It is as simple as this. If Iraq is not another Vietnam, as the administration continues to insist, neither Richard Nixon nor George W. Bush ever lied to the American people. Who now would attest to that?
If you want to get a handle on the bipolar psychology in a White House conducting an enervating and increasingly hated war, fetch a copy of “Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power,” Robert Dallek’s exhaustive account of the odd couple’s Machiavellian conduct of American foreign policy for five and a half years.
For four years, the two men plotted and delayed peace in Vietnam based on their instincts about how it would affect Nixon’s re-election in 1972, finally concluding that for maximum political benefit for him and harm for the Democrats it needed to occur immediately after his re-election, which Kissinger orchestrated almost to the day. Nixon did not want U.S. withdrawal to occur too early because the certain fall of Saigon might happen before the election and would be blamed on him.
“This is a brilliant game we are playing,” Nixon tells Al Haig once. “Henry really bamboozled the bastards.” The bastards were not the communists but American peace advocates.
Twenty thousand more brave Americans had to die to accommodate Nixon’s political timetable, but there is scant evidence in tens of thousands of pages of transcripts of conversations and cables that those men’s lives or their families’ ever factored seriously in the deliberations, in spite of the president’s occasional lachrymose statements for public consumption.
Unlike Abraham Lincoln or even Lyndon Johnson, neither Nixon nor Bush seems to have lost any sleep agonizing over the suffering and death flowing from their policies. It would be a sign of weakness, of uncertainty.
George Bush, of course, is not exactly Nixon. He is not as complex, not as bright and not tormented by Nixon’s many demons, although both men strove for power with the same objective, personal grandiosity.
And Condoleezza Rice is not a good clone of the cunning Kissinger, who shamelessly blandished and manipulated the president at the same time. Rice performs the first role perfectly but not the second. Envious of his foreign-policy vicar, fearful that he would claim the credit and worried that he was getting ahead of the game, Nixon would quietly sabotage Kissinger’s negotiations for a cease-fire by writing a letter to the South Vietnam president emboldening him to stand up to Henry. You can’t imagine W. and Condi engaging in such crafts because neither is so clever.
But we will never know, will we? Except for the ceaseless insider books deflecting blame, there will be no honest record of the Bush White House’s internal maneuverings, at least not on the magnitude of the Nixon White House. Dallek pored through nearly 3,000 hours of Oval Office tapes, 20,000 pages of notes of Kissinger’s telephone conversations (taken by aides listening in) and millions of pages of national security files. E-mails furnish the Bush White House trail, and they are busy destroying those.
Still, the parallels of Vietnam and Iraq come through on every page. Nixon and Kissinger answer the calls for withdrawal by warning that withdrawal before South Vietnam is stabilized would embolden the communists worldwide, undermine the confidence of allies and independents in American leadership and power and expose the United States to greater peril. Democratic critics are accused of disloyalty and of betraying the troops in the field. And the generals are muzzled.
When the American commander in Saigon is suspected of a leak in the press about the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Nixon and Kissinger land hard. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs sends a memo: “The President just called me for the third time screaming. No military officer is to say one goddamn word about withdrawals.”
In the end, it was the Nixon war strategies (the bombing of North Vietnam, the incursions into Cambodia), not the eventual U.S. withdrawal, that brought terrible and lasting havoc to the region and a loss of American prestige. In the end, Nixon embraced peace conditions that were available three and a half years and 20,000 American lives earlier.
Peace did the opposite. The fall of Saigon, which Nixon and Kissinger privately predicted even when they were proclaiming victory, turned out to be only a blip in the Cold War.
Rather than the cataclysmic results that Nixon early on predicted from withdrawal before internal pressures forced the retreat, Dallek observed, “nations on both sides of the line saw America’s withdrawal from an unwinnable war as sensible realism allowing the United States to focus its energies on more compelling foreign policy challenges.”
That is apt to be the result when the next president cashes in the chips from George Bush’s war.