A little history is always a dangerous thing. The Washington establishment, which filters so much of our news in so many different ways, decided late last week that the election result would correct our course I foreign policy. The President’s replacement of Donald Rumsfeld by Robert Gates, coupled with the forthcoming report of the Baker-Hamilton Commission, is supposed to return us to the calmer days of the 1980s and 1990s. One leading Republican told the New York Times that Gates would be President Bush’s Clark Clifford—a reference to Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense who took office in early 1968. Unfortunately, he is probably right, although not in the way that he meant.
Clark Clifford took office in the midst of the Tet Offensive and immediately faced a request for 206,000 more troops in Vietnam. General Westmoreland had originally asked for those troops in the spring of 1967, but Secretary McNamara, who by then understood how little even such huge numbers actually affected the military balance and who had decided that the United States should seek a political settlement with the Viet Cong, turned him down. Westmoreland and General Wheeler, the Chairman of the JCS, thought that Tet, which (despite more recent mythology) had dangerously strained the American forces, would be enough to get the request granted. Clifford, however, had other ideas. He commissioned a new re-assessment of the war from his senior civilian aids, including Paul Warneke, Alain Enthoven, and Cyrus Vance, who had been pessimistic about the conflict for some time. They convinced him that the new troops would do no good. With a good deal of help from Dean Rusk and White House Counsel Harry McPherson, Clifford convinced President Johnson to reject the request (which had caused a firestorm when the New York Times published it), and to halt most of the bombing of North Vietnam to show a willingness to open peace talks. (The Joint Chiefs, who were still firmly behind the war, could hardly reject the bombing halt because bad winter weather made most of North Vietnam invisible anyway.) In so doing, Johnson also withdrew from the Presidential race. In popular mythology, those decisions marked the beginning of the de-escalation of the war. (Neocons add, of course, that we were really on the point of victory.)
The problem, as Clifford explained at length in his own memoirs, was that those decisions represented no such thing. From April through October he waged a lonely fight to bring about a genuine reversal of policy, rather than simply an end to escalation. In principals’ meetings, he argued that the United States could not win a military victory in Vietnam. Yet his three counterparts—Secretary of State Rusk, National Security Adviser Walt Rostow, and President Johnson—all disagreed, and refused until late October to offer any further political concessions, including a full bombing halt in the North, to get talks going. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party tore itself apart over the war, and Richard Nixon picked up the pieces. In the last days of October, Johnson agreed to a bombing halt—because Rostow and Rusk had convinced him, and themselves, that the enemy was actually beaten! No serious peace talks began, however, because South Vietnamese President Thieu, with encouragement from the Nixon campaign, refused to allow them. 1968 was by far the heaviest year of combat in Vietnam—and 1969, during which Nixon looked vainly for a way to get the North Vietnamese to give in, was the second heaviest.
Some evidence suggests that Robert Gates may help us avoid a new catastrophe. He has reportedly advocated re-opening relations with Iran, which would militate against new military adventures. On the other hand, today's New York Times says that he has advocated targeted strikes against both North Korea and Iraq to deny them WMD capability, muddying the waters. (I spoke too quickly on this point yesterday.) That, perhaps, is today’s equivalent of Westmoreland’s request for 206,000 troops. But even if Gates (and the Baker-Hamilton Commission) want to abandon our major goals in Iraq, I do not believe that the Administration will do so. Gates, as James Mann, the leading authority on the new foreign policy leadership, pointed out in Friday’s Washington Post, is an old ally of Dick Cheney from the Bush I days, and had a very ideological view of the Soviet Union as CIA director. But more to the point, Secretary of State Rice, National Security Adviser Hadley, and above all President Bush, remain totally committed to success in Iraq, just as LBJ, Rostow and Rusk did for Vietnam. Further complicating the picture is the role of the de facto National Security Adviser, Dick Cheney, whose staff apparently vets all initiatives from the Departments (something neither Condolezza Rice or Stephen Hadley seem to do), and who had no parallel in the Johnson Administration. And Gates has never shown any evidence that he is as strong a personality as Clifford.
It took another year and a half after March 1968 for pressure to force Richard Nixon to cut American casualties and begin troop withdrawals. Casualties in Iraq mushroomed last month, in part because of more effective insurgent tactics, including snipers. If they stay high or even increase the military probably will make tactical adjustments. But only American presence on the current scale will keep the current government in office (it is not, in any real sense, in power.) New efforts at training troops, of which we are also hearing more, will not create friendly political forces.
The United States, in my opinion, should call for all-party talks, including the insurgent groups, to set up a federal Iraq, or even a partitioned one, in which new elections would take place in each of the three regions. They may fail. Moqtar Al Sadr seems determined to establish Shi’ite rule over Baghdad and perhaps at least the entire Arab portion of the country. But we can show at least that we want a reasonable solution that would allow Iraqis to live in peace. Beyond that, however, little good news lies on the horizon. As I think about this more and more, what seems remarkable to me is that the US has hung on to so much influence in the Middle East for so long. That was the achievement of the GI and Silent generations whom Baker, Hamilton, Scowcroft and Bush I still represent, but their work has been destroyed by their Boomer offspring, who suddenly wrote off the Arab regimes (such as Syria) that had actually been doing their best to be friendly. This may well have happened anyway; the last six years have accelerated the process. We desperately need a leader who will establish diplomatic relations with Iran and announce a willingness to live with any kind of regime in peace. I do not see him or her on the horizon yet.