The CNN program "Global Public Square" asked a group of historians and commentators for their take on the most successful and least successful U.S. presidents, from a foreign policy point of view. In this article, Sanford Professor Bruce Jentleson discussed his choices for the worst: George W. Bush and James Polk.
Because I’m a Democrat, some may seek to discount my negative assessment of George W. Bush as political. But the facts bear it out. Like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 was a real opportunity for forging a shared sense of purpose – this one squandered by telling Americans to go shopping not grow victory gardens and exploited politically by painting broadly with the “soft on terrorism” brush.
On top of that, the Iraq War was among the worst strategic blunders in American foreign policy history. Sure, Saddam Hussein was eliminated: as someone who wrote a book about him, I don’t undervalue this. But any full net assessment of what was gained and lost comes out highly negative. Key alliance relations were damaged. Fallout was felt throughout the Middle East. The American economy took a $3 trillion hit. Our troops suffered over 4,440 casualties, many more injuries, and huge tolls on military families. This was a war of choice, not necessity, and the wrong choice was made.
James Polk, on the other hand, sought expansion through force rather than diplomacy. Polk was determined to annex Texas but faced a Congress that under his predecessor President John Tyler had refused to ratify a treaty of annexation. So he “stampeded Congress,” as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote, into a declaration of war by provoking a military confrontation with Mexico.
Such machinations prompted concern about the precedent being set from a young congressman from Illinois. “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary,” wrote Representative Abraham Lincoln, “and you allow him to make war at [his] pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect.” While not the only president to abuse the war power, Polk was one of the first and more blatant.
Five other commentators also picked George W. Bush as the worst, two picked Lyndon Johnson, and one each picked Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama.
This commentary is a excerpt from an article originally published on Sept. 21, 2012, on the website Fareed Zakaria GPS.