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The importance of questioning Bush – and his motives

ASK THIS | January 09, 2007

Is it so far-fetched to wonder if the president’s goal isn’t just to delay defeat until after he leaves office? A historian sees a precedent in Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s pursuit of a "decent-interval" exit strategy from Vietnam so they could blame the fall of Saigon on others.

By Jeffrey Kimball

As the new year begins, there are in my mind at least four elephants in the newsroom: the deadlocked war in Iraq; the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran; the skewed U.S. economy and burgeoning budget deficit; and climate change. Only one is receiving adequate attention: the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the issue of whether President Bush will escalate U.S. troop strength and operations. Even so, and despite selected leaks of Bush's forthcoming announcement of a "new strategy," it remains to be seen whether the press will permit Bush to dominate the discourse on Iraq and redefine the issues, which has happened in the interval between the 2006 election, the Iraq Study Group report, and the present.

Will the press give equal time to alternative congressional exit strategies? Of course, this assumes the Congress will ask hard questions of the administration, take concrete steps to influence his decisions, and put forward its own alternatives, which appears likely. Will the press also demand that Bush and press secretary Tony Snow explain what achievable goals the administration has in mind through a "surge" of troops? Will they ask how long the surge will last?

Their response will likely be that their change in strategy consists in having U.S. forces deploy counterinsurgency tactics in order to "clear" Sunni insurgents from Baghdad and Anbar Province. Iraq government forces will then "hold" these places while simultaneously pacifying the Shia militias. Is this really a change in strategy or a change in tactics in pursuit of a stay-the-course strategy? Will the press challenge this approach? If this will be the strategy, is it feasible? Will it thrust U.S. troops and marines between vying factions in a civil war? Will the press draw on critics' assessments of its unlikely success? Will reporters press the administration on the question of political and diplomatic solutions for the Iraq crisis and related Mideast crises, or will they leave those questions to Congress? Thus far, reporters and pundits—now reinforced by Democratic electoral victories— have indicated that they will remain skeptical of administration approaches and continue to ask tough questions.

Nonetheless, when Bush makes his announcement, it will be accompanied by much fanfare, rhetorical dissimulation, and political spin from friendly TV and radio pundits to the effect that anything less than support of this "new way forward" will undermine "support for the troops" and prevent "success" in Iraq, thereby triggering a loss of American credibility and a slew of falling dominos in the Mideast. Will the press have the courage and fortitude to penetrate the fog and search for the truth?

Uncertain, too, is whether the press will try to discover whether Bush's real purpose in "surging" American troops into Iraq is politically personal—as opposed to the strategic purpose of achieving lasting military "success" in Iraq. Bush's new strategy, assuming he will propose a surge, may have the goal of bringing about sufficient apparent success in Iraq as to extend the war into January 2009, allowing him to depart office without having to bite the bullet, admit defeat, and withdraw U.S. forces from this cauldron of sectarian civil war and nationalist resistance to the American occupation. Short of this outcome, it may force Congress to put obstacles in Bush's escalatory path, thus allowing the president to blame Congress for the defeat.

To some in the press, this theory of Bush's purpose may sound "conspiratorial" and thus unworthy of serious investigation. Yet, we know that foreign policy conspiracies have occurred in history. We now know from recently declassified top secret documents and tapes, for example, that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger pursued a "decent-interval" exit strategy from Vietnam. They intended this scenario to disguise their willingness to pursue policies that contributed to the possibility of Saigon’s collapse after a negotiated compromise settlement. The period of time between America’s withdrawal from Indochina and the Saigon government’s possible defeat would be sufficiently long that if and when the fall came the American public might not notice or care. Nixon and Kissinger would not appear to have been accomplices in the fall. Indeed, they could claim to have striven mightily to avert it through Vietnamization and expanded bombing. They could claim they had negotiated a "victory" under difficult circumstances and then blame the postponed fall on Saigon itself, Congress, the antiwar movement, the American public, the press, historical fate, or all of the above. All this happened, and to a large extent Nixon and Kissinger succeeded in convincing enough people that others, including Congress, had undermined Saigon's survival. On topf of that, they had prolonged the war by postponing the negotiated settlement until after the 1972 election so that if anything untoward had happened, such as Saigon's fall, it would not have prevented Nixon's reelection.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney may very well be pursuing a slightly different -- but still recognizable -- version of the Nixon-Kissinger decent-interval approach.

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