The Power of One

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BROOKS KRAFT/CORBIS FOR TIME

The Commander greets Marines and families at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The "great man" theory of history has been out of fashion for decades. Historians trying to explain the course of human events point to geography or climate or technology. They explore the everyday life of ordinary people and the tides of change that sweep through whole populations. When they write about individual historical actors, the emphasis tends to be on psychology. Kings and Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers may affect events at the margins, but the notion that history happens because someone decided it should happen is regarded as unenlightening if not simply wrong.

About Gulf War II and its consequences (whatever they may be), though, the "great man" theory is correct, and the great man is President George W. Bush. Great in this context does not necessarily mean good or wise. It does usually suggest a certain largeness of character or presence on the stage, which Bush does not possess. Whatever gods gave him this role were casting against type. But the role is his. This was George W. Bush's war. It was the result of one man's deliberate, sudden and unforced decision. Yes, Saddam Hussein deserves the ultimate moral blame, but Bush pushed the button.


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Bush's decision to make war on Iraq may have been visionary and courageous or reckless and tragic or anything in between, but one thing it wasn't was urgently necessary. For Bush, this war was optional. Events did not impose it on him. Few public voices were egging him on. He hadn't made an issue of the need for "regime change" during the presidential campaign or made it a priority in the early months of his Administration. If he had completely ignored Iraq through the 2004 election, the price would have been a few disappointed Administration hawks and one or two grumpy op-eds. But something or someone put this bee in his bonnet, and from a standing start, history took off. Thousands died, millions were freed from tyranny (we hope), billions were spent, a region was shaken to its core, alliances ruptured, and the entire world watched it all on TV.

Compare America's other wars of the past 60 years. All of them had, if not inevitability, at least a bit of propulsion from forces larger than one man's desire. Gulf War I was provoked by an actual event: Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. George the Elder didn't have to make war, but he had to do something. Vietnam, famously, was never an explicit decision. Even the parody war in Grenada had a few captive American medical students to force its way onto the agenda. Some people believe that Franklin Roosevelt personally, deliberately and even dishonestly maneuvered a reluctant America into World War II. But World War II was history boiling over and impossible to avoid one way or another.

Why did Bush want this war? His ostensible reasons were unconvincing. Whatever we may find now in the rubble of Baghdad, he never offered any good evidence of a close link between Iraq and al-Qaeda or of weapons of mass destruction that could threaten the U.S. His desire to liberate a nation from tyranny undoubtedly was sincere, but there are other tyrants in the world. Why this one? On the other hand, the ulterior motives attributed to Bush by critics are even more implausible. He didn't start a war to serve his re-election campaign or avenge his father or enrich his oil buddies or help Israel. The mystery of Bush's true motives adds to the impression of a wizard arbitrarily waving his wand over history.

War on Iraq was optional for George W. Bush in another sense too. He could have easily chosen not to have it, in which case it wouldn't have happened, but when he decided to have it, that was it: we had it. The President's ability to decide when and where to use America's military power is now absolute. Congress cannot stop him. That's not what the Constitution says, and it's not what the War Powers Act says, but that's how it works in practice. The U.N. cannot stop him. That's not what the U.N. Charter says, but who cares? And who cares what America's allies think either?

Even more amazing than the President's pragmatic power over military resources is his apparent spiritual power over so many minds. Bush is not the only one who decided rather suddenly that disempowering Saddam had to be the world's top priority. When Bush decided this, so did almost every congressional Republican, conservative TV pundit and British Prime Minister. In polls, a large majority of Americans agreed with Bush that Saddam was a terrible threat and had to go, even though there had been no popular passion for this idea before Bush brought it up. You could call this many things, but one of them is leadership. If real leadership means leading people where they don't want to go, George W. Bush has shown himself to be a real leader. And he now owns a bit of history to prove it.