Monday, November 27, 2006

Groping toward an exit, Vietnam style

You know that President Bush’s “freedom agenda” for Iraq must be in deep trouble when someone like Trent Lott is toying with the notion of withdrawing our troops. Trent Lott, the conservative Republican from Mississippi. Trent Lott, the number two guy in the ’07 Senate minority.

In other words, even mainstream Republicans are now getting fed up with Bush’s war, to the point where they are willing to fantasize openly about some kind of face-saving exit strategy. (No doubt their patience has been further taxed by the news yesterday that Iraq's "last throes" insurgency is actually well financed and self sustaining.) Indeed, Lott's impatience was almost palpable yesterday on Fox News. He was lamenting that we are “stuck” with an Iraqi leader, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who can’t seem to get the sectarian killers under control. Then he said:

“I think we're going to have to be very aggressive and specific with him. And if he doesn't show real leadership, doesn't try to bring the situation under control; if, in fact, he becomes a part of the problem, we're going to have to make some tough decisions. Do we go in there, try to do it for them? Or do we make it clear to them, ‘Look, we've done what we needed to do, we got rid of Saddam Hussein, we've tried to help you with the infrastructure, we've tried to train your police, your military, we tried to set guideposts of what must be done. And if you don't want to, you know, deal with that, then we're going to be done with it.’ At some point, they're going to have to decide if they want to live in democracy and peace or freedom or not. And right now it's in doubt.”

Then we’re going to be done with it....When I heard that, I realized that the center of gravity in the GOP had shifted. If Lott is willing to talk that way in public, it’s proof that the rank and file is no longer willing to stay the course with open-ended patience; rather, it’s a signal to Bush that their patience is fast running out, and that they are increasingly open to a pullout scenario, albeit something that can salvage the nation’s honor.

It’s starting to feel like the early ‘70s all over again, back when the Nixon administration – mindful that political support for the Vietnam war was waning within GOP ranks - was working hard to train the South Vietnamese army (“Vietnamization”), even while seeking to craft some kind of honorable extrication strategy for the American troops.

Over the past several years, a few Republican senators have been openly critical of the Bush war team’s well-documented ineptitude; indeed, one of those rarities, Vietnam vet Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, wrote yesterday that "we have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam.” But Lott, as the ’07 Senate minority whip, arguably echoes the increasingly restive mood within the GOP caucus.

And there’s little doubt that the war’s dwindling band of defenders are well aware of that mood; witness these remarks, uttered on Fox News eight days ago, by neoconservative commentator William Kristol: “I think Bush has two or three months (to recoup)…. If by (early 2007), things aren't getting better on the ground, or there's not a really plausible change of tactics here at home, I am very worried that political support will crumble; not among Democrats, but among Republicans.”

If GOP support does crumble, a strange-bedfellows consensus might even develop. In 2007, most Democrats and most Republicans might generally come to agree that the best solution is to effectuate some kind of honorable, incremental exit, coupled with accelerated training of the Iraqi forces. (Such a development might not please the Bush people, but they are not in control of events anymore, not in Iraq nor here at home.)

There are plenty of military experts who concur. Retired Gen. Wayne Downing, a Vietnam vet, Desert Storm commander, and a terrorism expert who worked for several presidents, yesterday offered a scenario on NBC that broadly echoed Trent Lott:

“I think we’re reaching a point right now where the Iraqis are going to have to produce, or America is going to start a wholesale withdrawal from Iraq. I hope we’re patient because I think the (training) program we have in place now…basically has it right….Maliki must, however, make the right kind of political decisions. If that happens, we’re going to be able to withdraw in a very systematic and probably a very, very smart manner. If (Maliki errs), then we’ve got to figure a way to cut our losses and do this thing smart.”

Fareed Zakaria, the foreign policy analyst at Newsweek, is writing in a similar vein – and he invokes Vietnam to buttress his point: “America's predicament in Iraq is becoming increasingly similar to the one it faced in Southeast Asia more than 30 years ago. Henry Kissinger's negotiations to end the Vietnam War have been criticized from both the left and right. One side thought he moved too slowly to get us out, the other that he gave up too much. But looking at our circumstances in Iraq should give us some appreciation for the difficulty of his task. With a losing hand and deteriorating conditions on the ground (in Vietnam), Kissinger maneuvered to extricate the United States from a situation in which it could not achieve its objectives, while at the same time limiting the damage, shoring up regional allies and maintaining some measure of American credibility. A version of such a strategy is the only one that has any chance of success in Iraq today.”

And speaking of Vietnam parallels…This weekend, I was reading an old book by David Halberstam, the former Vietnam correspondent, and I stumbled across a noteworthy passage on page 659. Writing in 1979, Halberstam described what happened to the older journalists, many of them military veterans, who came to Vietnam feeling upbeat and gung-ho about the American mission.

“The first stage: very upbeat, Americans can save these people and they really want to be saved and will be grateful for it. Second stage (usually about three months later): we can do it but it’s harder than I thought and right now it’s being screwed up. Third stage (perhaps six to nine months later): you Vietnamese (always the Vietnamese, never the Americans) are really screwing it up. Fourth stage (12 to 15 months later): we are losing and it’s much worse than I thought. Fifth stage: it isn’t working at all, we shouldn’t be here, and we’re doing more harm than good.”

As metaphor, does any of this sound familiar?