Monday, September 18, 2006

Iraq ,Vietnam, McNamara, Powell, McCain, Warner, Graham

In a previous post, I drew a historical comparison between Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld. While the prediction in that post has yet to be realized (Runsfeld quitting or being fired) I do think the historical comparison is apt. At the time I wondered if I was making the right comparison and whether Colin Powell might, in the judgement of history, carry the label of being to Iraq what McNamara was to Vietnam.

In 1995, Robert McNamara (widely referred to as "the architect of the Vietnam War") writing in his memoir "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam", revealed that as early as 1967 (with 25,000 American dead) he no longer believed that America could win the war in Vietnam, and as a direct consequence of expressing that view, resigned (or was fired) from the LBJ administration. This McNamara quote is excerpted from Harold P. Ford's analysis "Thoughts Engendered by Robert McNamara's In Retrospect":
"We were wrong, terribly wrong... Enemy morale has not broken . . . . It appears that [the enemy] can more than replace his losses by infiltration from North Vietnam and recruitment in South Vietnam. . . . Pacification has if anything gone backward. As compared with two, or four, years ago, enemy full-time regional forces and part-time guerrilla forces are larger; attacks, terrorism and sabotage have increased in scope and intensity. . . . In essence, we find ourselves--from the point of view of the important war (for the [hearts and minds] of the people)--no better, and if anything worse off. This important war must be fought and won by the Vietnamese themselves. We have known this from the beginning . . ." Robert McNamara -"In Retrospect" (pp. 262-263).
Neither McNamara nor LBJ chose to share that insight with the American public. Ultimately it took 50,000 American lives for a majority of Americans to learn that their government could not be trusted on the reasons for, nor the "light at the end of the tunnel" progress in, Vietnam. It is reasonable to posit, that if McNamara had recognized in 1968 that his loyalty was owed first to the American people, and second to the LBJ administration, had communicated what he knew then to the American people, we might have seen a better end, a quicker end, and fewer deaths and casualties in Vietnam.

Full disclosure: I supported President Bush in the decision to invade and change the regime in Iraq. My support was based on two factors. One, I believe that in matters of security of the United States, the commander-in-chief automatically gets the benefit of the doubt from the American people until shown not to deserve it. In 2003, the commander-in-chief said there was an imminent threat from Iraq that required immediate military action. That is his job. That is his first responsibility. If there is a threat to the U.S., he is obligated to respond, and we are obligated to support him. The second factor, was when Colin Powell, a man I respected, backed the administration's argument in a speech to the United Nations. That combination, at that time, was good enough for me.

Subsequently, the stated reason given by the administration for the invasion has changed and the rationale that was the basis for the action proved to be false. Colin Powell has since recanted on much of the evidence he offered to the United Nations, and subsequently resigned or was fired by the administration. In addition to the obligation to protect the United States, the Commander-in-Chief has an obligation to be right about the reasons given to the American people to go to war. The commander-in-chief also has an obligation to prosecute a military objective with clarity and competence. Failing these obligations, the administration should not expect, and should not receive the support of the American people.

This administration has given Americans like myself ample reason to be skeptical of their ability to garner accurate intelligence, to interpret the intelligence, to develop and promote a correct course of action based on that intelligence, or even their ability to execute a war policy or plan to secure a specific military objective. As a direct result, Americans have correctly withdrawn their support, but with the unfortunate consequence that this administration has been rendered impotent in the face of threats like those presented by Iran or North Korea.

Colin Powell enabled the administration to garner the support needed to put us on this course. I suspect that Colin Powell, out of misplaced loyalty, like McNamara on Vietnam, failed to be forthright and honest with the American people about Iraq. Should Colin Powell, in future memoirs, like McNamara, proclaim that he knew that the Iraq occupation was a wrong policy, he will, like McNamara, have blood on his hands for every day that passes between the time that he recognized the mistake, and the day he finally comes clean with the American people. It took McNamara 27 years. How long will it take Powell?

Where am I going with this? In regard to Colin Powell, I am going here:

This is a facsimile of a message sent from Colin Powell to John McCain in support of the congressional opposition to President Bush's call for "clarification" of how we will apply the Geneva Convention to enemy combatants. This is a clear statement of unequivocal support by Powell for John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham, who are leading the charge in Congress to return traditional American values to the debate on how we, as Americans choose to treat enemy combatants. This debate, has prompted paranoid suspicion from the left ("I’m suspicious over the outrage by Republicans because they usually twist and shout for a while and then rubber stamp Bush.") and incoherent, irrational, immoral screeds from the right ("We first need to worry about winning the war. Then we can start worrying about the morality of the whole thing"). These leaders, military men all, Republicans all, Vietnam veterans, but first and foremost, patriotic Americans, have put their loyalty to country ahead of their loyalty to party or to this administration on this issue. This is an important step to reassert the constitutional war-making and oversight role of Congress. If the administration had correctly come to Congress to legislate the power he was seeking in the first place, there would be no need to rush this legislation through now. It deserves careful deliberation and will now get it.

"GOP Infighting on Detainees Intensifies" by Peter Baker - Washington Post
"Bush is pressing for legislation endorsing his leadership against terrorism, including warrantless surveillance of overseas telephone calls, military commissions to try enemy combatants and expansive rules permitting tough interrogations. The most explosive debate centers on how the Geneva Conventions should apply to U.S. intelligence officers, who captured, held and questioned terrorism suspects in secret overseas CIA prisons for years until the last 14 detainees were transferred recently into military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Supreme Court ruled in June that U.S. detainees fall under the Geneva Conventions, which require that wartime captives be "treated humanely" and ban "outrages upon personal dignity."
Ariana Huffington's post "On Fear, Yellow Cars, Colin Powell, and Redemption" reflect my thinking about Powell on this issue:
"I've found Colin Powell's sudden display of fearlessness particularly significant... Powell framed the debate in the most profound way possible, as a moral question not a legal one... It was a bold move for Powell, a potentially redemptive line drawn in the sand for a public figure whose reputation has fallen on hard times in the wake of the Iraq debacle...Whether it was motivated by a desire to be a team player, a loyal staffer, a good soldier, or a fear of not pleasing his boss, Powell's stomach-turning role in selling the war to the world led to those 80 minutes he spent in front of the UN Security Council throwing his considerable reputation behind the administration's ginned-up case for invasion. Definitely not his finest hour. They turned him from a can't-miss presidential contender into a man who has, like the country he has so loyally served, seemingly ceded the moral high ground. His unequivocal rebuke of his commander-in-chief is a powerful step toward retaking that hill. Let's hope that fearlessness is as contagious as fear."
"Step" is the operative word. With his note, Powell has taken a step on the path to redemption but only a step. Powell has yet to face the American people and fully explain what happened in '03, what he did and what he did not do, to help or hinder a bad decision to go to war. It is my fervent hope, that it will not take Colin Powell 27 years, as it did McNamara, to finally reveal, too late, a failure to fulfill his obligation to trust the American people with the truth.

But a step in the right direction, is a still a step in the right direction. One other needed step to ensure that Congress fulfills its obligation to provide checks, balance and oversight of the executive branch, is to elect a divided congress in November.

UPDATE - September 19, 2006:
Reading Eugene Robinson's column "Torture is Torture" at the Washington Post one wonders how it is that we got to this state, where our leaders, in our name, debate whether and how we will torture prisoners:
"It is not possible for our elected representatives to hold any sort of honorable "debate" over torture. Bush says he is waging a "struggle for civilization," but civilized nations do not debate slavery or genocide, and they don't debate torture, either. This spectacle insults and dishonors every American. There is one ray of encouragement: the crystal-clear evidence that the men and women of our armed forces want no part of torturing anybody. The members of the Republican resistance -- Sens. John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- have impeccable Pentagon connections and are not operating in a vacuum.... Colin Powell's strongly worded rejection of torture should have embarrassed and chastened the White House, but this is a president who refuses to listen to critics of his "war on terrorism" -- even critics who helped design and lead it."
UPDATE - October 19, 2006: June 11, 2007
I noticed that the London Guardian Unlimited NewsBlog linked to this post, prompting a hasty housecleaning to correct a few typos and spelling errors. Welcome to any visitors from across the pond.

Two updates of potential interest since this was posted. On September 25, I expanded on the theme of this post, wrote and posted an Open Letter to Colin Powell. It was prompted by a rereading of his memoir "My American Journey" and the striking parallels between his words about Vietnam and our current quagmire in Iraq. I did not really expect a a reply, and I have not been disappointed. I have also subsequently read this 09-October-06 LA Times review by Tim Rutten of a new Colin Powell biography Soldier:The Life of Colin Powell. Mr. Rutten sadly validates my fears regarding how history will treat Colin Powell and his role in the Iraq adventure:
"At the end of the day, these two exemplary soldiers, Powell and Lee, shared the same tragic flaw — an inability to recognize the moment in which personal loyalty becomes civic folly."

Divided and Balanced.™ Now that is fair.

Just Vote Divided.

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