Bush: The ‘hedgehog’ President

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus opined, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Let me submit that we’re living through the final months of the decidedly hedgehog presidency of George W. Bush, whose strategic failures can logically be remedied by the election of a fox in 2008.

Americans generally prefer leaders to be steadfast and armed with a readily identifiable worldview. To have a mind subject to periodic change is considered weak and irresolute. We often label these individuals “flip-floppers,” “liars” and — worst of all — “politicians,” when “life-long learners” and “deal-makers” are equally applicable.

Our democracy regularly requires painful compromises to balance the extremes against the large, mushy middle that encompasses most American voters. After all, this republic is ruled by the majority, which sometimes craves the hedgehog’s unwavering consistency and at other times welcomes the fox’s intellectual agility.

During the 1930s Great Depression, Americans trusted the preeminent presidential fox, Franklin Roosevelt, to navigate those shoals and the subsequent world war. From his strategic imagination sprang much of the political structure that defined both America and the world across the rest of the 20th century.

When FDR passed, history offered us a true hedgehog in Harry Truman, to whom George W. Bush deserves comparison. Faced with a dangerously fluid global security environment, Harry “gave ’em hell” in the form of a military-industrial complex and the containment strategy, defining our Cold War vision for decades to come.

A war-weary America turned next to hedgehog Dwight Eisenhower, hoping his steadying hand would calm our increasingly volatile confrontations with the Soviets. The result was both comforting and suffocating: our “happy days” stability came at the price of McCarthyism, separate-but-equal race segregation and father-knows-best gender conformity.

A trio of fox presidents defined the tumultuous ’60s. It started with John Kennedy’s cacophony of bold visions (e.g., space race, foreign aid, irregular warfare), grew with Lyndon Johnson’s legislative genius (civil rights, Medicare, voting rights) and culminated in Richard Nixon’s stunningly ambitious diplomatic schemes (European detente, strategic arms treaties, opening to China). Linking all three in failure, however, was the unsolvable Vietnam conflict and the social unrest it eventually triggered back home.

Following Nixon’s frightening self-destruction through the Watergate scandal, Americans selected three consecutive hedgehog presidents to achieve — across a lengthy historical arc — a resurrection of America’s self-confidence and character. Gerald Ford afforded us “a time to heal,” while Jimmy Carter restored morality to our national politics and foreign policy.

But it was Ronald Reagan, a quintessential hedgehog, who most shaped the global superpower that emerged — seemingly unscathed — from the Cold War. His turbo-charged defense build-up begat the awesome conventional war-fighting capacity we possess today — the Leviathan ensuring peace among great powers. Most importantly, Reagan restored America’s belief in its inherent goodness and its duty to combat evil in this world.

The Cold War’s end demanded a new strategic nimbleness from presidents free of that era’s ideological rigidity. We got that agility in global security affairs from George H.W. Bush’s pragmatic administration and in global economic affairs from Bill Clinton’s free trade-hawking presidency.

After the dizzying ride of the go-go ’90s, George W. Bush pulled off the electoral miracle that was the 2000 election, promising more humility in our foreign policy. To that end, the inexperienced former governor was provided several steadying hands from previous Republican administrations (e.g., Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice).

At least, that was the theory going in.

Because when 9/11 intervened, Americans discovered George Bush — so long incurious about global affairs — to be the most myopically hedgehog president in modern times, a man whose entire legacy will be defined by his decision to invade Iraq.

Now, as the 2008 presidential campaign gears up, let me offer you this advice: seek out foxes and avoid hedgehogs. Don’t listen to candidates who tell you this whole election boils down to one thing and one thing alone. While that approach made sense for some time following 9/11, America’s clearly moved past that historical inflection point.

We need a president with more than one answer to every question, one whose toolkit is as diverse as his — or her — ideology is flexible. We need a dealmaker, a compromiser, a closer. We need someone able to finish what others cannot, and start that which others dare not.

We need a leader who knows many things, because we’ve had enough of those who know only one big thing.

(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a strategist at the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC. Contact him at tom(at)thomaspmbarnett.com.)


  1. Vi

    Of course for a candidate of the people to be truly elected, all the flaws in the voting system have to be corrected, those that were accidental and those that were by design. Bush was not elected. The powers behind him fixed it. This is likely to happen again, if we don’t take steps now to ensure there is a paper trail and to stop tampering with election results. And we need to realize that this president is an alcoholic nut. He needs to be brought up on war crimes before a world tribunal. He has ruined this countries good name and is guilty of crimes against humanity. We need to start by kicking him out now.

  2. Jennifer

    Hello Frazier,
    Where are you/us going to get 150 million pissed off Americans, most go with the flow;and the militray obeys orders from their Commander in Chief…………look at Waco, Ruby Ridge, have you forgotten about these dark episodes in our recent past? or remember,what these same honest men (Sherman, Sheridan, Custer & Grant) did my anscestors?
    History always repeats itself, but it’s almost over, forever.
    Peace & good luck to you,

  3. Frazier


    While Mr Bush may dream of being a dictator, there are a couple of large stumbling blocks

    Our vaunted military complex can’t contain Iraq, how on earth would he propose to take on roughly 150 million armed and pissed off Americans? And how much loyalty do you really think the military is going to give him when they’re called on to fight Americans on American soil?

    Nope, he can dream, he can scheme, and he can plan, but a military takeover with George crowned King?

    Ain’t gonna happen

  4. Jennifer

    Here’s an eye opener..I have been, along with many others, saying that there will NOT be a 2008 election:………………..because there will be Marial Law, the concentration camps for us that complain, were even built in 1998 under Clinton’s reign, even though last year Halliburton was given by Congress $358 million to build more. Why doesn’t anyone ask why, what, who are these for?
    There will be another false flag to again scare people.
    Please remember all those stupid red, blue, green, orange alerts to scare you…remember the duct tape with them saying seal your house? remember the poor postal workers, who lost their live with the government anthrax scare? NO INVESTIGATON They did die, remember.
    Bush may be a hedgehog, I remember Helen Thomas saying that he could not have passed 101 English on the Phil Donahue Show, which was immediately cancelled after that program, that was right before Shock & Awe on Iraq.
    I remember, I have the video. I have the video of Powell telling the UN tht there were WMD’s a graduate student’s thesis, from what 12 years ago.Wake-up America
    Remember your e-mail, & now your regular mail is read!
    We’re not the enemy..they are.

  5. Jim C

    What reagan did was repackage the poisonous ” trickle down theory ” then sold it like a snake oil salesman . The great ” turbo-charged ” defense buiildup you give the great empty suit credit for was almost all already in the pipeline from the Carter administration . What the great prevaricator gave us was the starwars boondoggle huge deficits and a three trillion dollor debt . All items mentioned are easily checked with a little research .