George Bush likes being compared to Harry Truman. Both presidents were challenged by history to define a long struggle and America's purpose in pursuing it, and both became awfully unpopular as a result. But here's where history does not repeat itself: Truman successfully institutionalized his grand strategy internationally, while Bush consistently cites America's exceptionalism to justify his own.
Grand strategy involves envisioning a desired future and then aligning all elements of national power toward achieving its emergence. Truman's target was the eventual collapse of the socialist bloc. To achieve that end, America's entire national security establishment was refashioned for the containment strategy.
A grand strategy logically attracts allies while isolating enemies. The goal is anything but a fair fight; rather, it is the inevitability of victory at the end of a long struggle that invariably features numerous ups and downs - the fluctuating correlation of forces.
Truman denied the Soviets control over Western Europe and Japan. In doing so, he enmeshed America within a larger West that - in subsequent decades - dramatically outgrew its enemies in the East. Truman instantiated his strategy in international organizations and national policies: the founding of the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, the signing of the NATO treaty, and the promotion of the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan.
In the end, Truman provided subsequent presidents sufficient tools to maintain the West's solidarity and ascendancy.
In contrast, George Bush's primary accomplishments have focused inward: the Department of Homeland Security and other security measures to fortify America against terrorism.
Internationally, Bush's accomplishments have been self-limiting. Toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan simply shifted that infestation one state over to Pakistan, while the dismantling of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq yields a de facto partitioning that favors regional enemies more than our allies.
Instead of validating pre-emptive war-making, the Bush Doctrine has thrown its limitations into stark relief: America can indeed win wars by itself the world over; it just can't win the peace anywhere without the rest of the world's help. In its poor execution, the Bush administration proves only that the unconstrained sole military superpower can be more destructive to global order than the enemies it seeks to defeat.
North Korea's fortunes have soared since 9/11, and so have Iran's. Neither accomplished anything to achieve this improvement. The same can be said for al-Qaida. Meanwhile, erstwhile allies across the globe have become more recalcitrant with time, fearing too close identification with the perceived recklessness of America's foreign policy.
The Bush administration's lack of strategic imagination drives - by default - the world's established and emerging powers into each other's arms. India's an ironic case in point: The Bush administration's recognition of its nuclear status will likely improve New Delhi's relationship less with Washington than with Russia, its primary arms supplier.
The situation is far worse with "rising China." More than five years after 9/11 pushed Washington and Beijing into the same global camp vis-a-vis transnational terrorism, our bilateral military cooperation remains virtually nonexistent. Instead, our "exceptional" military strategy encourages China's emulation - witness its recent anti-satellite weapon test. Instead of strategic alliance over shared global energy interests, we now face a potential arms race in space.
How can America possibly delay creating a global alliance to defeat our known enemies in this struggle? Because this White House keeps widening its definition of those enemies.
With Iraq's deteriorating situation inviting meddling from neighboring rogues Syria and Iran, the Bush administration very casually conflates the threats of Sunni - such as al-Qaida - and Shiite terrorism, despite the profound sectarian differences that have long divided Islam's main branches and currently fuel Iraq's civil strife.
Talk about a two-for-one deal.
Where does this all end?
Most Americans were asking that same question following 9/11. Today, we seem no closer to an answer than we were then.
Not surprisingly, no new breakthrough international organizations or treaties or alliances have arisen from this ongoing struggle, save for the International Criminal Court long ignored by this administration. That's too bad because history indeed handed George Bush the same opportunity Harry Truman received: to reshape the global security landscape for the struggle ahead.
Unfortunately, the Bush-Cheney team remains more interested in re-establishing the unilateralist prerogatives of the American presidency than in improving the international conditions for victory in this ever-lengthening war.
We will long endure this profound opportunity lost.