's book Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk,1965-1972, will be published next year.
For all its mind-blowing details of administration ineptitude, BobWoodward's third installment in his Bush at War trilogy hardly tellsyou much that you didn't already know. Of course George W. Bushlacks intellectual curiosity. Of course Donald Rumsfeld is avillain for the ages. But there's one particular revelation in thebook that stands out for its plain weirdness: Henry Kissinger'spresence in the Oval Office. According to Woodward, Bush treatsKissinger "almost like a member of the family," free to visit as hepleases.
It's strange to see him welcomed like a wise old uncle, because anentire generation of conservatives consider Kissinger anincarnation of Beelzebub. And that's a sentiment you would imaginethe current administration feels even more deeply. "Kissingerianrealism," after all, is the exact opposite of President Bush's"freedom agenda." It eschews gauzy sentimentalities like "freedom"in favor of global equilibrium and stability. But now, Woodwardtells us, Bush and Kissinger have made common cause. On hissurreptitious visits, Kissinger preaches the president aspine-stiffening gospel, imploring him to stay the course in Iraq."Don't give an inch," Kissinger is said to have advised, "or elsethe media, the Congress, and the American culture of avoidinghardship will walk you back."
Woodward isn't a noted skeptic and he certainly doesn't apply anyskepticism to the descriptions of Kissinger's visits--even thoughthey come courtesy of noted truth-teller Dick Cheney. Kissinger,however, is one of history's greatest Machiavellians, a mastermanipulator of presidents, the press, and the people. Hisstatements, even about the weather, require parsing for double andtriple meanings--and particularly when they suggest strategy forfailed wars.
To begin unraveling the true meaning of Kissinger's advice to theWhite House, we have to go back to August 3, 1972. On that date,President Nixon repeated to the good doctor, his national securityadviser, what he'd been saying in private since 1966: America's waraim (standing up a pro-American and anti-Communist South Vietnamesegovernment in Saigon) was a fantasy. "South Vietnam probably cannever even survive anyway," the president sighed. But apresidential election was coming up. He had long before promised hewas removing the U.S. presence, more-or-less victoriously (though"victory" was a word Nixon, by then, wisely avoided; instead, hecalled it "peace with honor").
It was Kissinger, who had been shuttling back and forth to Paris forpeace negotiations with the enemy, who named the dilemma: "We'vegot to find some formula that holds the thing together a year ortwo, after which--after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be abackwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January '74, noone will give a damn." Thus was confirmed what historians wouldcome to call the "decent interval" strategy. Having pledged toSaigon-- and American conservatives--that Communist troops wouldnot be allowed in South Vietnam after a peace deal was signed,Kissinger negotiated the opposite. "Peace is at hand," he announcedon the eve of the 1972 presidential election, in one of his rareappearances before the TV cameras. The United States left thefollowing spring; the Communists moved in; Saigon fell.
That's not how Nixon and Kissinger told the story, of course. Theyblamed the defeat on a combination of the liberal congressmen whorefused to vote for continued aid to South Vietnam in 1974 andSaigon's own unfortunate lack of will. And, just as Kissinger hadprivately predicted, no one gave a damn. You might not associateKissinger with withdrawal, because that's not how he has retoldevents. "While history never repeats itself directly," he wrote inhis book, Ending the Vietnam War, "there is at least one lesson tobe learned from the tragedy described in these pages: that Americamust never again permit its promise to be overwhelmed by itsdivisions."
If Kissinger wasn't truly a stay-the-course man in Vietnam but justsold himself to posterity as one, is it possible that the sorcereris teaching his new apprentice the same trick--how to end a warwith a retreat and blame it on anyone but himself? That's not veryhard to imagine. A growing body of data suggests that the Bushadministration is edging ever closer to withdrawal. We have heardstrong hints that the president will make one last desperatestand-- pacifying militia-filled Baghdad, convening aninternational conference, dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomousregions--before finally departing. James Baker's Iraq Study Groupwill likely be recommending some variation of this to the WhiteHouse after the November elections.
You can almost hear the famous thick German accent: "Mr. President,you have to find some formula that holds the thing together a yearor two--after which, Mr. President, Iraq will be a backwater."Maybe that is just what Henry Kissinger is advising: Something likea tripartite Iraq could be Bush's "decent interval" strategy,removing his own responsibility for the ultimate collapse in theeyes of posterity, parceling out the onus for failure between theIraqis themselves and the American liberals who tied his hands. Youcan almost hear the president sighing in return, with a newfound,world-weary sense of realism: "Might as well. Iraq probably cannever even survive anyway."
Henry Kissinger is a conniver. His defining trait is not anything sohonorable as an intellectual doctrine. It is his ability to commandthe empyrean heights of power through sinuous flattery, to seducethe ascendant powers at any given moment into attaching themselvesto him, from John F. Kennedy to Nelson Rockefeller--and now GeorgeW. Bush and Dick Cheney. That is the soul of Kissingerian realism.It has even included an interval in the 1980s, when, plus royalistque le roi, he courted the neoconservative maximalists byexcoriating the same brand of arms control deal with the Sovietsthat he himself had initiated.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Bush, the ur-"freedomagenda" sentimentalist, ended up (in words Woodward attributes toCheney) "a big fan" of Kissinger. And, in the passages Woodwardattributes to Kissinger in State of Denial, you can see how heinsinuated himself: with a masterful understanding of Bush'spsychology. The passages that leap out are the ones that serve tosalve an imperiled sense of presidential masculinity in the face offailure: "For Kissinger, the overriding lesson of Vietnam is tostick it out"; "Even entertaining the idea of withdrawing anytroops could create momentum for an exit that was less thanvictory"; "Kissinger claimed that the United States had essentiallywon the war in 1972, only to lose it because of weakened resolve"--the weakened resolve of others.
At least, that's what the book reports Kissinger told Bush. WhatKissinger truly has to offer Bush, I fear, is not strategy buttherapy. Or, as it were, therapy as strategy. He teaches Bush howto see himself in the future, as an old man: as a future prophetwithout honor. It doesn't feel so bad, Bush can tell himself:Kissinger, after all, has an open door to the White House.
By rick perlstein