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The Unrealist

Dr. Kissinger's therapy.

For all its mind-blowing details of administration ineptitude, Bob Woodward's third installment in his Bush at War trilogy hardly tells you much that you didn't already know. Of course George W. Bush lacks intellectual curiosity. Of course Donald Rumsfeld is a villain for the ages. But there's one particular revelation in the book that stands out for its plain weirdness: Henry Kissinger's presence in the Oval Office. According to Woodward, Bush treats Kissinger "almost like a member of the family," free to visit as he pleases.

It's strange to see him welcomed like a wise old uncle, because an entire generation of conservatives consider Kissinger an incarnation of Beelzebub. And that's a sentiment you would imagine the current administration feels even more deeply. "Kissingerian realism," 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, Woodward tells us, Bush and Kissinger have made common cause. On his surreptitious visits, Kissinger preaches the president a spine-stiffening gospel, imploring him to stay the course in Iraq. "Don't give an inch," Kissinger is said to have advised, "or else the media, the Congress, and the American culture of avoiding hardship will walk you back."

Woodward isn't a noted skeptic and he certainly doesn't apply any skepticism to the descriptions of Kissinger's visits--even though they come courtesy of noted truth-teller Dick Cheney. Kissinger, however, is one of history's greatest Machiavellians, a master manipulator of presidents, the press, and the people. His statements, even about the weather, require parsing for double and triple meanings--and particularly when they suggest strategy for failed wars.

To begin unraveling the true meaning of Kissinger's advice to the White House, we have to go back to August 3, 1972. On that date, President Nixon repeated to the good doctor, his national security adviser, what he'd been saying in private since 1966: America's war aim (standing up a pro-American and anti-Communist South Vietnamese government in Saigon) was a fantasy. "South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway," the president sighed. But a presidential election was coming up. He had long before promised he was removing the U.S. presence, more-or-less victoriously (though "victory" was a word Nixon, by then, wisely avoided; instead, he called it "peace with honor").

It was Kissinger, who had been shuttling back and forth to Paris for peace negotiations with the enemy, who named the dilemma: "We've got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which--after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January '74, no one will give a damn." Thus was confirmed what historians would come to call the "decent interval" strategy. Having pledged to Saigon--and American conservatives--that Communist troops would not be allowed in South Vietnam after a peace deal was signed, Kissinger negotiated the opposite. "Peace is at hand," he announced on the eve of the 1972 presidential election, in one of his rare appearances before the TV cameras. The United States left the following spring; the Communists moved in; Saigon fell.

That's not how Nixon and Kissinger told the story, of course. They blamed the defeat on a combination of the liberal congressmen who refused to vote for continued aid to South Vietnam in 1974 and Saigon's own unfortunate lack of will. And, just as Kissinger had privately predicted, no one gave a damn. You might not associate Kissinger with withdrawal, because that's not how he has retold events. "While history never repeats itself directly," he wrote in his book, Ending the Vietnam War, "there is at least one lesson to be learned from the tragedy described in these pages: that America must never again permit its promise to be overwhelmed by its divisions."

If Kissinger wasn't truly a stay-the-course man in Vietnam but just sold himself to posterity as one, is it possible that the sorcerer is teaching his new apprentice the same trick--how to end a war with a retreat and blame it on anyone but himself? That's not very hard to imagine. A growing body of data suggests that the Bush administration is edging ever closer to withdrawal. We have heard strong hints that the president will make one last desperate stand--pacifying militia-filled Baghdad, convening an international conference, dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions--before finally departing. James Baker's Iraq Study Group will likely be recommending some variation of this to the White House 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 year or two--after which, Mr. President, Iraq will be a backwater." Maybe that is just what Henry Kissinger is advising: Something like a tripartite Iraq could be Bush's "decent interval" strategy, removing his own responsibility for the ultimate collapse in the eyes of posterity, parceling out the onus for failure between the Iraqis themselves and the American liberals who tied his hands. You can almost hear the president sighing in return, with a newfound, world-weary sense of realism: "Might as well. Iraq probably can never even survive anyway."

Henry Kissinger is a conniver. His defining trait is not anything so honorable as an intellectual doctrine. It is his ability to command the empyrean heights of power through sinuous flattery, to seduce the ascendant powers at any given moment into attaching themselves to him, from John F. Kennedy to Nelson Rockefeller--and now George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. That is the soul of Kissingerian realism. It has even included an interval in the 1980s, when, plus royalist que le roi, he courted the neoconservative maximalists by excoriating the same brand of arms control deal with the Soviets that he himself had initiated.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Bush, the ur-"freedom agenda" sentimentalist, ended up (in words Woodward attributes to Cheney) "a big fan" of Kissinger. And, in the passages Woodward attributes to Kissinger in State of Denial, you can see how he insinuated himself: with a masterful understanding of Bush's psychology. The passages that leap out are the ones that serve to salve an imperiled sense of presidential masculinity in the face of failure: "For Kissinger, the overriding lesson of Vietnam is to stick it out"; "Even entertaining the idea of withdrawing any troops could create momentum for an exit that was less than victory"; "Kissinger claimed that the United States had essentially won 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. What Kissinger truly has to offer Bush, I fear, is not strategy but therapy. Or, as it were, therapy as strategy. He teaches Bush how to see himself in the future, as an old man: as a future prophet without honor. It doesn't feel so bad, Bush can tell himself: Kissinger, after all, has an open door to the White House.

Rick Perlstein's book Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972, will be published next year.

By Rick Perlstein