Last Copter Out of Baghdad

Bush Flees Iraq Mess On The Campaign Express

George Bush is selling out Iraq. Gone are his hard-liners' dreams of setting up a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic republic, a light unto the Middle Eastern nations. The decision makers in the administration now realize these goals are unreachable. So they've set a new goal: to end the occupation by July 1, whether that occupation has accomplished anything valuable and lasting or not. Just declare victory and go home. The tyranny of Saddam Hussein will be over. But a new tyranny will likely take its place: the tyranny of civil war, as rival factions rush into the void. Such is the mess this president seems willing to leave behind in order to save his campaign.

"The Bush game plan is to have pictures of some U.S. troops leaving and the Iraqis opening their own government, the U.S. having presided over the birth of this new embryonic democracy," observes former Clinton White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal. The problem is, there will be no Iraqi democracy. There might not even be a viable Iraqi government. Instead, Baghdad will become Beirut: Iraq's three major religious and ethnic groups, the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds, will consolidate their respective positions in the center, south, and north of the country, recruit their militias, and get down to fighting for control of the power vacuum that is the post-war "peace."

Once again, as so often in these last few months, an analogy is Vietnam. And, as so often in the last three years, the analogous president is Nixon.

illustration: Ward Sutton

In 1975, President Gerald Ford, setting out to bind up the wounds of a nation divided by Vietnam, read these words drafted by a speechwriter for an address to Congress:

"And after years of effort, we negotiated a settlement which made it possible for us to remove our military forces with honor." Then he crossed out "with honor." There was nothing honorable about the way his predecessor had ended the Vietnam War, Gerald Ford knew. Instead, Richard Nixon had negotiated a settlement that made two things a near certainty. The first was his own landslide re-election. The second was the imminent collapse, through civil war, of the very Saigon government we were supposedly at war to save.

Why were we in Vietnam? To hold off the Communists in their march to take over the world, they said. But that became less tenable as it grew evident that the two great Communist powers were more interested in fighting each other than conquering anyone else. To save an ally, South Vietnam, from invasion by a Communist enemy, North Vietnam, they said—but that explanation wore thin as it grew evident that the South Vietnamese were not working particularly hard to save themselves.

The war was already very unpopular, its prospects none too promising, when Nixon became president in 1969. It had only gotten worse by 1971, when Nixon began thinking hard about re-election. As with Bush recently, his approval rating in the middle of that year was around 50 percent; without at least appearing to quell the bloodshed, he couldn't get re-elected. But failure—a North Vietnamese takeover—could only be held off by continuing to kill. And failure would render Nixon the first American president to lose a war.

The solution he hit upon was to change the definition of "failure," to move the goal line.

The word victory was banned from all White House discussion, in favor of the bland substitute "peace with honor"—repeated more and more mellifluously, with each passing month systematically emptied of actual meaning. By late 1971, the phrase signified nothing more than an absence of U.S. troops on the ground and the freeing of American prisoners of war. "Following the President's lead," Nixon's shrewdest historian, Jonathan Schell, has written, "people began to speak as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped four hundred Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them."

Secretly, and behind the back of the South Vietnamese government, Nixon's emissary, Henry Kissinger, negotiated a face-saving exit with the enemy, one that let the enemy keep troops in South Vietnam—guaranteeing South Vietnamese collapse. Publicly we proclaimed the fiction that our allies were strong enough to get along without us. Actually, Nixon and Kissinger knew they could only hold on long enough for the American people to forget about them. On October 26, 1972, Henry Kissinger announced that negotiations had succeeded, that "peace is at hand." On November 7, Richard Nixon won his 49 states against the Democrat, George McGovern. A weary nation had proved perfectly willing to acquiesce in a political swindle. Nixon had moved the goalpost to the 50-yard line, then awarded himself a touchdown.

Things move quicker in Iraq—"Vietnam on crack," as one columnist has described it. With breathtaking speed, the liberators have been tarred as home-invading thugs.

In one mid-December briefing, the Coalition Provisional Authority boasted that 24 hours of raids on 1,620 suspected rebel hideouts yielded 107 arrests—a success rate, 7 percent, of the sort that once turned South Vietnamese peasants into Vietcong insurgents.

The insurgent war of attrition against American soldiers has gotten very desperate, very fast, the latest sign being a number of downed helicopters; eyewitnesses say Thursday's crash south of Fallujah, killing nine, was the result of a missile strike—as was the crash in November that killed 16. A mortar strike on a base Wednesday killed one and wounded 30. The American death toll in Iraq approaches 500; the number of medical evacuations, as of mid December, is 10,854, most not reflected on the Pentagon's website.

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