Kissinger's revisionist history lesson

Former Sec. of State Henry Kissinger says we can learn a lot about Iraq by looking at Vietnam -- as long as we agree that the Vietnam War was an American success story.

By Aaron Kinney
August 13, 2005 2:16AM (UTC)
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Salon editorial fellow Aaron Kinney weighs the benefits of a history lesson from Henry Kissinger.

Henry Kissinger, the granddaddy of quagmire extraction, weighed in on the Iraq war in today's Washington Post, in an instructive column titled "Lessons for an Exit Strategy." But while Nixon's secretary of state raises a number of strategic concerns you won't hear about on television news broadcasts, he also finds room to offer some self-serving interpretations of the Vietnam War. And it reminds us why he remains such a polarizing figure in this country.


Using his own experience as an architect of the American withdrawal from Vietnam, Kissinger writes that, since a partial drawdown of 30,000 troops by next spring will depend on whether there is "progress" and "improvement" in the conditions and security there, it would be useful to define those terms.

"In a war without front lines, does a lull indicate success or a strategic decision by the adversary?" Kissinger asks. "Is a decline in enemy attacks due to attrition or to a deliberate enemy strategy of conserving forces to encourage American withdrawal?"

Kissinger calls the decision to withdraw a significant number of troops during an ongoing campaign a "potentially fateful event." He warns that such a decision "affects the calculations of insurgents and government forces alike, so that the definition of progress becomes nearly as much a psychological as a military judgment." Kissinger also cautions that, once a withdrawal begins, "it runs the risk of operating by momentum rather than by strategic analysis, and that process is increasingly difficult to reverse."


But don't go thinking that any such pitfalls befell the U.S. in Vietnam. Kissinger spins the end of the Vietnam War as an American success, and twice he refers to the Tet Offensive of 1968 as a failure for the North Vietnamese. His take on Tet strikes us as revisionist, since conventional wisdom holds that, though the invasion was a loss for the North Vietnamese on a purely military level, its success as propaganda, by turning the American public against the war, ultimately led to the United States' withdrawal. Kissinger ought to understand that a war is not won with troops alone, because that's precisely what he's writing about in this article.

Further on in his lesson, Kissinger cites a Vietnam-era principle that hawks may soon be using to talk about Iraq: "Military success is difficult to sustain unless buttressed by domestic support." True enough, but that won't be any excuse for failure in the current campaign. Indeed, one of the many lessons from Vietnam that the Bush administration ignored is that domestic support has to be factored into the prospective costs of war. A president is less likely to maintain public support for a military campaign if he deceives Congress and the American public about the reasons for waging it. If the cause isn't noble and the war is unnecessary, the public's tolerance for violence and bloodshed will swiftly dissipate.

One other Kissinger assertion stands out. "The war in Iraq," he writes, "is less about geopolitics than about the clash of ideologies, cultures and religious beliefs." This disavowal of geopolitical concerns is odd coming from the maestro of realpolitik. Maybe Kissinger's just acknowledging that, these days, politicians talk more about defending freedom than about the domino theory when they're trying to sell a war. But it's difficult to imagine that strategic interests weren't involved in the decision to hop into and then out of Afghanistan, where al-Qaida was and still is, before hustling over to Iraq, where al-Qaida wasn't but now is. That decision seems less about culture clash and more about geography; Iraq is centrally located within the Middle East, while Afghanistan is on the periphery. And a reading of "Rebuilding America's Defenses," the 2000 tract from the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, makes clear that its authors believed it was of the utmost importance to establish forward-based forces in the strategically vital region of the Middle East. In case anyone has forgotten, among the 25 people who signed the Project for a New American Century's Statement of Principles in 1997, four became key players in the Bush administration: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby. And we can be sure that, outside of determining to censor and coopt the media, none of this bunch learned anything from Vietnam.

Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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