October 10, 2006

The Tear Sheet - Shock and awe: the return of Dr. Kissinger

Some lessons are learned hard, and some never at all. And sometimes even the most brutal lessons just keep on hurting, with nothing ever gained. The painful lessons of the Vietnam War, which should have been heeded so many years ago, seem to fall into the latter category.Thirty-one years after the communists chased us out of Saigon comes news that Henry Kissinger — architect of some of that war’s most brutal and self-defeating moments — is again part of the White House family. He’s apparently a regular, dispensing wisdom to another president who — like his Vietnam-era predecessors — is wondering just how to end a war that has gone badly awry.“He’s baaaack,” Bob Woodward intoned during his recent interview with Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes,” where he was discussing “State of Denial,” his new book about Bush’s war. “This is so fascinating. Kissinger’s fighting the Vietnam War again because, in his view, the problem in Vietnam was we lost our will.”Woodward says Kissinger’s message to Bush is simple: “The only meaningful exit strategy is victory.”Ever since the United States left Saigon in 1975, we’ve been arguing about the Vietnam War — its 58,249 dead soldiers, its dagger to the heart of 1960s idealism and the reality of the horrors that followed. But Kissinger’s idea — that we lost that war simply because we lacked willpower — is as facile as ever. Few historians frame it so simply, and many of the architects of the war have apologized for blunders, tragic blindness and over-reliance on false assumptions.Not Kissinger. At 84, he has never apologized. He has rarely second-guessed himself. “That evil son-of-a-bitch,” Dr. Phil Laemmle, professor emeritus of political science at U of L, growled in an interview last week.Like so many others, Laemmle is angry over Kissinger’s alleged return to influence because he blames him for the secret 1969-70 bombings in Cambodia, which many say was both extra-constitutional and helped boost the murderous Khmer Rouge. Kissinger will also be known in perpetuity for affixing arrogance and Machiavellian instincts to foreign policy.Maybe it’s that dour self-certainty, so often reflected in the snarl on Vice President Dick “Doomsday” Cheney’s face, is the secret to Kissinger’s warm welcome.Too bad for us, though, because there are other similarities between Kissinger’s war and the current one that go beyond his involvement in both. In 1968, when the war had destroyed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, Nixon campaigned on a promise to restore “law and order” to a country increasingly nervous after a spring and summer of riots, police violence and the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.Amid the echoing shouts of that long, hot summer of 1968, today’s fears about “security” and “terrorism” ring oddly familiar. Then, as now, they helped scare the country rightward. Today, mounting evidence that our presence in Iraq is hurting, not helping, our cause against terrorism, is met with warnings from Bush that pulling out too soon would lead to chaos, collapse and civil war in Iraq.‘‘The American people need to know what withdrawal from Iraq would mean,” the President said in a Sept. 28 speech. “By withdrawing from Iraq before the job is done, we would be doing exactly what the extremists and terrorists want.’’Sometimes you wonder whether the administration even believes its own rhetoric. Certainly history has shown that neither Johnson nor Nixon believed theirs. As early as 1964, Johnson told Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia that he wanted to bring the troops home but was afraid of the political consequences of quitting the war. “I don’t think we can let it go, Mr. President, indefinitely,” Russell told him, in a taped conversation released in 1997. “We’ve either got to move in or move out.”“That’s about what it is,” Johnson said, adding that the 1964 election made it difficult to do what he believed was right. “Well, they would impeach a president that would run out, wouldn’t they? ... I haven’t got the nerve to do it, and I don’t see any other way out of it.” So, paralyzed by fear, Johnson “moved in,” rather than out — sending to Vietnam hundreds of thousands more troops for a war he had already concluded was not winnable. He never got over the decision, and in 1968 limped out of office into a morose and short-lived retirement.Nixon ran on a promise to end the war, and then spent his entire first term working on an exit strategy, looking for something known in those days as “peace with honor.” Another 20,000 troops died while he searched.By the time the Viet Cong took over in 1975, the United States was broke, busted and ready to turn its back on Cambodia and Vietnam, where a generation was lost to mass murder, re-education and despair.That’s exactly what Bush and his team say they are trying to avoid in Iraq now. And it is why Kissinger is saying the only way to leave Iraq is to win.But what if winning on the terms we have set forth is, as in Vietnam, unlikely or simply impossible? What if, even now, Bush and Cheney know that the fuel for the insurgency there is our own presence — but are too afraid to retreat?The reason Kissinger’s return is so troubling is because what we need now are new ideas and an honest discussion of our difficulties. Like it or not, we’re all in this together, and a return to failed ideas — and the tired old secrecy and double-speak of the past — is a failure for all of us.In 1960, John Kennedy said Americans were willing to pay any price, bear any burden for freedom. But 46 years later, with the optimism of the New Frontier replaced by a frigid conservatism and international disdain, it is fair to demand our leaders at least tell us what that price will be.Maybe we’re being overcharged or sold something we can’t afford.A generation of debt, fractured alliances, turned-off voters and a new wall with thousands of names and counting — to be etched in silent mourning: Is that a price we are willing to pay?President Bush would be better served by advice that encourages open discussion about our difficulties in Iraq, and honest dialogue about our goals there and the price we’re paying to achieve them.If history is any judge, the first thing he’ll need to do is show Henry Kissinger the door. Contact the writer at michael.lindenberger@gmail.com