Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Ford, Nixon, Bush, and the Surge...

Others will have clearer memories. I was a wee lad when Gerald Ford was president. I remember one thing - Ford and his wife, Betty, descending from a tour bus in La Mesa, California for a campaign stop. I was with my hardline Republican parents. There was a large crowd and I remember only a blurry, distant figure waving to the crowd, and then a thankfully brief, echoing-microphone speech. My family has always treated Republican presidents and presidential candidates as minor deities. I was apparently supposed to feel this moment as... momentous.

In retrospect, Ford was decent and the most respectable Republican president in my lifetime. Perhaps he was wrong in terms of policy, but much of what he had to do was cleanup after the Nixon administration. Perhaps he was wrong to pardon Nixon. Frankly, however, my own view is that Nixon was much less of a moral disaster in light of the current Bush administration.

The comparison is apt and ought to be discussed more publicly. I don't mean this solely in terms of comparing the Iraq War to the Vietnam War and the multiplying scandals of the Bush administration with Watergate. I mean this in terms of examining ourselves. I just mentioned that Nixon seems less of a disaster - a "long, national nightmare," as Ford put the events - than the current administration. But wasn't there much more of an outcry in the early 1970s compared to today? Are we the public inured to presidential and partisan scandal, high crimes, and disastrous policy?

Think about this. The Vietnam War (or, as the Vietnamese say [and, likely, Iraqis], "the American War") has had lingering effects. Although debatable, it is widely perceived as the only American military loss. The American right has always had a difficult time examining Vietnam as a case study in hubris and fallibility. They've told themselves the story of an American citizenry that doesn't know what's good for the country, while they do. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War was based in ignorance, they think, just as is the Iraq War's unpopularity. The lesson they've learned from Vietnam, then, is not one about hubris. It is about how to quell discontent within a weak population when it comes to a war that they will carry out by nearly any means necessary. Loss is unacceptable, even if the planet goes down with their ship. The irony, of course, is that the loss becomes all the greater.

It was LBJ who carried out the policy of a "surge" in Vietnam. But wasn't the situation quite different? LBJ had no previous "Vietnam" with which to compare his own strained foreign policy. Bush does, of course. LBJ suffered not only politically, but personally, for a decision he eventually knew was the wrong one. Bush only knows suffering when others don't like him.

The lesson drawn by the current administration, however, is the wrong one. It says that the Vietnam War was lost because it didn't go far enough. Nixon, for all his faults, understood when the Vietnam War was lost. He attempted to save face for the US, and not for himself, at least in regard to the war.

Bush doesn't know what to do. He is about to make an LBJ decision. The difference is that he has the benefit of historical precedence in the Vietnam War itself. Some wars are simply lost. Vietnam was one; Iraq is another. What Bush doesn't have is a sense of what is good for the US and for the world, only himself. He reactively moves from one event to another with no logic except self-preservation and no plan. The "surge" itself may well be a response to coming Sunni unrest after the execution of Saddam Hussein.

Republican historians will say that Bush took the great risk of surging in Iraq. They will portray the act as a tragically flawed and unpopular but well-intentioned move to win a war. They will portray Bush as another LBJ - wracking his brains, examining his soul, falling into depression in the face of a huge and tragic moment in American history. That's already a false portrait, though. It's false because Bush has Vietnam, but has drawn the wrong lessons.

When we look back today at LBJ, Nixon, and Ford, we ought to be able to see that what we will now accept from our political leaders is wildly askew.


Well, there is the little matter of 200,000 deaths in East Timor.


troutsky said...

So you have accepted that the "surge" is going to go forward.I think the decision to support or not support will be a defining moment for Democrats and maybe for the population as a whole.It is the kind of stark up or down vote our country has been able to avoid till now.We had that living room discussion with friends last night and they couldn't support surging, staying or leaving.

I may have a more sympathetic view of Bush as a man unshakable in his faith, and that faith extends to the ability of American power and will to prevail with Gods help. Much more of a believer in the rhetoric of manifest Destiny than Johnson, Nixon or Ford.

MT said...

Certainly something will happen that's going to be called a "surge," but so what? Might it not turn out to be a face-saving token that accompanies a repositioning from which troops can safely withdraw more or less completely, and which does not lend itself to escalation politically or militarily? That's my hope, which I nurture by not paying close attention.

Graeme said...

Alexander Cockburn called Ford the greatest president of all time. I do think he isn't near as bad as the last few republicans but that isn't exactly setting the bar real high

Anonymous said...

With the "end of our long national nightmare" echoing across the networks, I keep praying that our current long national nightmare will end, but I don't see that end anywhere yet.

The comparisons of Ford with our current Bush are implicit and obvious throughout. Comparisons with Nixon would take more work.

Another comparison I think I'm recalling, although I have to admit I didn't pay enough attention to the military aspects of the Vietnam war, is that of the currently proposed "surge" to the bombing of Cambodia.

Didn't Nixon do that to change the subject/win the war by expanding it? It was a secret at first, so it wasn't entirely a Rovian strategy.

Is there someone out there who knows this part of history better than I do?


Anonymous said...

Counting the Viet Nam war (or police action in the parlance of the time)as a loss depends primarily of the victory conditions set forth by the Johnson administration with respect to the establishment of a hoepfullt democratic, but mostly non-communist friendly power in the South.

This victory condition was limited to the South only because strategically pursuing anything larger would alomost certainly have meant a nuclear confrontation with either The PRC or the USSR.

Justified fear of the so-called "wider war" was precisely the factor that made the "low-intensity" conflict so difficult to deal with. Much like Iraq today supplies and fighters arrive from areas outside the recognized battlespace feeding small arms and explosives to the insurgency against Iraqi and Coalition forces.

An attempt to limit this influx of weapons and fighters today might cause incursions into Syria and Iran, (and at the very unlikely far end, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [to be understood as a potential modern day Cambodia]).

The U.S. fail to acheive this victory condition primarily because of a reasonable and justified resistance to the draft that existed at that time, as well as our inability to muster the interest and resources necessary to reinforce RVN forces in 1975 when an unbelieveable number of NVA tank Divisions moved south across the DMZ.

Ironically this was precisely the the kind of attack our NATO geared forces of the time were designed to exterminate.

That was truly the point where Viet Nam became unwinnable because there was no political way after having spendt 50,000 American lives chasing folks in the jungles, that we could muster the will to assault defended beaches and then march to Hanoi only to face the PRC yet again as we did in Korea.

Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were both decent honorable men unsuited to the world that was left to them by the compromises of Wilson, the machinations of FDR, heavy hand of Truman and the mild touch of Eisenhower.

Both Ford and Carter's domestic policies were disasters in time where we were just beginning to understand the price we would be paying for the internal combustion engine and that watse product of kerosene production the hydrocarbon-rich gasoline distillates.

Today we should have no excuses. Setting aside the climate change issue, the political ramifications of our dependence on oil (the most energy-dense source of energy we have for transportation)and the hidden and not so hidden costs of maintaining our current energy sources ought to have been enough to move us on to hydrogen, methanol or whatever the flavor of the day would have been when we decided to act.

Instead we ride shotgun with a bunch of thugs who we tolerate cuz they give us a cut of the oil at market prices.

Enter our current Commander-in-Chief, who amazingly knocks one thug off the bench and dumps a minimal amount of money toward the hydrogen alternative and bam HE'S the devil-incarnate and the "WORST PRESIDENT ever".

This "Surge" is only useful if it happened to be the embedding of U.S. advisors to even more Iraqi units. Most closely akin the late arrived at "Viet Namization" of the war in South-East Asia. Our current efforts will require us to eventually withdraw "over-the-horizon" anyway, so I'm quite happy with insurgents calling it a victory when we wander off to do more important things.

The key to victory in Iraq is to not let their neighbors who finance and staff most of the terror continue on to occupy with heavy weapons any part of Iraq.

MT said...

I thought "end of our long national nightmare" was Lenin's line. Maybe Ford meant it ironically? The White House spinmeisters nixed his first idea--"Let's just pretend nothing happened!"

Anonymous said...

MT until they dug that ditch in the Mall and called it a memorial, "Let's pretend it never happened" was the unofficial policy only to be remembered when someone else had the gall to suggest we "bear any burden for the survival and success of liberty."