Our current interventionist foreign policy is often characterized as "Wilsonian." Generally speaking, this is not meant as a compliment when used, and usually has reference to our dubious entry into the First World War, President Wilson's stubbornness, and/or his naive idealism in sweeping aside existing institutions and remaking post-war Europe and the Middle East. For me, the 20th-century was spent sorting out the mess started in 1914 and consummated in 1919-1923. And it is still underway, if you consider that "Iraq" was a colonial construct cooked-up between Britain and France. Daniel Larison at Eunomia, compares the Bush legacy to that of President Wilson. Despite everything, he concludes that Wilson was still worse.
The Wilson and Bush administrations have many things in common, and once we started to see Bush’s galloping Wilsonian idealism in action it was easy to imagine his Presidency ending in just as much failure and public repudiation as Wilson’s had done....Inflexibility defines both men, but ... Mr. Bush’s errors have proceeded from knowing little and being interested in even less, while Wilson’s were the errors of presuming to know and see all (even when he didn’t know much at all about the peoples and lands he was helping to divvy up).
So why was Wilson worse? Larison explains:
Both certainly drank deeply from the poisoned well of optimism, but unfortunately for the world Wilson’s optimistic preaching was received by a weary and disillusioned world as a new hope rather than the misguided folly that it was. With the benefit of the experience of the 20th century, most nations were less willing to embrace similarly unrealistic talk of hope, reform and liberation when Mr. Bush was offering it.
And as bad as Iraq is, and as gloomy as the prospects appear (whenever we leave), Larison finds Wilson's legacy from World War I even worse.
As large as Iraq looms on the scene today, as politically significant as the war is today, and as much as it will sour the public on intervention in the near future, I think we may be surprised at how quickly the effects of the war pass away and recede into the distance. Calamitous and awful as it has been, it still remains a war on a relatively limited scale and will wind up having a primarily regional impact.... The disaster of Wilson’s intervention was global in nature, and it has continued to shape the history of the world ever since, almost entirely for the worse. If the outbreak of war in 1914 was the most significant turning point in modern history (and it was), marking the end of old European civilisation and ushering in all of the horrors of the 20th century, American intervention in 1917-18 ensured that the consequences of the Great War would be even worse. Princip’s bullet murdered nations, but Wilson’s overzealous conscience ruined whole continents.
Mr. Bush’s legacy of failure will probably not be so enormous, but will be, like so much else he has touched, of minimal effect and importance. Despite high ambitions and overblown rhetoric that mimic Wilsonian pretensions, mediocrity and smallness have been the chief characteristics of Mr. Bush’s policies. Watching Mr. Bush trying to follow in Wilson’s disastrous footsteps is like watching someone of the stature and ability of Mussolini trying to reconstitute the Roman Empire. Their ideological eyes are far bigger than their political stomachs. Wilson really inaugurated and launched the idealist-interventionist school of American foreign policy, ensuring misery for many generations of Americans and foreigners, while Mr. Bush’s bungling will not even manage to kill off this dreadful thing.
I find little to argue with in Larison's sobering and insightful article.