Three U.S. presidents since World War II have won the praise of historians and the lasting gratitude of the American people for resisting major pressures to plunge into unnecessary wars: They are Dwight D. Eisenhower, who refused to send U.S. combat forces or use nuclear weapons to bail out the French in Indochina, modern Vietnam in 1954; Ronald Reagan, who skilfully avoided getting pulled into a full-scale Middle East war with Syria in 1983, and Barack Obama, who also successfully avoided getting sucked into Syria’s civil war in 2011.
However, two presidents made catastrophically wrong decisions in plunging into long wars that proved unwinnable and fiscally ruinous for America: Lyndon Baines Johnson plunging into Vietnam in 1965 and George W. Bush staying in Afghanistan to build modern-style nation there in 2001 and unnecessarily invading Iraq on the basis of intelligence that was proven wildly wrong in 2003.
LBJ’s plunge into the Vietnam War ended the 36 year era of liberal Democratic Party dominance of U.S. national politics that began with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Bush’s hapless wars, with the benefit of hindsight brought a 40-year era of overwhelming Republican conservative dominance starting in 1968 with Richard Nixon to an end with Barack Obama’s landslide victory in 2008.
Of the three wise presidents, Eisenhower came from Kansas, Reagan was born and raised in Illinois but was most associated with California and Obama too was from Illinois.
However, both the disastrous war presidents, Johnson and the younger George Bush, were from Texas. (President George Herbert Walker Bush technically is from Texas, but he was born and attended prep school in Massachusetts and much of his life has retained a summer home there, which is now, since his retirement, in Kennebunkport, Maine.)
Is there something in the political air of Texas that the arch-liberal, big government expanding LBJ and the uber-conservative, free market obsessed and government-hating Bush have in common? Indeed, quite a lot.
LBJ and Bush both inherited long-established political philosophies that had dominated the mind-sets of politicians, policymakers and pundits in America for two generations each by the time they took power. However. Johnson and Bush both carried the larger than life popular perceptions of Texas and the state’s association with outsize enthusiasms to absurd and ultimately self-destroying extremes.
Both Texas presidents were alien to the 2,300-year-old wisdom of the great Classical Greek philosopher Aristotle that moderation in all things is the basis of wisdom, happiness and success. They believed in simplistic extremes. They believed that the American Way, or in their cases, the Texas Way, was universally applicable to all societies and their problems around the world. Use enough firepower and spend enough money and all your country’s foes will magically vanish.
This attitude is understandable for vast, wealthy and productive Texas. It has enjoyed 150 years of unending, unprecedented economic growth since the end of the Civil War in 1865. From the eruption of the legendary Spindletop gusher on January 10, 1901 to 1967, Texas played the same role that Saudi Arabia has done since, as the crucial “swing” producer of the cheapest, most abundant, best quality oil on earth.
And in recent years, the development of fracking technology has launched a new energy boom that has confirmed Houston as the energy capital of the world and the Texas-based U.S. oil industry as the most important and technological innovative on earth.
However, these amazing successes carry with them the seeds of potentially ruinous disaster. The enormous, limitless confidence that Texas grit, ingenuity and capitalist enterprise can conquer all obstacles can lead to hubris, the ancient Greek conception of appalling, immoderate arrogance and pride that challenges fate and the gods themselves. In the Greek conception, the spiritual sin of hubris was always followed by total ruin – the humbling experience of nemesis, or total destruction.
Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush both embodied and sincerely believed that the achievements of Texas could be endlessly replicated around a complex, infinitely diverse world. They were wrong. America is still paying the price for their presumption.
This article first appeared in the Globalist. Republished with permission from the author.
Martin Sieff is a former senior foreign correspondent for The Washington Times and former Managing Editor, International Affairs for United Press International. Mr. Sieff is the author of “That Should Still Be Us: How Thomas Friedman’s Flat World Myths Are Keeping Us Flat on Our Backs” (Wiley 2012) and “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East” (Regnery, 2008). He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting.