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Monday, October 02, 2006

"Get It Right This Time"

by digby

In the midst of all the excitement over the GOP congress's under-age cyberstalking, I hope that we don't lose sight of the other white meat --- Woodward's astonishing revelations in his new book "State of Denial."

Yes, Woodward is a court stenographer and his earlier Bush hagiography shows the extent of his fealty to DC insiderism, but that's exactly what makes this book so extraordinary. It's clear that the Republican establishment is feverishly cannibalizing itself from within. Not only is the story of infighting, ineptitude and bad policy compelling, it's especially interesting since it's being told by the Republicans themselves as they begin the work of ex-communicating the Bush administration from themselves and the conservative movement.

We've all discussed the Shakespearean dimensions of this bizarre presidency, but I had no idea about this particular plotline:

Cheney had suggested Rumsfeld to Bush in late December 2000. Rumsfeld was so impressive, Bush told Card at the time. He had had the job in the Ford administration a quarter-century before, and it was as if he were now saying, "I think I've got some things I'd like to finish."

But there was another dynamic that Bush and Card discussed. Rumsfeld and Bush's father, the former president, couldn't stand each other. Bush senior didn't trust Rumsfeld and thought he was arrogant, self-important, too sure of himself and Machiavellian. Rumsfeld had also made nasty private remarks that the elder Bush was a lightweight.

Card could see that overcoming the former president's skepticism about Rumsfeld added to the president-elect's excitement. It was a chance to prove his father wrong. And Rumsfeld fit Cheney's model of a defense secretary who could not only battle things out with the generals but who also had as much gravitas as the rest of the new national security team.

Bush would nominate Rumsfeld, he told Card. Cheney had been selected for his national security credentials. He was the expert, and this was the sort of decision that required expertise. Still, Bush wondered privately to Card about pitfalls, if there was something he didn't see here. After all, his father had strong feelings.

Is this a trapdoor? he asked.

Man, that vaunted "gut" of his sure is imprssive, isn't it? From the very beginning the sly old weasel Dick Cheney muscles out the former president (whom everyone in America assumed would be a valuable and valued advisor to his dimbulb son) using Junior's adolescent need to reject his father. He and Rummy became the "good" fathers to the idiot dauphin and successfully shut out all the voices of reason from the (too prudent and cautious) old guard establishment that would have lined up with him. They were radicals who cleverly managed to make themselves appear to be wise old men. Junior knew no better --- and wouldn't have cared if he did.

(Who would have thought this could become such a huge factor in a modern representative democracy? It might as well be ancient Rome or the Borgia era in renaissance Italy.)

The extent of Rumsfeld's screw-ups is well known by now, but this book seems to be asserting something about the war that is quite startling at this late date --- the real reason they were so anxious to go into Iraq come hell or high water. Yes, we know it was about oil and it was about Israel and it was about PNAC wet dreams and seven thousand other things. But I'm talking about the Big Reason, the one that united all these people: Iraq is their long awaited chance to do Vietnam right.

Woodward writes:

Back in the days of the Ford presidency, in the wake of Watergate—the pardon of Nixon, the fall of Saigon—Cheney and Rumsfeld had worked almost daily in the same Oval Office where they once again stood. The new man in the photo, Bush, five years younger than Cheney and nearly 14 years younger than Rumsfeld, had been a student at Harvard Business School. He came to the presidency with less experience and time in government than any incoming president since Woodrow Wilson in 1913.

Well into his seventh decade, many of Rumsfeld’s peers and friends had retired, but he now stood eagerly on the cusp, ready to run the race again. He resembled John le Carre’s fictional Cold War British intelligence chief, George Smiley, a man who “had been given, in late age, a chance to return to the rained-out contests of his life and play them after all.�

“Get it right this time,� Cheney told Rumsfeld

In order to get Iraq right, they brought in another one of their old pals

A powerful, largely invisible influence on Bush's Iraq policy was former secretary of state Kissinger.

"Of the outside people that I talk to in this job," Vice President Cheney told me in the summer of 2005, "I probably talk to Henry Kissinger more than I talk to anybody else. He just comes by and, I guess at least once a month, Scooter [his then-chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby] and I sit down with him."

The president also met privately with Kissinger every couple of months, making him the most regular and frequent outside adviser to Bush on foreign affairs.

Kissinger sensed wobbliness everywhere on Iraq, and he increasingly saw it through the prism of the Vietnam War. For Kissinger, the overriding lesson of Vietnam is to stick it out.

In his writing, speeches and private comments, Kissinger claimed that the United States had essentially won the war in 1972, only to lose it because of the weakened resolve of the public and Congress.

In a column in The Washington Post on Aug. 12, 2005, titled "Lessons for an Exit Strategy," Kissinger wrote, "Victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy."

He delivered the same message directly to Bush, Cheney and Hadley at the White House.

Victory had to be the goal, he told all. Don't let it happen again. Don't give an inch, or else the media, the Congress and the American culture of avoiding hardship will walk you back.

He also said that the eventual outcome in Iraq was more important than Vietnam had been. A radical Islamic or Taliban-style government in Iraq would be a model that could challenge the internal stability of the key countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Kissinger told Rice that in Vietnam they didn't have the time, focus, energy or support at home to get the politics in place. That's why it had collapsed like a house of cards. He urged that the Bush administration get the politics right, both in Iraq and on the home front. Partially withdrawing troops had its own dangers. Even entertaining the idea of withdrawing any troops could create momentum for an exit that was less than victory.

In a meeting with presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson in early September 2005, Kissinger was more explicit: Bush needed to resist the pressure to withdraw American troops. He repeated his axiom that the only meaningful exit strategy was victory.

"The president can't be talking about troop reductions as a centerpiece," Kissinger said. "You may want to reduce troops," but troop reduction should not be the objective. "This is not where you put the emphasis."

To emphasize his point, he gave Gerson a copy of a memo he had written to President Richard M. Nixon, dated Sept. 10, 1969.

"Withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public; the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded," he wrote.

The policy of "Vietnamization," turning the fight over to the South Vietnamese military, Kissinger wrote, might increase pressure to end the war because the American public wanted a quick resolution. Troop withdrawals would only encourage the enemy. "It will become harder and harder to maintain the morale of those who remain, not to speak of their mothers."

Two months after Gerson's meeting, the administration issued a 35-page "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." It was right out of the Kissinger playbook. The only meaningful exit strategy would be victory.

I have written a lot about the right's stubborn obsessions. They just can't seem to get out of their intellectual ruts, insisting forever that they were right about things they have been proven wrong about and carrying on for years disputing facts and evidence that nobody else disputes. It's an odd affliction that you can see even today when people too young to have been born at the time, like Ann Coulter or Michele Malkin, take up ancient arguments of their rightwing forebears and carry on as if it is a matter of tribal pride to win the point even after the facts are long settled everyone else has ceased to care.

Dick Cheney's single-minded insistence on reconstituting Nixon's doctrine of the extremely powerful executive branch has long been seen in that light. But I have to admit that even though I knew all this, I failed to see that Iraq was consciously and literally motivated by the Vietnam experience among many of those who had been associated with the "defeat" in ways they psychologically couldn't reconcile. It rings true. It simply didn't occur to me that anyone would knowingly go down that road again so soon. Indeed, I thought it was impossible that the post-Vietnam military would ever let it happen. (That's where Rummy came in...)

Coincidentally, Spencer Ackerman has a piece in TNR also discussing the right's obsession with Vietnam:

On the right, the latter half of 2006 is feeling a lot like 1968, the year that the American public finally lost faith in the Vietnam war. And, just as they did then, conservatives are turning causality on its head: People aren't growing disillusioned with the war because we're not winning it; we're not winning because people have grown disillusioned. After Vietnam, this analysis enabled the right to avoid the agonizing reappraisal of U.S. foreign policy that has been that war's legacy for liberalism and the Democratic Party.

But avoidance has its consequences as well. It's true enough that, for more than 30 years, the left has not infrequently suffered from "Vietnam syndrome"--the assumption that any military engagement will be a moral disaster and a potential quagmire. But, though it has been less examined, the lesson the right took from Vietnam--that the true danger to national security is not misguided wars, but overzealous opposition to misguided wars--is, if anything, more dangerous. Call it the Other Vietnam Syndrome.


Most Republicans and conservatives initially supported the war but criticized Lyndon Johnson's handling of it. The myth took hold that if only Johnson would allow his generals to prosecute the war with sufficient brutality--mining the Haiphong Harbor, destroying the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia--it could be won. Richard Nixon took office promising to end the war on a platform of "peace with honor," which nodded to opposition to the war across the political spectrum but, in truth, represented only the right-wing critique. (As Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer noted in 1972, "What President Nixon means by peace is what other people mean by victory.") Just as importantly, he identified the forces of peace with dishonor. In a crucial speech in 1969, Nixon married middle-American discontent with the protesters to a plea for patience as he expanded the war. "If a vocal minority," Nixon said, "however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society." It was no longer necessary on the right to be pro-war--only anti-antiwar.


The "stabbed in the back" myth has flourished on the right ever since. Indeed, what is so striking about conservative--and especially neoconservative--treatment of Vietnam is a near-complete disregard for the actual circumstances of the war. Occasionally, a book or scholarly article will come along challenging the conventional wisdom that the war was unwinnable or foolhardy, and it will receive some attention. (Lewis Sorley's A Better War, for instance--an impressive piece of scholarship that argues, unconvincingly, that General Creighton Abrams made the war winnable--was headlined by The Weekly Standard as "the truth about vietnam.") By and large, however, conservatives are content to shunt the actual Vietnam war to the background and elevate criticism of its critics. In his 1999 book, How We Got Here, David Frum argued that, just as the war showed signs of turning in America's favor, victory was snatched away by an anti-American fringe on college campuses and in the halls of Congress. Though the conservative movement reviles Henry Kissinger, Frum approvingly quoted his contention that "[t]he so-called peace movement had evolved from seeking an end of the war to treating America's frustrations in Indochina as symptoms of a moral degeneration that needed to be eradicated root and branch." Similarly, in a revealing column during the Sunni and Shia insurgencies of spring 2004, Charles Krauthammer rejected the Iraq-as-Vietnam comparison--except in one crucial sense: "Walter Cronkite, speaking for the establishment, declared the war lost. Once said to be lost, it was."

Believing themselves to be victimized (as always) by the hoary myth of the liberal elites, the conservatives just keep doing the same thing over and over again, running like frantic little rodents on the same hamster wheel, the goal as elusive as it ever was.

Ackerman concludes:

Faced with a disastrous war, the most important consideration is not "Were we wrong?" but "Why were we wrong?" and "How can we avoid being so wrong in the future?" These are questions that often will implicate the country's leading politicians and intellectuals, and its cherished myths. The anguish of confronting them has been on display in the Democratic Party's foreign policy debate for 35 years.

The results have not always been pretty. But they have been important. It is only when the United States shrinks from asking such agonizing questions that we wade back into agonizing wars. That is a price that conservatives have been willing to pay, as the ugly pre-Iraq war debate vividly displayed. When conservatives achieved power, their 35-year-old willful blindness led the country right back into a quagmire, this time in a desert.

Republicans did worse than that. They nursed their grudges against the counter culture and turned them into an opportunistic partisan culture war. And the real pieces of work, the neocons and the partisan veterans like Cheney and Rumsfeld waited patiently until they got their chance to "do it right." Never having honestly assessed what went wrong the first time but merely laying facile blame on liberals and the anti-war movement, they have willfully made the same mistakes all over again and seem to have no more sense of their own responsibility than they did three decades ago.

Woodward slips in a little tidbit about all this that should prove to be very powerful for the Democrats if they understand what they are seeing and act accordingly:

Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, weighed in with the president. A contentious session with Congress was coming up. As he saw it, the Democrats were in no mood for a honeymoon. With Rice's confirmation hearing to replace Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and with the expected nomination of White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to be attorney general, would another Senate confirmation overload the system?

"I've got Powell going. I'm going to have to replace Condi," the president told Rove. "Do I have to have some continuity in all of this?" And, clearly, the conduct of the war in Iraq would be the subject of confirmation hearings for anyone Bush nominated to be the new secretary of defense.

Rove agreed they did not want to do anything that would prompt hearings on the war.

I'll bet they didn't. But all their dirty linen is now being exposed. The macho GOP they've been selling for 30 years turns out to be a bunch of whiny cranks who are so obsessive about their youthful "failures" that they have spent their entire lives getting into a position that they could prove they were right after all. But it's clear that the modern Republican party is incapable of governing a superpower. They have no capacity for self-analysis or learning from their mistakes so they cannot be trusted to learn from this two term debacle of terrorist attacks, unnecessary wars, economic insecurity, corruption and now even covering up for known sexual predators rather than risk their hold on power.

Therefore the Democrats simply must hold thorough investigations into the Iraq war if they become a majority in either house of congress. For the good of the country, this must be stopped, and the Republicans have shown they are completely incapable of doing it themselves.

It is long past time that Democrats killed the 60's albatross the Republicans hung around their necks more than three decades ago and throw the dead carcass right back at them. This country's problems are not caused by unreconstructed hippies ruining the political system. The problem today is the eternally resentful, unreconstructed anti-hippies who somehow got psychologically paralyzed by the events of that time.

Julia has more excerpts and commentary, here.

John Amato has the Woodward interview on 60 Minutes, along with a transcript for those of you who are video impaired. It's pretty amazing.