02/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bush Misreads Iraq: 'The Quiet American' Not Kristol Clear

Over the next few days, the media will continue in its fever of assessing and re-assessing the highlights and lowlights -- and comic moments -- of the eight Bush Years. I've refrained from doing much of that depressing business here, but one episode from August 2007 deserves revisiting, because of its relevance to the Iraq debate.

It came when Bush cited my favorite 20th century novel and its author -- Graham Greene's highly prescient The Quiet American -- in a speech that drew several dubious links between the catastrophic Vietnam and Iraq conflicts.

Despite his now infamous "reading contest" with Karl Rove, it's very doubtful he even read the novel, although it seems that he saw the horrible Hollywood version decades ago.

Bush could have used a fact-checker as well. He described Alden Pyle, the U.S. operative, as the "main character" in the book, when it's actually the narrator of the story, Thomas Fowler, the Saigon-based British newspaper correspondent (played by Michael Caine in the fine recent film). And, of course, "many" back in the 1970s did not say there would be "no" consequences for the Vietnamese after our pullout, as Bush alleged.

In any case, here's the Bush statement:

In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called The Quiet American. It was set in Saigon and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."

After America entered the Vietnam War, Graham Greene -- the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. Matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out, there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people. In 1972, one anti-war senator put it this way: "What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they've never seen and may never heard of?"

Now, what did Bush mean by all this?

My initial reaction was that Bush was equating the novelist with critics of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars who found "naïve" the views of those promoting a war who had only "noble" ideals (e.g. Bush) and would succeed if the Greenes of the world just got out of the way. If this is true, Bush was trying to identify with Pyle.

Maybe someone should tell him that Pyle, in the novel, helps arrange and then defends a terror bombing that kills and maims civilians. Or perhaps Bush only saw the misbegotten Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie based on the book, which obscured Pyle's guilt. (Pyle was played by war hero Audie Murphy.)

But others have suggested that Bush meant that Greene and his ilk are the naïve ones. Here's Frank James of the Chicago Tribune at the paper's blog The Swamp:

Bush seemed to be seizing on Greene's idea of U.S. naivete on entering the war and trying to turn it around and apply it to those now calling for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

But Greene wrote his book about the way American bumbled into Vietnam, not how it left it. By reminding people of Greene's book, Bush was inviting listeners to recall the mistakes his administration made in entering and prosecuting the Iraq War. Did he really want to do that?

Then there was Joe Klein at Time magazine's Swampland blog calling The Quiet American:

[a novel] whose hero is the young William Kristol...actually, no, the hero is an idealistic American intelligence officer named Alden Pyle, who causes great disasters in the name of a higher good. In other words, he's a premature neoconservative. I would hope that the President will re-read, or perhaps just read the book, as soon as possible because it is as good a description as there is about the futility of trying to forcibly impose western ways on an ancient culture.

Well, you be the judge. I suppose we shouldn't joke about Graham Illusion or Graham Theft.

Greene's novel, in any case, pits the cynical, apolitical newspaperman (who has a Vietnamese girlfriend and an opium habit) against the Pyle character, who seems to be a U.S. aid official linked to the CIA (and purportedly based on the legendary Edward Lansdale). Pyle is attempting to find a "third force, " a democratic alternative to the French-backed puppet government and the Communist insurgents. With brilliant writing, biting humor and keen insight on local politics and customs (based on Greene's research there), the novel perfectly anticipates the massive U.S. urge to intervene deeply and then escalate.

Fowler, the typical newspaperman, has no use for "isms" and "ocracies," and just wants the "facts." He tells Pyle "you and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren't interested." What do they want? "They want enough rice. They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want."

Pyle replies: "If Indo-china goes...."

"I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does 'go' mean?"

Pyle ultimately assists an urban bombing to be blamed on Viet Minh insurgents, and many civilians die. Greene observes that "a woman sat on the ground with what was left of her baby in her lap; with a kind of modesty she had covered it with her straw peasant hat." Fowler asks Pyle how many such deaths he would accept in "building a national democratic front." Pyle responds: "Anyway, they died in the right cause. ... They died for democracy."

Bush would never say something like that but plenty of Greene's comments about Pyle would apply to him. (At a screening I heard Philip Noyce, director of the fine recent film, starring Michael Caine, based on the book, say "Bush is the ultimate Alden Pyle.") Greene's description of the character even sounds like the young Bush, with a crew cut and a "wide campus gaze." If only he was merely "reading the Sunday supplements at home and following the baseball" instead of mucking around in foreign lands.

Pyle, he writes, was "impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance... Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm. You can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity."

Long before that, Greene had opened his novel with a few lines from Byron:

This is the patent age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls
All propagated with the best intentions.

Or as Greene himself wrote of a character in The Heart of the Matter, another novel: "He entered the territory of lies without a passport for return."

Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, has a current book on Iraq and the media, "So Wrong for So Long."