When President Obama travels to New York City on Thursday, there will be an almost irresistible urge to make the trip a presidential “victory lap” celebrating the successful apprehension and killing of Osama bin Laden.
But the president could learn from his predecessors, some of whom overreached after victories. One of the champion overreachers was President George W. Bush. Even aside from his still-remembered “Mission Accomplished” declaration of victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush always seemed to bring a Texas-sized swagger to his public statements after dispatching troops to Iraq.
The moment that grated the most on many critics -- and looks worst to historians -- was Bush's decision in 2004 to award the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to three architects of the Iraq policy: retired Gen. Tommy Franks, former CIA director George Tenet, and former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer. Even then, there was widespread knowledge of the key mistakes the trio had made, but Bush pressed ahead with the awards.
This marked a sharp contrast to his father, who stubbornly refused to take any victory lap after the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, giving victory to the West in the Cold War. Some of Bush’s aides urged him to make a triumphal trip to Berlin or, at the least, to look happier about the hard-fought victory. But Bush refused even in the face of criticism.
“I’m not going to dance on the Berlin Wall,” he told aides. Twenty years later, Bush would tell Fox News, “I got a little criticism for not being emotional enough,” dismissing those who he said wanted him to “go and dance” on the wall. “It would have been the stupidest thing a president, in my view, could do."
“We did not know how the Soviet military was going to react. We did not know if they were just going to say to Gorbachev, ‘Enough. We are not going to be kicked around like this.’ And so we used a little diplomacy and it all happened peacefully.” He added, “It would have been a crazy idea for the American president to beat his chest and... get three points in the polls and maybe threaten the whole peaceful resolution.”
Obama would be wise to fight that temptation -- and early indications are that he is aware of the pitfalls of triumphalism.
When Obama used an address to the nation on August 31, 2010 to announce the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq, he pointedly told soldiers at Fort Bliss that he was not celebrating -- even though he was delivering on one of his top campaign promises.
“It’s not going to be a victory lap. It’s not going to be self-congratulatory,” he promised them. “There’s still a lot of work that we’ve got to do to make sure that Iraq is an effective partner with us.”
A similar approach is called for today in the wake of the killing of bin Laden after a decade-long hunt. If anything, it is even more important because Ground Zero, to most Americans, is a shrine that should never be used for political purposes. If Obama is seen attempting that, there would likely be a backlash from family members of the victims.
The New York City trip is the first event added to the president’s schedule specifically because of the killing of bin Laden. But he has used events already on his schedule to capitalize on the good feelings engendered by the successful military operation. Awarding the Medal of Honor posthumously to two heroes of the Korean War gave the president the chance to call attention to the modern heroes who took out bin Laden. Hosting congressional leaders on Monday night at the White House allowed him to enjoy a lengthy standing ovation from members of both parties. And a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday became another opportunity to showcase a president in charge. On Sunday night, he will discuss the killing of bin Laden on CBS's "60 Minutes."
Today, more than two decades after George H.W. Bush refused to "dance on the Berlin Wall," Obama has a chance to show that he is able to similarly resist anyone in his own camp who might urge him to take a victory lap.
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