Those of us who are old enough to remember Vietnam recall that in 1970, the buzzword of the day was “de-escalation.” President Nixon and Republican Members of Congress, wary of the political toll taken by the war, began public discussions of a way out. Their proposed solution was a move to turn over the conflict to the Vietnamese, “Vietnamization,” as it was called.
I saw the Senate Majority Leader on a morning news show today discussing the Senate Republican Iraq war “plan” and had an eerie feeling of deja vu. Despite the lack of teeth, timetable or specifics of the non-binding Republican proposal, it appears to accept the premise that we should get out of Iraq and that the way to do it is to make the Iraqis responsible for their own security. Whether it is the President’s plummeting poll numbers, the deteriorating situation in Iraq, or the President’s repetitive and ineffective attempts to turn things around, Republicans are deliberately distancing themselves from the President on the issue of Iraq. (For some of the reasons why, read this).
What can a President do as party loyalty frays and the American people give up on his Presidency because of a war of choice and aggression? One approach may be a quick exit from Iraq, but somehow that just doesn’t seem to be this President’s style. He has never been one to admit fault or defeat.
For the alternative, let’s turn back to 1970 again. Amid the public posturing about “de-escalation” and Vietnamization, President Nixon took the opposite approach – he expanded the war by bombing Cambodia. The rationale was that Cambodia was a haven for insurgents fighting our troops in Vietnam.
Today, I hear rumblings about conflict with Syria and/or Iran and the hint of similar rationales to those offered during the Vietnam war. Like Cambodia, the argument will be made that bombing Syria is necessary because that is where the insurgents fighting us in Iraq are encamped.
In the case of Iran, the Bush Administration may once again be falling prey to the apparently irresistible siren’s song of Iraqi con man Ahmed Chalabi (according to my friend Arianna, he is quite charming). Chalabi has reportedly been telling Administration officials that he needs U.S. support for his political aspirations in Iraq because he is the only man who can provide a check on Iran’s aggression. There are also claims by the Iranians that wrecked U.S. spy planes have been found in Iran.
This may all add up to nothing. But watching this President over the past five years, I am not so sure. My hunch is that he is looking for a way to turn his failure into a political victory. The President’s unmistakeable tendency when cornered, is to never cut his losses, but instead to stubbornly move forward with an even more absurd degree of one-upmanship.
Presidents engaged in fruitless conflict abroad often wish to delay political accountability by threatening that any failure will be perceived as a failure of the nation or the troops. The American people have had the good sense, long before many of their leaders, to recognize that this war is a mistake. This is not their mistake. Our men and women in uniform have fought valiantly and have done everything that has been asked of them. This is not their mistake.
This is the President's mistake. The time has come for him to take responsibility for his role in this debacle. (For a courageous example of how to do so, he should read the recent statement of former Senator John Edwards). I predict he will not. In trying to run from that mistake, he may soon drag us into something deeper. Reading President Nixon’s address justifying the bombing of Cambodia, you can’t help but wonder if we won’t be hearing the same words with a Texas twang, and very soon:
“...let me give you the reasons for my decision. A majority of the American people, a majority of you listening to me are for the withdrawal of our forces from Vietnam. The action I have taken tonight is indispensable for the continuing success of that withdrawal program. A majority of the American people want to end this war rather than to have it drag on interminably. The action I have taken tonight will serve that purpose. A majority of the American people want to keep the casualties of our brave men in Vietnam at an absolute minimum. The action I take tonight is essential if we are to accomplish that goal......
The question all Americans must ask and answer tonight is this: Does the richest and strongest nation in the history of the world have the character to meet a direct challenge by a group which rejects every effort to win a just peace, ignores our warning, tramples on solemn agreements, violates the neutrality of an unarmed people, and uses our prisoners as hostages? If we fail to meet this challenge, all other nations will be on notice that despite its overwhelming power the United States when a real crisis comes will be found wanting.”
Thus, the President may well drag the nation into the impossible task of turning a mistake in its inception into a success at its conclusion. If he does, as with Vietnam, the results will have deadly consequences.