This past weekend marks thirteen years since President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. Considered by many to be the worst American foreign policy decision ever, the invasion's anniversary is far from celebratory, instead serving as a bitter reminder of the continued instability in the region. Still, with the current crop of presidential candidates enumerating an endless list of existential threats facing America, this seems like as good a time as any to examine the lens through which past presidents have dealt with other nations.
In seeking to better understand the driving forces behind Bush's foreign policy agenda, Teddy Roosevelt may serve as an unexpectedly useful foil. Two of our most consequential and controversial leaders, both Roosevelt and Bush had a tendency to invoke the historical in discussions of the future.
Let's take a closer look at two of the leaders' most emblematic foreign policy speeches—Roosevelt's "The Strenuous Life" and Bush's Remarks to the Philippine Congress—to see how each leader used a uniquely American notion of history in discussing actions abroad.
Before examining the impulse behind Roosevelt’s 1899 speech against slothfulness, it is first necessary to consider the emotional context surrounding the address. Following a quick victory in the Spanish-American War, the Treaty of Paris, signed in December of 1898, put the United States in the paradoxical position of a colonial authority with anti-authoritarian values. Previously hesitant to enter the realm of imperial affairs, the shifting national mood toward expansionism had coincided with a global power shift that could make that expansion possible. For some opportunists, the question of what to do with Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines was not merely a practical dilemma, but a chance to redefine the national identity.
Roosevelt’s speech is very much an appeal to this new national identity. It is the “most American of American character,” he begins, to reject the “doctrine of ignoble ease” in favor of a strenuous life. He speaks of instilled-family values of persistence and effort, “whether in the field of politics or in the field of exploration and adventure”, and heralds those with the “virile qualities necessary to win in the stern strife of actual life.” Though it seems like lip service to the American individual, there is an important historical context behind Roosevelt’s abstract discussion of triumph through struggle. In the two months prior to the speech, the First Philippine Republic had begun to rise up and demand independence from the newly minted US occupation. Less than seven weeks after the speech, the revolutionary forces would officially declare war on the United States. With this in mind, Roosevelt’s continued mention of strenuousness and strife in exploration reads like an acknowledgment of the hurdles—both moral and practical—that the US would face in quelling a revolution.
To shrink from such difficulties, he argues, would be to ignore the American obligation of conquest. This obligation, applied to both person and state, requires the rejection of “a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things.” In Roosevelt’s eyes, the two worst failings of a nation are a disinterest in growth and the lacking of means to realize the ambition of growth. Translated to US foreign policy, the triumph over the two pitfalls—indolence and impotence—requires a sustained focus on the expansion of American power through interventionism and a congressionally approved carte blanche for the US military. He reserves his harshest words for those members of Congress who did not immediately approve an increase in spending for the US navy, describing their opposition as, “heavily fraught with evil.” It’s a descriptor telling of Roosevelt’s feeling that those who did not share in his vision of military ascendency were quite clearly on the side of evil.
This vision of the United States as a military power and imperial colonizer was already being made a reality in the Philippines. Roosevelt states outright his disgust for “those who fear to undertake the task of governing the Philippines,” while regarding the nation’s people as both “savages” and “utterly unfit for self-government.” Unlike the tyrannical Spanish empire, the American imperial pursuit would be rooted in righteousness, with the goal of civilizing a people who would otherwise fall victim to anarchy. While paternalism and colonialism have always gone hand-in-hand, Roosevelt’s delusion of this colonial relationship seem particularly focused on saving a population from themselves. The motivations for this conviction stem not only from the pretense of American exceptionalism, but a vague anxiety toward the certain demise of an unexceptional—read: unmanly, slothful—United States.
Throughout the speech, Roosevelt makes continued mention of the fact that any foreign policy approach that does not advocate conquest and domination will result in the loss of freedom that Americans so value. Predicting a future of imperial Darwinism, Roosevelt warns, “the nation that has trained itself to a career of unwarlike and isolated ease is bound, in the end, to go down before other nations which have not lost the manly and adventurous qualities.” Setting aside, briefly, the fact that the future U.S. President thinks of war as “manly and adventurous,” we should examine this claim that non-interventionism—or even minimal interventionism—is wholly incompatible with the survival of American liberty.
Though it seems that Roosevelt is warning of a future invasion and occupation of the United States, he is actually demonstrating his opinion about what qualities make a nation deserving of liberty. Liberty, in the eyes of Roosevelt, is not only contingent on how civilized a population is, but also on that population’s strength relative to other nations. Those who believe in unearned freedom or the “consent of the governed,” he argues, are not only “[unwilling] to play the part of men,” but ignorant of the values that this country was founded upon. The fact that the Native Americans were driven from their homes and slaughtered is justified, he implies, because the ideals of liberty are achieved through brute force and domination. In these ideals of conquest that permitted the first “Americans” to settle the land, we can find Roosevelt’s blueprint for the future of America. To permit the uncivilized and “unwesternized” Filipino people self-determination, to waste time with a long term strategy before involving ourselves in global conflicts, and to strive for anything less than total military supremacy, would be to intentionally deprive the United States of the glory that it has rightfully earned.
Fast-forwarding 104 years, we can locate a similar element of historical manipulation in a speech given by George W. Bush to the Philippine Congress. During the address, Bush praises the United States for its contribution to Filipino independence, stating, “Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule. Together, we rescued the islands from invasion and occupation.” There is no reference to the Philippine-American war, the scorched-earth campaigns, the “water cures,” the deportation of Filipino revolutionaries, or the 200,000 civilians murdered in the name of colonial adventurism. It’s a wonderfully convenient bit of amnesia on the part of Bush, a brazen attempt to expunge from the historical record a glaring instance of American imperialism in the 20th century. It’s also indicative of the Bush administration’s whitewashed perspective of the United States, and just how disconnected from reality that perspective really was. When Bush defines the relationship between the US and the Philippines as “rooted in the deepest convictions we hold…that democracy is the only form of government fully compatible with human dignity,” he is electing to ignore the atrocities committed against the Filipino people for the sake of maintaining a starry-eyed vision of his country.
Though both Presidents relied on their perspective of American values to guide foreign policy ambitions, there is a stark contrast in the way that Roosevelt and Bush make sense of our nation’s history. Roosevelt chose to embrace our historical ties to occupation and genocide in the hopes of repurposing that ancestral manliness to fuel further expansion. All those opposed, he explained, were overly concerned with “humanitarianism,” and effectively supporting “doctrines [that] condemn your forefathers and mine for ever having settled in these United States.” Roosevelt recognized the uncomfortable fact that America owes its existence to the colonist’s ability to dominate indigenous peoples, and in the pursuit of imperial expansion, he saw no reason to abandon a strategy that has proved effective.
As it is no longer in vogue to acknowledge the facts of past US occupations, Bush elects a path of feigned ignorance, speaking to the Philippine congress as if the colonial origins of our relationship had been erased. Though it would be unfair to say that Bush harbors the same imperial goals as Roosevelt, the motives behind this selective forgetfulness are very much related to an American foreign policy agenda. The speech coincides with the beginning of the Iraq War, a time when it was crucial that Bush and the United States be seen as purely benevolent forces. Bush himself may have believed in this narrative of past morality and restraint, and was perhaps convinced of the need to depose the terrorists and eliminate an imminent global threat posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. But while this agenda may sound noble, it is rooted in Bush’s false conception of the United States as a blameless liberator. In his refusal to acknowledge that wicked American intentions ever existed, Bush actually spurs the return of our imperialist tendencies.
I don’t mean to say that Bush had intentions of colonizing Iraq, but that he was operating under the presumption that the inherent greatness of the United States obliges us to intervene in foreign conflicts and, in Roosevelt’s words, “advance the cause of civilization.” Indeed, Bush invokes a Roosevelt-esque warning of idleness, stating, “Nations that try to ignore terror…[are] inviting a future of catastrophic violence.” By invading Iraq, we would use our military dominance to conquer both slothfulness and terrorism, and our assured victory would promote the greater good for Americans, Iraqis, and all those who oppose terror.
Never mind the complexities of an ancient sectarian conflict, the unlikelihood of Islamic terrorists seeking cover in the secular state of Iraq, the power vacuum that would surely open after invading a sovereign state in a hostile region, or the fact that the weapons of mass destruction proved altogether imaginary. None of these realities made any difference to President Bush because of his idealized conception of the United States as a beacon of liberation with an unblemished record of altruistic foreign intervention. None of these realities would make any difference to Roosevelt because foreign intervention is simply a precondition for American glory. And though it’s unlikely that the Bull Moose and the Cowboy Diplomat would find common ground in their perception of the American past, they share a strikingly similar vision of a future in which US military ascendency brings domestic growth and global stability.