05/30/2006 04:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Preemptive Self-Congratulations

President Bush devoted a good part of his Memorial Day three-day holiday not just to recalling and honoring memories of past events, but also--strangely enough--to anticipating (and prematurely honoring) future memories of current events.

On Saturday, in his Commencement Address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he repeatedly used (six times, to be precise) variations on the phrase "laying the foundation." Three of those times he was primarily looking backward, referring to the Truman administration's post-war deployment of U.S. troops in Germany, Japan, and Korea. President Bush claimed that Truman's bold yet then-unpopular troop deployments have "served as the foundation" for security in Europe and the Pacific and, even more grandly, "laid the foundations for America's victory in the Cold War."

Bush then invoked the phrase "laying the foundation" three more times in the speech. But in these three instances, Bush was projecting into and onto the future, in a not-so-subtle attempt to claim personal prescience about how history will someday judge his current policies. His increasingly unpopular decision to stay the course in Iraq, he averred, is "laying the foundation" for eventual "victory in the war on terror" and for "future peace in the Middle East."

On Monday, Bush wrapped up his Memorial Day Address at Arlington National Cemetery with a similar appeal to future memory, by claiming that the deaths of our soldiers who have fallen in Iraq are "laying the foundation of peace for a generation of young Americans."

Marty Kaplan has already exposed the absurdity of drawing historical parallels between Bush's foreign policies and Harry Truman's. What I want to call attention to would be Bush's preoccupation this past weekend with futurology--his repeated use of the "future anterior" tense, that rhetorical legerdemain by which one purports to be able justify the present from the imaginary vantage of prospective retrospect. We all know that Bush, with his mounting deficit spending, has deferred a day of financial reckoning unto future generations. This past long-weekend would suggest that Bush has decided to shift the moral deficit of the Iraq war onto the indefinite future as well.

My concern is this: If Bush is now claiming that history will eventually vindicate him (since all other near-term reasons for the war have been exhausted), then we cannot keep writing him a moral blank check without better knowing the terms of the deal. In five, ten, twenty years, if ANYTHING goes well in the Middle East, Bush apologists, looking back on these "laying the foundation" speeches, will take abundant credit (I predict). Will someone from the Bush camp please speak up NOW and specify, or at least give us an advance inkling, about what will someday constitute the future failures of the present policy, should Bush's rosy prognostications not prove entirely true? Or perhaps, is all of this Bush rhetoric about "laying the foundation" simply a set-up, an extended exercise in bad faith, an underhanded way to shift early blame to those who will come after him and need to clean up this mess?