The buck stops … where?

Michael H. Glantz
14July 2003

The buck stops … where?

The conflict in Iraq is in the news each day. Daily attacks on allied troops keep the post-Saddam effort at rehabilitation in the headlines. Soon, more American soldiers will have been killed after Bush declared the war over than during the active combat phase. President Bush's policies toward Iraq have their outspoken supporters and detractors. An increasing number of people today consider the current situation in Iraq as a quagmire. They argue that Bush declared military victory too early. They claim that the administration went into the conflict with little understanding about the "peace"' phase that would likely follow the breakup of the Saddam regime. While they forecast the breakup, it appears that they failed to forecast the breakdown of society that followed. Now, some Democratic congressmen and a growing part of the media are questioning much of the intelligence information that was used by the president to seek congressional, international and American public support for his decision to confront Saddam.

Finding weapons of mass destruction (WMD), locating labs that could have been producing germ warfare, capturing Saddam, the welcoming of the liberators by the Iraqi people, the anarchy and looting in the country that prevailed after the fall of Baghdad, and so forth - it seems that the expected capture of Saddam and his sons did not occur and unexpected anarchy did. To many Iraqis, the allies were first seen as liberators only to later be viewed as occupiers. A sweet US military success seems to be turning into a political and diplomatic nightmare.

Déjà vu all over again: The Philippines in 1899

At the very end of the 1800s, the United States fought the Spanish in the Caribbean (e.g., Cuba) and in the western Pacific (the Philippines). These were Spanish colonies that the US sought to liberate from Spanish rule. An interesting perspective of the preceding 25 years was recorded in an English history book published in 1911. Its author, G.P. Gooch, made the following observation about the US role in liberating this Spanish colony.

Aguinaldo [leader of the Philippine insurgency against Spain] has been brought from Hong Kong in an American vessel and treated as an ally, and he had believed that the Americans were helping his fellow-countrymen to gain their freedom. When they learned that they had only changed their masters they set up a republic. A revolt broke out in 1899, which required several campaigns and an army of 70,000 men to suppress. The ravages of disease, the barbarity with which the Filipinos fought, and the cruelty with which the troops retaliated sickened America of the struggle… Heroic efforts were made to educate the Filipinos and prepare them for ultimate self-government; but they felt no gratitude, and clamored for independence. The expense of the operation was enormous. A year or two after the war, in the words of Mr. Bryce, "the one party no longer claimed any credit for the conquest, and the other could not suggest how to get rid of it."
(G.P. Gooch, History of Our Time, 1885-1911. NY: Henry Holt and Company, pp. 217-18).

Bush's State of the Union mis-speak?

The most recent controversy, a political "hot potato," arose during President Bush's state of the union address early in 2003. He stated that British intelligence had reported that Saddam had been seeking to buy nuclear weapon grade uranium in Africa (Niger to be exact). That piece of intelligence, which was included in the President's address, has now been found to have been false. Fingers are being pointed toward the President for having deliberately misled the American public in order to gain support for an inevitable military attack on Saddam's regime. After days, if not weeks, of denial followed by fingers pointing to the President, President Bush took the high road and pointed his finger at the director of the Central Intelligence Agency Tenet. Bush now claims, several days after the controversy arose, that it was the CIA's responsibility to correct the text of the state of the union address before he had to present it. He has finally "passed the buck" to one of his political appointees, the CIA director, after several days of warding off political criticism.

Nikita Argawal, on the Rediff Diary web site, made the following observation:

All through our lives, we blame our shortcomings on people or circumstances. No matter the situation, there is always someone else to blame. Where will the buck stop? Taking responsibility for our own actions is something we must learn to do. Teaching a child to make his own decision and face the consequences is far more important than most parents realize.

When I was growing up in Rhode Island back in the early 1950s, I remember hearing the phrase "the buck stops here." According to a British website, "passing the buck" refers to "passing responsibility onto someone else." The website also described the origin of the phrase: "From the card game poker. A buck was a marker that indicated whose turn it was to deal. Passing the buck moved the deal onto the next player. Silver dollars were later used as markers and this may have been the origin of the use of buck as a slang term for dollar"

To many Americans the phrase "the buck stops here" is associated with Harry Truman, America's 33rd president. As a no-nonsense president, he took responsibility for the things that went wrong during his administration. The logic behind his statement was as follows: he had appointed his high level administrators, cabinet secretaries, and if their agencies, for whatever reason, caused politically embarrassing problems, Truman felt that the ultimate responsibility for those problems rested with him as the head of government and commander in chief. He displayed this sentiment in a sign on his desk in the Oval Office since the mid 1940s.

Truman was a highly controversial president, especially for his outspokenness and his honesty. Following the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Vice President Truman took over the presidency. He had been chosen for the VP position for reasons of political geography. When he assumed the presidency he had almost no foreign experience.

He was confronted immediately with complex decisions to make. Dropping the A-bomb on Japanese territory is one of the most notable. He had to deal with an ideologically hostile Joseph Stalin and a large Soviet Army, with the Soviet takeover of eastern Europe, with a bloody conflict on the Korean Peninsula, with Soviet testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs, and the infamous Berlin blockade. Domestically, his presidency was challenged with an anti-communist fervor in the US congress and in 1948 by a third party of Dixiecrats (southern Democrats) led by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. On the eve of the 1948 presidential election many people believed that he had lost the presidency to Thomas Dewey. He woke up to learn that he had been re-elected. One newspaper at least got it wrong, as did the polls.

He did what he thought was the correct thing to do and was willing to take the blame if his decisions led to adverse consequences. In terms of popularity among all the American presidents, Truman received ratings that were among the highest. Historians have rated Truman a "near great" president. At the time, however, his approval rating barely surpassed the 20 percent mark. His image among the general public still remains as a popular president. There are recent activities to revise the historical record of the Truman era tending to portray his decisions during the cold war in a much less favorable light.

Truman still provides the American people with the image of an as-close-to-ideal president as possible - decisive, honest and not reluctant to take responsibility. His was a difficult presidency, because of the politics of the times, the onset of the cold war and the emergence of two increasingly well-armed, ideologically opposed superpowers.

On more than one occasion President Truman referred to the desk sign in public statements. For example, in an address at the National War College on December 19, 1952 Mr. Truman said,

"You know, it's easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you - and on my desk I have a motto which says 'The Buck Stops Here' - the decision has to be made." In his farewell address to the American people given in January 1953, President Truman referred to this concept very specifically in asserting that, "The President - whoever he is - has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.
[From Mitford M. Mathews, ed., A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951), I, pages 198-199].

The controversy over 16 words in Bush's state of the union message - that Iraq was seeking uranium on the African continent and the president's response to it - suggests that the buck no longer stops at the sitting president's desk. The administration's response to those criticizing Bush's reference to Saddam's search for uranium in Africa is that the buck stops "there." 'There" refers to anywhere but the oval office. To be sure this president is a different kind of president than his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Unfortunately he may also prove to be a different kind of president than Harry Truman. What kind of lessons are our presidents passing on to our children? There are consequences you know...

--Michael H. Glantz

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