By: Greg Mitchell
When I wrote a column in this space on Thursday refreshing my long held view that America?s experience in Iraq will one day be viewed, in many respects, as ?another Vietnam,? I had no idea that a conference of big-name former policymakers was to be held this weekend that would dwell on this very notion. I was more interested in directing readers to another official, Lt. Gen. William Odom, and his current article at Nieman Watchdog (you can find the link to that column to the right on this page).
But now I see that The Washington Post has a full report Sunday on that conference in Boston, which was called ?Vietnam and the Presidency, ” and featured historians, a former secretary of state named Henry Kissinger, and a former president, Jimmy Carter, among others. Alexander Haig was there, too, though with no pretense that he was ?in charge.?
It was like old times. A group of 25 protestors outside called for the jailing of Kissinger as a war criminal. Inside, the onetime Nixon aide refused to apologize for any mistakes.
According to Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold, much of the discussion inevitably came around to Iraq. When it didn?t do so directly, you could read between the lines or make your own links.
Courtesy of the Post, here are some relevant quotes.
Jack Valenti, former special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson: “You cannot win against an insurgency that springs from the population. There’s never been an insurgency that doesn’t prevail against a mighty power.”
Kissinger: “How much reform can you do simultaneously with fighting a war?”
Haig on Iraq today: “It appears to me we haven’t learned very much.?
Valenti: “No president can win a war when public support for that war begins to decline and evaporate.”
A tape of former Pentagon chief Robert McNamara from 1965: “The current battle is going very well. The problem is that it’s not producing the conditions that will almost certainly win for us.”
President Johnson, on tape from 1966: “I know we oughtn’t to be there [in Vietnam], but I can’t get out.”
A question from the audience: ?You policymakers ripped the heart and soul out of . . . American families.”
Valenti again: “The sorry odor of the same aromas that we found in Vietnam” can be detected in Iraq today.
President Carter: “I think [Vietnam] sent a cautionary signal . . . that we should be more cautious in military adventurism. These lessons that were learned I think have been forgotten or ignored in the present Iraq war.”
Kissinger on Iraq: “There is not an adequate sense of nationhood.”
Valenti: “I’m not smart enough to figure out how to get out of Iraq, any more than I was smart enough to figure out how to get out of Vietnam.”
Kissinger: “I know the problem better than the answer.”
At the close of the conference, the historian David Kaiser, who made a presentation there, offered this review of one added aspect, on his blog, History Unfolding:
“The final panel included four veterans: retired general and once and perhaps future Presidential candidate Wesley Clark, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert (who served in Korea, not Vietnam, during that era), and Pete Peterson, who spent six and a half years as an Air Force POW in Hanoi and later became our first Ambassador to a united Vietnam. They made an extraordinary impression upon the packed house and drew repeated rounds of applause.
“All of them, in various ways, directly addressed what Brian Williams called ‘the elephant in the room,’ the war in Iraq, and confirmed that we were, indeed, making many of the same mistakes. Clark revealed that within ten days after September 11, 2001, friends of his within the Pentagon had told him that the Administration was determined to go to war in Iraq. Hagel said that he voted for the war only under the assumption that it would be the last resort.
“Peterson, in perhaps the most moving of the conference, angrily attacked the Administration?s disregard of the Geneva Convention, which he believed might well have saved his and his fellow prisoners? lives.”
Kaiser concluded: “On the whole, I believe that anyone who watched the conference on C-Span will come away with a better feeling about the United States and what we are still capable of; but they will still wonder, to paraphrase a poem I have already quoted here, whether the best have enough conviction to overcome the passionate intensity of the worst.”