The War Last Time

By Thomas Powers, the author, most recently, of “Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al Qaeda” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 30/11/06):

THE chaotic war in Iraq is the great piece of unfinished business that will soon face Robert M. Gates, President Bush’s choice to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. He will assume the difficult charge of halting the collapse of American strategy at a moment when the president’s freedom to maneuver has been curtailed by the election of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and by the free-for-all sectarian killing in Iraq.

Mr. Gates arrives at the Pentagon with no background in running the immense American military establishment, no broad political constituency, and no experience fighting or managing a big ground war. What he does bring is a survivor’s knowledge of how to push forward a controversial policy — President Ronald Reagan’s campaign against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s — and a history of close association with President Bush’s father. It was President George H. W. Bush who appointed Mr. Gates to his biggest job — running the Central Intelligence Agency.

Simple realism — totting up the Congressional votes the president can count on to back or oppose him — suggests that a turning point has been reached in Iraq. Getting in is over, and getting out is about to begin. I am reminded of a similar moment 41 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson was facing the bleak but imminent prospect of his South Vietnamese allies’ collapse in Saigon. The year was 1965, and Johnson had just been overwhelmingly re-elected president over Senator Barry Goldwater on the oft-repeated campaign pledge not to send American boys thousands of miles away to fight a war that Asian boys ought to fight.

Johnson’s advisers put it to him straight: Saigon was going to lose, Hanoi was going to win, and there wasn’t much time to waste. The choice was clear: lose the war or expand the war, find a formula of words to mask failure or send more troops and increase the bet on the table. Johnson chose to expand the war.

Raising the bet was already a pattern. Just two years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had faced a similarly stark choice. The government of Ngo Dinh Diem, installed and sustained by the United States, was locked in a destructive battle with Buddhists in its own country, and though it was fighting the war erratically and ineffectively, it seemed impervious to American counsel. Even worse, from Washington’s point of view, the Diem government had entered into secret conversations with the Communists. Some American officials thought a deal was in the works.

At the end of a long period of crisis, Kennedy’s government backed a coup by Vietnamese generals who were being advised by a French-born C.I.A. operative named Lucien Conein. The Diem government was quickly removed and replaced, but in the process Diem and his brother were brutally murdered. The war went better for a while, and then didn’t, in a pattern that repeated itself many times.

About 20 years ago, a friend and I were picking up a takeout dinner from a Vietnamese restaurant in Washington run by Tran Van Don, one of the generals who organized the 1963 coup. Tran pointed out a portly, white-haired man at a table overlooking the room, dining alone: it was his old friend, Lucien Conein. In a sense, they were both exiles. I often think about the conversations they must have had. The war that followed their coup killed 57,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese.

It was during this period, in 1968, that Robert Gates joined the C.I.A., specializing in Soviet strategic arms programs. In the early 1980s, the central intelligence chief, William Casey, picked him to be the C.I.A.’s deputy director, which won him a front row seat while the agency put a contra army into the field to bring down the Sandinista government of Nicaragua — a goal Casey and President Reagan never publicly admitted.

The contras were expensive and ineffective. The public turned against the war, and eventually Congress passed the Boland Amendment, blocking all further expenditure on the clandestine war. Then began what would be known as the Iran-contra scandal, and then ended Mr. Gates’s knowledge of what his chief was up to. So Mr. Gates testified, and the Iran-contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, never managed to prove otherwise, despite years of tireless effort.

Mr. Gates kept out of trouble and earned the trust of two presidents, who both nominated him to run the C.I.A. The first time opposition was so bitter that Mr. Gates withdrew his name; the second time, he was confirmed only after drawn-out hearings in which agency professionals accused Mr. Gates of shaping intelligence to please his bosses. Three volumes of hearing records prove only that Mr. Gates knew how to answer the question that he was asked and could get the people who worked for him to do likewise.

Today the choice facing Washington is not quite as stark as the one that confronted Lyndon Johnson in 1965, but it is close. Mr. Gates has spent the last nine months working as a member of the Iraq Study Group, whose much awaited recommendations will be revealed next Wednesday. Getting out is the simplest remedy, but no one wants to shoulder the blame for what follows. Staying the course has already been rejected by the president. That leaves only some kind of altered or renewed effort to postpone the day of reckoning.

Defeating the insurgents is only half of the challenge; harder will be finding some way to restrain or disband the Shiite militias without bringing them into the war against us. Down that road would lie a spiraling conflict as protracted and unwinnable as the war in Vietnam. The Republicans may have lost the midterm elections, but to my ear, on the subject of Iraq, the president has never sounded ready to accept anything that might be called defeat. Iraq is not Vietnam, but we are the same. We find ourselves, at a parallel moment, militarily committed to a policy on the verge of conspicuous failure. The American people, now as then, are unsettled by the phrase “cut and run” and reluctant to put their judgment ahead of the president’s.

Above all, American presidents are the same. Bad news from Baghdad and opposition at home may point to a lowering of expectations, at the very least, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Presidents take failure personally, can lift their voices above the din of opponents, and can use the immense power of their office to force events in the directions they choose.

The verdict of the elections was clear. The public wants to let Iraqis handle their own troubles from here on out, while we start bringing our soldiers home. But that’s not what President Bush has said he wants, so there will very likely be a series of fights over Iraq that will extend to the president’s last day in office. Robert Gates is smart, quiet, dogged and loyal: a well-considered choice for defense secretary by a president determined to bring home that “coonskin on the wall,” to borrow a phrase made memorable by an earlier president in a similar fix, Lyndon Johnson.