Thursday, October 12, 2006

Regarding Henry

Bob Woodward's new book arrives at no new conclusions. What it does offer is an astonishing amount of evidence to support previous conclusions. Beyond that, however, it does contain one startling revelation and one candid quotation which Woodward attributes to Colin Powell.

Both the revelation and the quotation assume a tragic irony when considered within the context of Dwight Eisenhower's foreign policy. Eisenhower was both remarkable for the battles which he chose to fight and the battles which he chose not to fight.

When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Fu, they asked Ike for American support. Despite his distaste for propping up old colonial regimes, he sent General Matthew Ridgeway to scout out the situation. After all, it was Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who was then on an international crusade to stop the march of Communism; and, to that end, he had spearheaded the creation of SEATO (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.)

Ridgeway returned to the White House and told Eisenhower what American support would cost in terms of ordinance, money and human lives. Eisenhower told the French, "Non, merci." Likewise, when the French and the British sought American support during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Eisenhower refused to be drawn in. Instead, it fell to the United Nations to resolve the crisis; and Lester Pearson, the Canadian ambassador to the UN, eventually received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in that direction.

When it came to evaluating the use of military force, Ike's experience gave him a cold eyed cost-benefit sense of whether or not military intervention was a wise course of action.

Which brings me back to the Woodward book and the revelation that Henry Kissinger has been offering continuous counsel to the present administration on the conduct of the Iraq war.

Kissinger has always felt that the United States lost the war in Vietnam because it lost its nerve; and Woodward reports that he has repeatedly told Bush and company that it is critical that America not lose its nerve in Iraq. While it is true that Kissinger was not around for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, he was there as the Nixon administration widened the war into Cambodia and -- secretly -- into Laos.

And therein lies the problem. What Kissinger has always failed to understand is that the American people never lost their nerve. What they lost was faith in their government, something in which Kissinger played a pivotal role. Whether the information came from the White House in Washington or from the Five O'Clock Follies in Saigon, people began to cotton on to the fact that they had been lied to -- repeatedly and consistently. "Credibility Gap" was the diplomatic term of the day.

To counter that perception, Nixon sent his vice president, Spiro Agnew, out to attack the critics of the war. "Effete snobs," Agnew called them, misinformed "nattering nabobs of negativism." When that strategy began to fail and much more sober internal reports, like the Pentagon Papers, began to leak to the press, Nixon hired a group of "plumbers" who set up shop in the White House basement. Their job was to plug the leaks; and -- well -- we all know how that story ended.

The Bush administration does not use the phrase "loss of nerve." Instead, they use the term "cut and run." And, as the Woodward book makes clear, they bury internal reports which do not offer optimistic scenarios. And, like the vice president thirty-five years ago, Dick Cheney is leading the charge against the war's critics, while Bush stands, like Horatio at the bridge, as cheerleader-in-chief, defending the bulwarks against the "nattering nabobs of negativism."

Which brings us to Colin Powell. He told Woodward that the problem with the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate is that none of them, "have been in a bar fight." Bush and Cheney managed to artfully avoid Vietnam; and Rumsfeld flew Navy fighter jets during peace time. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, it does suggest that who you choose to advise you in a time of war is critical. It is interesting to note that Powell was informed of the decision to invade Iraq after the fact; and Bush never consulted his father about the decision, claiming instead that he sought the advice of "a higher father." The two men who were closest to the first Iraq war -- men who have been in combat and who tended to evaluate decisions with the hardheadedness of an Eisenhower -- were left out of the loop. Instead, they turned to Henry.

Why? I suspect that, at the heart of the matter, is Bush's, Cheney's and Rumsfeld's shared conviction that when it came to marching on Baghdad, Bush the Elder and Secretary Powell lost their nerve. Time, as it did for Eisenhower's decisions, has proven the wisdom of their decision. And, in the present, it has meant that an old story has been retold. It is a story about people who didn't know what they were doing insisting that things be done their way. And the theme of the story is George Santayana's old maxim: Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

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