Arthur Schlesinger Advises the President
My Conversation with the President.
The President of the United States is calling, said the operator. Right away I heard a Texas accent reverberating in the receiver.
Hey, Artie, how are you? It was definitely President Bush. I have never met him, but his liking for nicknames is well known. No one has called me Artie in 48 years. Look, I’m having a discussion here on the war in Iraq, confessed the President, and I’d like your opinion on what to do next.
I’d look for a good opportunity to declare victory, stop the mayhem and leave, Mr. President, I answered.
But my advisors tell me that to pull out would be a disaster, replied Mr. Bush, a real calamity. If we pull out now and leave the Iraqis in this mess, what foreign government would ever trust the word of the United States in the future? It would destroy our credibility. Our priority is to stay on course.
You’ll have to put up with the bad press, I told him. The last time the United States obviously threw in the towel was thirty years ago in Vietnam. The stakes were claimed to be high. According to President Eisenhower’s Domino Theory, the fall of South Vietnam would lead to communist control of all of Southeast Asia.
Our defeat and our humiliation, Richard Nixon would say later, would lead to boldness on the part of the great powers, which haven’t renounced their objectives of world domination.
However, I continued, we did end the mayhem and pulled out of Vietnam. The spectacle of our Vietnamese friends hanging onto helicopter skids even more glaringly emphasized the US defeat and humiliation. But the credibility crisis never happened. For most foreigners, the US returned to its senses after a long period of aberration.
The act of packing it in extirpated us from a war that we could not win and one in which our vital interests were not at stake. The departure liberated our armed forces. They were freed up to play their role of containment and dissuasion in other parts of the globe. In the end, our withdrawal from Vietnam raised our credibility, just at De Gaulle’s evacuation of Algeria raised French credibility.
The aftermath proved the Domino Theory wrong, the very notion that had led us into the Vietnam War, just as the Iraqi situation has shown the allegations of weapons of mass destruction to be false--the pretext which had led us into the war.
I’d like you to think about this, Mr. President. The pullout from Vietnam was an historical precedent.
Moreover, I added, we had genuine obligations towards our Vietnamese friends. Obligations which do not exist in Iraq. We intervened in a civil war in Vietnam to prop up one of the camps. That meant that by pulling out, we abandoned our comrades-in-arms. We committed an act of moral betrayal for which our allies paid a heavy price. We were forced to make a difficult choice: pursue a hopeless war or sacrifice our friends. Geopolitics is an harsh mistress. But, in spite of the ruin which we left behind in Vietnam —far more than the death and destruction we’re leaving in Iraq- Americans are still well-liked in communist Vietnam.
The future of Iraq is uncertain. A pullout may lead to anarchy, with all sides exercising their options, or it could lead to Islamic domination. But it may also serve as a catalyst for cooperation among Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds who may then end the insurrection and govern Iraq. The shock of a US pullout may stimulate the development of a sense of responsibly among the Iraqis.
As long as I am President, shot back George W. Bush, we’ll stay. We will fight and we will win the War on Terror.
But Mr. President, I said, as long as the US military occupation lasts, it will continue to encourage the recruitment of terrorists from all over the Middle East. As Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam Veteran and a senator in your own party said, "The longer we stay the more problems we’ll have."
That is the fatal contradiction in your policy of staying the course. There is another tremendous flaw, too: If we want the Iraqi Army to be sufficiently able to contain the insurrection, it will need heavy weaponry from the United States. Given the uncertainty of the future of Iraq, no one can say if or when these arms would be used against the occupying army itself.
But we owe them something, insisted the President, referring to the GIs killed in the war in Iraq, and we are going to finish the job for which they sacrificed their lives. But as Stephen Schlesinger, Director of the World Policy Institute, observed: Using this logic, we would still be in Vietnam, because we owe it to the 50,000 Americans who died there. In Iraq today, the question is to find out where our national interest truly lie.
Mr. President, I said, our true interests lie in ending this senseless war.
And then I woke up.