Monday, May 14, 2007

History Is Argument Without End

At the risk of sounding like I'm making an appeal to authority, I wanted to direct people to a really good interview with presidential historian Robert Dallek on Charlie Rose's show. You can watch the video here. Dallek's got a new book out on Nixon and Kissinger, and he's a really good story teller in no small part because he just radiates enthusiasm.

Of topical interest might be some of the bits about Iraq and contemporary presidents. To some extent, Dallek's an informed guy what he has to say is worth hearing just on the strength of his knowledge of history. It's also interesting because to some extent listening to Dallek can give us a glimpse of how history will evaluate and judge the agents and events of today.

On parallels between Iraq and Vietnam:
In four years, some 23,000 additional American troops lose their lives...I think what they needed was a fig leaf, was to say, "We've been there all these years, we've invested so much blood and treasure. The Vietnamese, we've trained them. Now it's time for them to stand up."...This idea of Iraqization impresses me as being as futile as Vietnamization was...We've been there for four years now, over four years, longer than World War II, in Iraq, and if they can't get their act together at this point, when is it going to happen? Four more years? Ten more years?...That's what we had in Vietnam. Bush, this president, should have learned the lesson of Vietnam. I'm afraid he hasn't.

On the likely verdits of history on recent presidents:
Does someone have to be a great mind to be president? After all, Reagan I would hardly describe as a great mind, but in many ways he was an effective president. I doubt that he'll be seen as great. Too early to tell...This current man? Very poor. I think he's been a very poor president, and I think history will judge him very harshly. His father was somewhat better, but was not a great politician. He had a keener sense of what to do in international relations than what his son has done...I know [this is very conventional wisdom]. We'll see in thirty or fourty years...Bill Clinton is an interesting figure. I think he will be seen as certainly not a great president, but an above average president, and certainly quite intelligent, but a flawed human being...He would point to Theodore Roosevelt, who said, "I can't be a truly great president because I've never had a war to fight." And there's possibly some truth to that...But on the other hand...I think TR is the equal measure of a Woodrow Wilson. Wars don't always get you to greatness. You stumble. Harry Truman, with the Korean war, did a great deal of harm to his presidential reputation in the end.
There's a great deal more.

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