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Saturday, July 28, 2007



I am spending the weekend at my favorite meeting, the annual gathering of the Society for American Baseball Research. There will be, alas, no post, but the next one will deal with the vexed question of executive privilege. .


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Looking back at Nixon

Over the past five years, in many conversations with friends about American foreign policy, the name of Richard Nixon has come up, and we have commiserated about how we would like to have him back. Nixon certainly deserved impeachment and removal, but in foreign policy, he appeared in retrospect to be a grown-up who could deal with the world as it was. For the last week, however, I have been reading Robert Dallek’s new book, Nixon and Kissinger—and I have to conclude that I have been wrong. Not only was Nixon unfit for the Presidency, but he and his policies also suffered from many of the exact same defects of the current Administration, and it is no accident, it seems, that Dick Cheney got his start at the highest levels as a junior staffer in the Nixon Administration.

Dallek (whom I should note is a friend of mine) faced a tremendous task: to distill an unprecedented quantity of new material, including tape transcripts and Kissinger’s transcriptions of his own telephone conversations, into a publishable book. As it is the finished product weighs in at over 500 pages (as my next one might, as well), but it is never dull, and I if anything wished it could have been longer. Dallek sensibly decided to quote only briefly from each conversation or memo that he cites, but having read some of the originals (such as the one I posted here sometime back from April 1972 about Vietnam), I think something was lost not to give us a few complete conversations. Still, the basic picture is clear enough. Nixon and Kissinger were two paranoid egomaniacs, not without insight into world affairs, but too obsessed with themselves, their need for acclaim, and their hatred of everyone who disagreed with them to be more than intermittently effective, or even (except on the rarest of occasions) to focus on the details of foreign policy issues. They had extraordinarily little feel for the America they were now leading—both their world views had been shaped in earlier periods, Kissinger’s in the 1930s and 1940s and Nixon’s in the 1940s and 1950s—and the political failures that doomed much of what they did are, in retrospect, not in the least surprising. The book, in the end, is a kind of meditation on the vagaries of human nature that so often put such men in charge of the world’s destiny—and a re-affirmation of Bismarck’s famous remark that a special Providence watches over fools, drunks, and the United States of America.

Nixon and Kissinger, to begin with, came into office determined to win the Vietnam War. In an odd parallel to the current Administration—which decided that 9/11 totally discredited the Middle East policies of the last forty years—they evidently believed that the whole experience of the Johnson Administration had nothing whatever to teach them. Nixon, who saw himself far superior both to his two immediate predecessors and to any successor on the horizon, was convinced that Johnson had failed to win the war only because of a lack of will, the quality on which he prided himself the most. One omission from Nixon and Kissinger (which is more of a biographical study than a policy history) is any discussion of NSSM-1, a massive study of Vietnam which Kissinger commissioned upon taking office. It concluded that nothing the US had done had significantly weakened the enemy’s ability to fight, and that no agency of the US government could foresee the day when the South Vietnamese alone could deal with the enemy. A bold and rational leader must have concluded that the United States had to scale down its objectives to end the war, but Nixon did not. He and Kissinger spent about a year vainly trying to get the Soviet Union to end the war by pressuring the North Vietnamese, and then (as Nixon publicly admitted) tried to gain an advantage with the kind of “decisive” action which, Nixon thought, Johnson had avoided—the invasion of Cambodia. Meanwhile, political and military considerations (the latter involving the state of the armed forces) impelled Nixon to withdraw troops, but he continued to believe that he could make the North give in to our terms—an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam—by unleashing an all-out bombing attack whenever he chose. And historian Jeffrey Kimball was right: Nixon was determined not to make peace without giving such a campaign a chance, as eventually, in December 1972, he did—at the cost of 15 American B-52s, and without in the least improving the terms that Kissinger had already negotiated.

Nixon does deserve all the credit he received for the highlight of his Presidency: the decision to open relations with the People’s Republic of China. He had foreshadowed this step before he came into office, and Kissinger would surely never have had the temerity to suggest it himself. But Dallek’s account of the handling of this key initiative reveals Nixon’s enormous weaknesses as well as his strengths. To begin with, the entire episode was dominated by attempts to give the President all the credit as the indispensable man, even though Kissinger’s charm and careful preparation did so much to make their visits a success. But more importantly, in the long run (and this as we shall see applies to Soviet-American relations as well), Nixon could not resist the temptation to oversell what he was doing as one of the great diplomatic initiatives of human history, at least equal to the Roosevelt-Churchill alliance, the founding of NATO, or the Cuban missile crisis. (While he and Kissinger rarely if ever mentioned such episodes from the past, the implication of the language they constantly used both publicly and privately is clear.) The opening to China dazzled the world and ensured Nixon’s re-election for one simple reason: the President of the United States was facing a reality that his predecessors had denied for more than twenty years, that Communist China was here to stay. An inability to accept such unpleasant realities (such as the inevitable Soviet gains that resulted from the Second World War, the Castro regime in Cuba, or the fundamentalist regime in Iran almost thirty years ago) has been the worst aspect of American foreign policy since the Second World War, and the popularity Nixon won by rising above it should have made some impression upon his successors. Unfortunately, it rarely has, especially in our new century.

Nor, oddly, could Nixon and Kissinger avoid seeing the opening to China in military terms—despite the spread of nuclear weapons. In late 1971, when India went to war to free what is now Bangladesh from the control of West Pakistan, they regarded this as a threat to the new balance of power that might actually have to be met with general war. Pakistan was our old ally and China was a new one, and a gain for India was a gain for the Soviet Union. Not only did Nixon and Kissinger freely discuss joining with the Chinese in a full-scale global war growing out of the crisis, but they decided not to warn the Chinese against moving against India! Fortunately for us and the world, Mao and Chou En-Lai seem to have had a more realistic appreciation of the stakes involved than the men in the White House.

Détente with the Soviet Union also involved simply recognizing reality. Dallek shows, interestingly enough, how Willy Brandt—a relatively unsung hero of the Cold War—paved the way for it in 1969-72 by accepting the loss of German territory during the Second World War and the existence of East Germany (and thereby allowing for a new Berlin agreement and an end to Berlin crises, something Dallek doesn’t discuss at all.) But Dallek also shows how much Nixon and Kissinger resented what Brandt was doing, even if they had the sense not to oppose it in public. The decision to agree to nuclear parity under SALT I was an important one, and here I would give Nixon more explicit credit than Dallek does for one of his more sensible and courageous public initiatives: his repeated statements that there could be no winners or losers in a nuclear war, and that arms control agreements had to treat both sides equally. No other President had ever been so forthright (although JFK was headed in that direction at the time of his death), and Nixon’s opponents, such as Ronald Reagan and Senator Henry Jackson, never accepted this idea, but it was another welcome breath of fresh air. But détente was also oversold. The Declaration of Principles that Kissinger and Gromyko penned before the 1972 summit—which essentially promised that the two superpowers would live happily ever after—was a rhetorical excess that no Democratic President would have dared sign. It was bound to come back and bite its authors on the rear end, as indeed it did to Kissinger and Gerald Ford in 1976, when Ford had to announce that “peace through strength,” not détente, was his foreign policy. (It can be read here.)

Neoconservatives and many Republicans still reject détente because they claim it allowed the Soviet Union to go “on the march” in areas like Central America, Afghanistan (which forced Jimmy Carter to repudiate it as well), and various parts of Africa. Such complaints, in my opinion, show a misunderstanding of the relationships among the different areas of Cold War competition—and also a misunderstanding of how Nixon and Kissinger saw détente themselves. Détente stabilized the Soviet-American arms competition and implied mutual recognition of the results of the Second World War in Europe, but it did not, and could not, stop the much less important, though never-ending, rivalry between the superpowers in the Third World. And indeed, it was Nixon and Kissinger, as Dallek shows, who initially took advantage of it in the Third World by excluding the Soviet Union from important peace initiatives in the Middle East after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Soviets resented it—and if they “retaliated” in Angola or Ethiopia, couldn’t a more reasonable President have simply pointed out that the transformation of Egypt into an American ally was of considerably greater significance? Alas, that was the kind of sensible conclusion of which few American politicians were capable. In the same way Nixon and Kissinger could not abide the election of a Marxist government in Chile and spent three years trying to overthrow it, lying about it the whole time (and, in Kissinger’s case, for much longer. Peter Kornbluh’s book has now shown how deeply the US was involved in the 1973 coup, as well as a failed 1970 one.)

And meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger were fatally undermining support for much of what they were doing—and, in the end, dooming the Nixon presidency itself—because of another weakness they share with President Bush: an utter contempt for anyone who seemed to stand in their way, including both the federal bureaucracy, the country’s intellectual class, the press, and the Democratic Party. Because these important parts of American society had decided by 1969 that the Vietnam War had been a mistake, they were fools, wimps, or traitors, for whom in private Nixon and Kissinger never tired of expressing their contempt. Nor could Nixon and Kissinger abide any cabinet officer who tried to share power or the spotlight, such as Secretary of State William Rogers. Dallek provides new insights into both men’s paranoia, which was if anything greater than has ever been understood. That, of course, also led to Watergate, and to Nixon’s disgrace. He resisted his fall to the end on remarkably familiar grounds: "The Office of hte Presidency," he said just two weeks before the end, "must never be weakened, because a strong America and a strong American President is something which is absolutely indispensable if we are to build that peaceful world that we all want."

A belief that they, and they alone, understood the issues facing the country; an utter inability to admit that they might be mistaken; a complete distrust of all opposition; a contempt for the federal bureaucracy and the powers of Congress; a determination to persist in an unpopular war which no longer has any chance of securing its original objectives; a belief in the need for covert action to topple foreign governments; and an exaggerated idea of executive power; all these characterized Nixon and Kissinger, just as they do the current Administration. Nixon and Kissinger, however, lived in a fundamentally stable world, one defined by the Second World War and the decisions taken in Washington and Moscow during the ensuing five to ten years. They also showed some capacity to face reality—although only, as Dallek shows, when this was good politics as well. We are now adrift in a new world—one less dangerous in some respects, since it no longer includes confrontations between gigantic nuclear arsenals, but also in much greater flux. And I am afraid that the capacity of Americans to face unpleasant realities—in particular, that much of the Muslim world seems likely to fall under fundamentalist rule and remain hostile to the United States—is no greater than it ever was. In any case, we have not gotten any better at finding presidential candidates with the intelligence and the temperament that their position requires, or at finding ways to rise above the divisions within the American people. The Vietnam War, in this respect, remains the great divide of modern history, the one that opened the fissures that have only gotten bigger in the forty years since. The man or woman who will start to close them has not yet appeared. And in this respect, Nixon was certainly not the one.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Gaps (?) in knowledge

As you can see in the introduction to the right, I began this project nearly three years ago because it seemed to difficult to place op-ed pieces, and things have not changed very much. Two week ago, amid great fanfare, some CIA documents from 1974-5 were released claiming to detail some of the Agency's domestic abuses. It so happens that they dealt with subjects that are part of my next book, The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, which Harvard University Press will publish next year. I quickly wrote the following piece and tried to place it, but without success--so here it is.

On June 26, the newspapers delivered shocking front-page news: that the CIA in 1960 recruited three mobsters, Johnny Roselli, Sam Giancana, and Santo Trafficante, to kill Fidel Castro. Yet the handling of the story is a testament to the ignorance of the American people about their government and the persistent success of the CIA in concealing the whole truth. None of what was in the papers about the assassination plots is new—all of it has been known for more than thirty years, and far more detailed sources have been available for ten. Furthermore, the full story of the assassination plots has never been publicly acknowledged. They went on at least two years longer than the newspaper reports state, because CIA agents concealed them not only from the Kennedy White House but from their own director.

The Castro plots originally had no paper trail at all and obviously were designed never to come to light. They became known outside the agency, however, because Sam Giancana, the Chicago mobster who had been recruited in 1960, became concerned about his girlfriend’s possible dalliances in Las Vegas while he was working on the plot in Miami. Robert Maheu, the former FBI agent and private investigator who was handling the mobsters for the CIA, did not want Giancana to leave Miami. He hired a private eye to go to Las Vegas and wiretap the other man, and the private eye was arrested. The FBI quickly figured out that Maheu was involved, but he stalled them with lies until after the Bay of Pigs invasion had begun, because he and the agency were obviously depending on Castro’s assassination to make the invasion succeed. As soon as the news hit the papers, Maheu told the FBI the truth, incurring the wrath of his old boss, J. Edgar Hoover.

A year later, in the spring of 1962, the FBI decided that it could not prosecute Giancana or Maheu because they might reveal their role in the Castro assassination plot. When Robert Kennedy learned this, he and Hoover were both furious—not about the plot itself but about whom the CIA had hired to execute it. The CIA’s general counsel assured the attorney general the plot was over—but it wasn’t.

Instead, the agency cut Maheu, Giancana, and Maheu’s CIA case officer out of the plot and turned Johnny Roselli and Santo Trafficante (who was actually the most important mobster involved) over to a new agent—pistol-packing, hard-drinking William Harvey. Harvey and Richard Helms agreed that they would not tell the new CIA director, John McCone, that the plot was continuing, and Harvey, as he proudly explained to the Senate’s Church Committee in 1975, concealed it from everyone outside the agency even though he was the agency’s representative on Operation Mongoose, a Kennedy administration task force dedicated to Castro’s overthrow. As far as Harvey was concerned, the operation had initially been authorized by Allen Dulles, and that was all the authority he needed. The Church Committee verified that Harvey continued to send teams into Cuba in 1963, but they accepted Harvey’s and Roselli’s statements that the Castro assassination plots had stopped after the missile crisis in October 1962. That too was a lie. Roselli sent yet another team into Cuba in March 1963 with the mission of killing Fidel and it was captured on a Havana rooftop. Not only have Cuban authorities confirmed this on several occasions, but Roselli himself told that part of the story to Jack Anderson in the early 1970s.

We would not know any of this, in all probability, had not Roselli and Maheu enlisted a prominent Washington attorney, Edward Morgan, to help them with legal problems in 1966-1967. They told Morgan—who was also representing Jimmy Hoffa at the time—a garbled version of the story, and Morgan gave it to muckraking columnist Drew Pearson. Pearson published it and shared it with President Johnson, who asked Helms, then CIA director, to look into it. Helms turned to the CIA’s inspector general, J. S. Earman, a dedicated and honest man who produced a tenacious report but who missed the March 1963 assassination attempt because Harvey did not tell him about it. The IG report of 1967 became the basis for the “family jewels” memo that has just finally been published, and also for the Church Committee report of 1975.

In those days—and for all we know today as well—when the CIA is asked by the press or another part of the government about its involvement in some covert activity, the answers it puts on paper—even in internal memoranda—don’t really try to tell the whole truth. Instead, they summarize what the files say, which may not be the whole story at all. (When the assassination plots against Castro leaked on several occasions before 1967 the agency simply denied there was anything to them at all—but after the IG made his investigation and filed his report, they could not.) When the United States decides to authorize an agency to break the laws of other countries (and, sometimes, our own), it also, in effect, makes it very difficult to know what that agency has done or is doing, and impossible, in the long run, to know the whole truth. All Americans should ask themselves whether this is worth the price.

It occurred to me this morning, reading a Washington Post story about John McCain's broke and imploding run for the White House, that we now have an even more important gap in our knowledge regarding major political contributors. The campaigns for the presidential nominations, even more than the general elections, depend largely on big-money donors, but the press does not systematically tell us who they are, how much they give, how they make their decisions, or what they want. Almost eighteen months ago several leading Democrats told me that Hilary Clinton had most of the major Democratic contributors sewn up. Only time will tell whether the whole eighteen-month process which is now about 1/3 over was really something of a charade whose outcome was largely predetermined by conclaves in smoke-free rooms about which we know almost nothing. I hope the answer is no.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Options in Iraq

For about 13 years I've been a very active participant on an internet list called H-Diplo. A few days ago the list posted a long article by Sally Marks, a respected historian now retired from Rhode Island College, which argues, in effect, that we cannot withdraw from Iraq. The article can be read here.

Here is my reply, which has not yet appeared on the list, but undoubtedly will tomorrow at the latest.

With characteristic erudition, Sally Marks touches a great many bases and mentions some very real dangers in her piece on Iraq. I agree with some of what she says, especially the need of the United States to pull together behind some reasonable policies. I do not think, though, that I agree with the ones she has in mind.
I certainly agree that the United States government has brought an almost unprecedented catastrophe upon us, similar in some ways to the Austro-Hungarian decision to attack Serbia without sufficient diplomatic preparation in 1914, although nowhere near as serious, since Iraq is not on our doorstep and since nations no longer field armies in the millions. However, it is possible--actually, I think, probable--that what we have done (which cannot in any case be undone) is to accelerate something that was already happening: the rise of Islamic fundamentalist movements and the eclipse of the regimes that have ruled much of the region in cooperation with western powers since the 1950s. This has been happening for a long time. Iran, of course, overthrew its American client ruler in 1979. Earlier, Iraq had become an anti-western, totalitarian state, albeit one that could play a role in maintaining a balance of power in the region (as she points out), and one which, alas, allowed most of its people to live normal and even productive lives while nurturing an active middle class--things which Iraqis (except in Kurdistan) are now unlikely to know for decades. Pro-western regimes have been losing ground in Egypt since Sadat's assassination, and the Saudi kingdom is in many ways not pro-western at all. Pakistan is heading down the same road. Meanwhile, Hamas and Hezbollah are gaining.
The issue we face is whether keeping troops in Iraq, as Prof. Marks wants to do, will help arrest this trend. I think it is far, far more likely to accelerate it. Western occupation is a terrifically effective target for Islamist movements. To put it bluntly, it proves (to millions of Arabs) that we are just as bad as they say we are. What we have in the non-Kurdish areas is our own version of the West Bank, but without settlers. There is no reason to believe that we shall be any more successful than the Israelis have been in securing popular Arab support for our presence or even in dealing with opposition. (Our intelligence is never going to be anywhere near as good as theirs.)
Iraq, she says, is fragile, but indispensable. Well, so was the Austro-Hungarian empire, as it turns out, but it died anyway. As Peter Galbraith has pointed out, Iraq for the moment is the only survivor of four multi-ethnic states created after the First World War, the others being Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. There really is no evidence now that any major group in Iraq wants a truly united, pluralistic Iraq (although the Sunnis would like to return to the days that they ruled the roost and some Shi'ites would like to dominate the Sunnis.) I don't see any reason for the United States not to encourage a de facto partition, under some "autonomy" scheme, combined with some peaceful population transfers, before all the transfers are accomplished through mass violence.
More broadly, we face the situation which President de Gaulle sketched out to JFK with respect to Southeast Asia in 1961: the west can, perhaps, maintain some influence, but only by NOT stationing troops in the region. Whatever we think of Islamic fundamentalism, the time has come to recognize the Arabs' right to self-determination. If we can survive 75 years of Communism in the Soviet Union (and 45 in Eastern Europe), we can survive some fundamentalist regimes in the Middle East. The alternative of trying to rule or intimidate the area military is simply a fantasy. Meanwhile, I do not share her view that the armed forces of the United States can sustain this occupation. They simply cannot, and they could be needed for something else.
We have to realize how small our army has become. Measured in proportion to our population--or in proportion to the world's population--it is only a little larger than it was in 1940, nowhere near as large as it was in 1965, much less 1945. Unless we want to return to the days of a draft and triple its size--and I most certainly do not--we have to allow other regions of the world, particularly those that have never been part of western culture, to rule themselves. That could mean a huge effort to rely on alternative energy and a huge change in American lifestyles (or at least the size of our cars.) I would vastly prefer that to endless military intervention in the Middle East in violation of most of our traditional principles.
I share Prof. Marks's positive evaluation of what Bush I did in 1990-1. Unfortunately, anything we could have gained from that has now been thrown away, and we cannot go back to where we were then any more than we can reconstitute Yugoslavia or the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Meanwhile, the Administration is determined to stay the course, and today's Washington Post reports that it is designing new measures of "progress" to announce in September, since the Iraqis have so clearly failed to meet either those laid down by the Congress or those laid down by the President. That in turn leads me to another point I have been meaning to make here. War is such an emotional undertaking and engages our deepest feelings so deeply that one simply cannot expect leaders who have wrongly undertaken one ever to admit a mistake or essentially reverse course. Rather than repent secession, southern historians even today discuss how the Confederacy might have won. Ludendorff, having lost the First World War, blamed the civilians. Johnson, Nixon and Kissinger never repented Vietnam (indeed, Robert McNamara was almost the only leading policy-maker who did.) In theory this is perhaps one of the great strengths of our Constitution--that the Congress can take charge and bring a conflict to a halt. But that has only happened once, in 1973--after all American ground troops were out of Southeast Asia.