Bob Schwartz

What Would Truman Do?

Harry Truman
Harry Truman is maybe the most interesting American President of the twentieth century, and maybe the most significant.

He held a power that no one had held in human history and he took the decision to use it. He had no precedent to guide him—except maybe God in the Bible. He dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From that point forward, everyone who uses nuclear weapons will be the second or third to do it.

He is also the only President in the twentieth century without a college degree, and one of the relatively few in American history. Grover Cleveland was the last before him. But there are some before that who did manage to stand out without college, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Obama shares some things with Truman, and on other scores couldn’t be more unlike. Truman was an unabashed though pragmatic reformer: he used executive power to desegregate the military, but his Fair Deal liberal agenda failed in the face of a recalcitrant Republican Congress. Truman’s second term was the model for all other second term disasters, marked by a war that was both unpopular and unsuccessful and by a President whose effectiveness was a constant question.

Unlike Obama, Truman was not a spell-binding orator or a scholar. He had come up through politics and to the Senate the old back room way, and his ascension to the 1944 presidential ticket was a matter of political manipulation and happenstance. The legendary 1948 election pitted him against the dapper, smooth talking, hard-nosed, well-educated federal prosecutor and New York Governor. It was considered no contest for Thomas E. Dewey. Truman won.

The reasons that Truman has risen to the top ten on nearly all lists of great American Presidents (he is number 5 on a few) are many. This puts him in the range of both Roosevelts, TR and FDR, both of whom went to Harvard, both of them charismatic patricians with colorful histories and silver tongues. Among Truman’s gifts, the one most associated with him was a plain-spoken decisiveness in word and deed, even if the decision turned out troublesome or wrong.

There were reasons to like Truman at the time of his presidency, and a number of reasons not to. But there was a sense—even those who were his enemies at the time acknowledge it and historians have come to treasure it—that underneath it all was a man who had fought in a world war (only a few Presidents have), a man who had lived a modest life, a man who knew how to practice politics, a man who could surprise by analyzing deeply, a man who faced with the prospect of killing hundreds of thousands of people in a moment gave the order to do it.

Plain speaking. Decisive action. Truman was not the ideal President because there is no such thing. But at every critical juncture, it can’t hurt to ask: what would Truman do?

Syria Indecision: Give Them A (Small) Break

Decision Tree
Hard cases make bad law.

This is a maxim of the legal process. Roughly, it means that cases with lots of moving parts, with lots of collateral considerations, with no clear and straight path to resolution, produce rulings that are unsettling and unsatisfactory and, worse, have limited or counterproductive effect down the road.

Maybe the corollary is that hard foreign cases make bad foreign policy.

The indecision of Congressfolk is usually vexing, as so many of them claim to be weighing the factors, all the while putting their finger in the air to feel which way the wind blows.

This decision on attacking Syria seems to be different. There are certainly plenty of politicians who are trying to look thoughtful as they assess potential electoral damage. But this situation is so complex that for the moment, despite the usual frustration as a voter and citizen, a number of the Senators and Representatives deserve a little bit of a break. A lot of them are understandably having real trouble figuring out what to do—as are many of us.

The complexity isn’t just the result of a force of nature, and isn’t even due entirely to Assad. President Obama may have handled Syria with some degree of insight, intelligence and integrity, but he has made a difficult situation much harder. It is now widely agreed that announcing a chemical weapon “red line” long ago without a clear plan—public or at least private—to respond if and when it was crossed was a mistake. This contingency plan did not have to be tactically certain: how much evidence to need, which particular sites would be targeted. But the much bigger strategic issues—objectives and the dizzying range of possible consequences, good and bad—should have been vetted in all sorts of venues, including Congress.

That didn’t happen. So in short order, we are discussing the international conventions on chemical warfare, the forensics of discovering the use of chemical weapons, our ability to execute a limited strike, all the more or less likely impacts of a limited strike, the interpretation of the history of all our recent wars, comparison of our current situation to all those wars, and even the question of what exactly war is. So we have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff telling a House committee this week that an air strike such as the one contemplated would be an act of war, while Secretary of State John Kerry, sitting right beside him, begged to differ: “We don’t believe we are going to war, in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war.”

Americans are also being asked to learn more about a country and civil conflict that was often regarded as a video clip, sound bite or talking point—including discovering the shocking news that two million people are currently refugees from Syria (including one million children), leaving their country at a rate of one million people every six months.

Among those more or less likely impacts, there is a possibility that even this small action could precipitate wider and deeper crises, ones that might make our previous (mis)adventures look relatively small. We can’t be sure, of course, of this or just about anything else right now.

That’s a lot to discuss and digest. But we only have a few weeks, or so we are told. So, while Congress may be the most disliked institution in the country, seemingly stuffed with people who are uncertain about the proper ratio of self-interest to national interest, on this they are going to get a brief pass while they really do contemplate a genuinely serious and complicated situation. But after that break, when confusion is no longer an option, because deciding is the reason they get the honor and the big bucks, we expect them to vote conscientiously and to explain their vote clearly and unequivocally.

One more small matter: If any of them do vote “Present” in the final roll call on this, they should be expected to fall on their sword and offer their resignation forthwith. With only an 11% approval rate (and dropping), Congress doesn’t have room for any more of that sort of mushy politics.