August 20, 2005
Richard Nixon once gave me a lesson in the politics of war.
Howell Raines, then the Washington bureau chief for The Times, took some reporters to meet Mr. Nixon right before the 1992 New Hampshire primary. The deposed president had requested that Howell bring along only reporters who were too young to have covered Watergate, so we tried to express an excess of Juvenalia spirit.
Before the first vote of '92 was cast, Mr. Nixon laid out, state by state, how Bill Clinton, who was not even a sure bet for the Democratic nomination at that point, was going to defeat George Bush.
If, Mr. Nixon said, Bill could keep a lid on Hillary (who had worked on the House Judiciary Committee looking into the Nixon impeachment), he'd have it made.
"If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp," he said.
In his jaundiced view, the first President Bush had squandered his best re-election card: if the Persian Gulf war had still been going on, Mr. Bush could have been benefiting from that.
"We had a lot of success with that in 1972," Mr. Nixon told us, with that famously uneasy baring of teeth that passed for a smile.
Was he actually admitting what all the paranoid liberals had been yelping about 20 years earlier - that he had prolonged the Vietnam War so he could get re-elected?
Bush Senior made some Republicans worry that he left Iraq too soon. Bush Junior is making some Republicans worry that he is staying in Iraq too long.
"Any effort to explain Iraq as 'We are on track and making progress' is nonsense," Newt Gingrich toldAdam Nagourney and David D. Kirkpatrick for a Times article on G.O.P. jitters about the shadow of Iraq over the midterm elections. "The left has a constant drumbeat that this is Vietnam and a bottomless pit. The daily and weekly casualties leave people feeling that things aren't going well."
W. says he can't set a deadline to bring the troops home. But he started the war on an artificial deadline; he declared a "Mission Accomplished" end to major hostilities on an artificial deadline; he was inflexible on deadlines for handing over Iraqi sovereignty and holding elections. And he tried to force the Iraqis to produce a constitution on his deadline when the squabbling politicians of the ethnic and religious factions hadn't even reached consensus on little things like "Do we want one country?"
It isn't only the left that is invoking Vietnam. You know you're in trouble when Henry Kissinger gives you advice on how to exit a war.
The man who won a Nobel Peace Prize for making a botched exit and humiliating defeat look like a brilliant act of diplomacy wrotean op-ed article in The Washington Post drawing the analogy the White House dreads: Iraq as Vietnam, including an unfavorable comparison: "After the failure of Hanoi's Tet offensive, the guerrilla threat was substantially eliminated. Saigon and all other urban centers were far safer than major cities in Iraq are today."
He said Mr. Bush had only a few things to accomplish: train a real Iraqi Army that includes all religious and ethnic groups, make the Shiites stop hating the Sunnis and the Kurds stop hating everyone, and keep the Iranians from creating a theocratic dictatorship in Iraq. Oh, yeah, and a couple of other teensy little things: our troops have to defeat the vicious Iraq insurgency, and Mr. Bush needs to keep domestic support for the war.
Domestic support is waning because the president remains too stubbornly ensconced in his fantasy world - it's worse than Barbie in her dream house - to reassure Americans that he has a plan to get out.
As we approach the 2,000 mark of coffins coming home that we're not allowed to see, it doesn't even look like a war. It looks like a lot of kids being blown to smithereens by an invisible enemy.
The mother of one of the 16 Ohio marines killed in a recent roadside explosion in western Iraq addressed the president from in front of her Cleveland home. "We feel you either have to fight this war right or get out," Rosemary Palmer said.
Tricky Dick suggested that he had a secret plan to get out of Vietnam. Bikey W. doesn't even have a secret plan, unless it's to recreate forever, and never again have to speed past those pesky antiwar protesters in a motorcade.