: the obvious target for removal by military means being the Baathist dictatorship of Syria, which has exposed itself to retaliation by aiding terrorism in Iraq. And most assume that the president will want much wider action to suppress the insurgency in Iraq, with the re-conquest of Falluja only a first step.

All this seems logical. But while re-elected presidents who no longer have to face the voters are theoretically free to pursue their wildest dreams, in practice they never do. Consider the last two second-term presidents.

For the second Reagan administration, dovish pundits predicted an even tougher stance against the Soviet"evil empire," as well as a further acceleration of the arms race, led by the so-called Star Wars system against ballistic missiles. After all, in Reagan I, all the ceremonies of détente had been stopped, and a huge budget deficit had been accepted to build up the armed forces as quickly as possible. Some feared that Reagan II might escalate confrontation to outright war.

For Clinton II, the Cassandras warned of an even more passive foreign policy than Clinton I, during which the administration had refused to interrupt the Rwanda genocide, delayed intervention in Bosnia, and left Middle East diplomacy to the most tentative secretary of state anyone can remember, Warren Christopher. The president had shown enthusiasm for every aspect of domestic policy and an indifference to foreign affairs that not even live television coverage of preventable massacres could overcome.

Curiously enough, however, re-elected presidents tend to disappoint their most enthusiastic followers by changing direction: they go right if they started on the left (or vice versa); become active where they were passive; turn dovish if they were hawkish; and in all cases converge toward the center of gravity of American politics, as well as toward the mainstream foreign-policy traditions.

Instead of intensifying the arms race with the Soviet Union, the re-elected Ronald Reagan warmly welcomed the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev on the scene. He exploited the opportunity not, as the K.G.B. warned, to launch a surprise attack, but rather to press for outright nuclear-weapon cuts instead of mere limitations. His actions so scandalized the cold-warrior fraternity that when George H. W. Bush became president, a freeze was imposed on further American-Soviet talks while the Central Intelligence Agency investigated the theory that Mr. Gorbachev's entire policy was a giant deception intended to lull us into complacency.

Likewise, after the neglect of foreign policy in Clinton I, there was increasing engagement in Clinton II, reaching its absolute maximum when President Clinton appointed himself chief negotiator between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To less dramatic effect, but with better results, Mr. Clinton turned his policy-wonk attention to the major foreign issues, from NATO expansion to relations with Japan. As with Mr. Reagan, his turn to the mainstream left some true believers feeling betrayed - in this case, the global-law and antiwar crowds. In their eyes, Mr. Clinton ignored the United Nations Security Council, trampled on the concept of sovereignty, and shamefully relied on the strategic bombing of civilian sites to wage the 1999 Kosovo war with Serbia.

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