Writing History

So the idea that a strange new Cold War is underway has become soaring US presidential rhetoric, on its way to becoming boilerplate.  George W. Bush’s second inaugural address last week was all about seeking to write history, to engage in periodization.

“For a half century, Americans defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders. After the shipwreck of Communism came years of relative quiet, years or repose, years of sabbatical.  And then there came a day of fire.”

Those are the sentences from Bush’s speech, with their deliberately biblical cadences, that, in all likelihood, will be remembered longest. As far as they go, they reflect an emerging consensus narrative, at least among Americans, probably among Europeans, and perhaps even among citizens of the former Soviet Union and China, of “the history we have seen together.”

The rest of the vision that Bush sketched probably will not turn out to be especially memorable. The president never did identify the “whole regions of the world [that] simmer in resentment and tyranny, prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder.” He declined to adopt the explosive language of a “clash of civilizations,” meaning Islam versus everybody else. The foe instead was simply “tyranny.”

(In her Senate confirmation hearing last week, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice enumerated six “outposts of tyranny”: Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe. Omitted were Pakistan and Uzbekistan, allies in the “war on terror,” and Sudan and Syria, nations of considerable strategic interest that are currently in play. Undiscussed were Russia, a nation the administration apparently views as backsliding, and China, a potential rival in the future.)

Meanwhile, phrases such as “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture”; “encourage reform in other governments”; “persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation”; are better-suited to wall posters than to quotation.

It doesn’t matter that the president wasn’t able to articulate much of a vision going forward besides America as global scold.  For his purposes, “before,” “during” and “after” are enough.

By reacting the way he did to the events of 9/11, Bush set a framework in which American presidents will make decisions for many years to come. In a distinctly similar way, Harry Truman laid the groundwork for the original Cold War in a series of decisions during the nearly eight years from 1945 to 1953 that he was president — the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction, opposition to colonialism, the doctrine of “containment” of the Communist powers, the Korean War.

But just as Truman had little influence after he left office over the way decisions were taken within the framework he and his advisors had created, so can many potential applications of Bush’s grandiose plans to rid the world of tyranny be safely disregarded, in view of the sharp and deep difference of opinion among his countrymen about his job performance and the relatively short time he has left to govern. Mid-term Congressional election campaigns begin next year.

True, some among the president’s advisers seem to favor maintaining at least the threat of a preemptive strike against certain nuclear facilities in Iran, patterned on the Israeli air raid on Iraq that destroyed the Osirak nuclear station in 1981, just before it was scheduled to power up and begin producing weapons-grade plutonium.

A substantial majority of Americans still probably support the decision to invade Afghanistan, in order to depose the Taliban. But, in the light of hindsight, will they judge that the campaign in Iraq was a success?  Or even a reasonable gamble?

Whatever happens next in Baghdad, America’s policies abroad are not likely to be the issues over which the election of 2008 is argued. That the commitments Bush has made are generally to be kept, subject to review and subsequent events, was the moral of his election victory last year.

Chances are that both major party candidates will take some form of continuing engagement in Iraq as a given, even if the region descends into civil war. So will be the necessity of maintaining a high degree of vigilance against terrorist threats.

Instead, the Bush doctrines that will dominate the next election will likely be his domestic policies — the blend of tax-cutting, pension-altering and general government-shrinking (except for health insurance) that has been a hallmark of his administration since the beginning.

On these matters, there is far less agreement among voters than on his foreign policy stance — despite attempts by administration spokesmen to portray the expansive proposals of his second term as similar to the insistent leadership of Franklin Roosevelt after his landslide victory in 1936, preserving the legislative victories of his first term.

But the pundits are wrong that there is no obvious likely candidate in either party to succeed Bush as president when his time is up. It is true that there is no Republican heir. The GOP is deeply divided among centrists, conservatives and go-for-broke neoconservatives. But the Democrats have a likely nominee.

It is New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. It would have been much harder for her to realize her presidential ambitions if George W. Bush hadn’t succeeded to the presidency.  But if a son can succeed his father, probably a wife a can succeed her husband — especially one who had learned as much the hard way as Mrs. Clinton.

There was a time when she was, at best, an extremely long shot as a presidential candidate —  in the years when she was defined mainly by her participation in various 1960s issues such as civil rights, Vietnam, “women’s lib,” and, of course, by her marriage to her Yale Law School classmate, the former governor of Arkansas.

Not any longer. She has taken sides on most of the burning issues of the last fifteen years. The importance of good fiscal housekeeping. The necessity of interventionist foreign policy. The requirements for long-term health care reform. And when she has been repudiated, as with the ill-fated Health Care Task Force she led in 1993-94, she has learned from her mistakes.

She has been elected senator in one of the toughest venues in the country and has performed well in office. She has withstood, with dignity and grace, the various humiliations visited on her by her husband.

The argument-clencher, when the time comes, among the fractious Democratic Party? She can win — all the states that John Kerry won last year and several more besides.

Even her first youthful involvement in politics, as a straw-hatted, striped-blazered Goldwater girl, should serve her well in the next election.

For the interesting periodization that is yet to be resolved has to do with the tides that produce the narrative of American politics. There are many reasons to think that Hillary Rodham Clinton understands these better than does George W. Bush.