Friday, April 13, 2012

Gordon Goldstein: Lessons in Disaster

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In the early 90s, up until his death in 1996 McGeorge Bundy, often called one of the "architects" of the Vietnam War and Gordon Goldstein were engaged in writing a memoir of Bundy's times in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as well as the lessons he learned. When Bundy died in 1996, Goldstein carried on with the project, though it morphed into something different. What it morphed into, without ever mentioning George Bush or Iraq, is a series of six lessons Bundy learned and reads as a play by play of mistakes made by Bush/Cheney. I could go through Bundy's role in the war in detail, but bottom line is that he was an adviser who had a lot of power in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations when the Vietnam war really became the mess that it became. The reason I kept reading the rather dull book is because it really was a book that proves the cliche "history repeats itself" or whatever it is that teachers tell you in grammar school about why you have to study history to avoid past mistakes. Cheney/Bush (as I heard Seymour Hersh describe them today) didn't believe in this adage, or maybe failed grammar school, and should have read "Lessons in Disaster," because now Goldstein needs to write "Lessons in Disaster, Volume II."

To start with, Bundy got his Very Important Job in the Kennedy administration because of who he was. The introduction, titled "Legend of the Establishment" basically draws a picture of McGeorge Bundy that could be the introduction to a book about Bush with the difference that Bundy was actually quite intelligent. Bundy was a man from a powerful, influential family with an impeccable pedigree. The catch was that he had zero education or experience in foreign policy or Vietnam or military, or really anything that qualified him for the position he was given by President-Elect Kennedy: "special assistant for the president or national security affairs." Nor, once ensconced in the administration, did he seem particularly interested in learning. When tasked with making very important decisions about the direction of the Vietnam war, he was often told that none of his ideas were going to work, for example by high-level military experts who did experimental war games, he went ahead anyway. Like George Bush and his war based on fake yellow cakes, Bundy had a history of academic achievement but an extreme lack of intellectual curiosity or open-mindedness. Clearly, there are comparisons to draw here: impeccable, incurious men in important positions have huge parts in vast, unwinnable wars. The differences are there, though: Bundy appears to have been a man of integrity and brains, and not many will accuse Bush of these things. Further, Bush made the decisions, and Goldstein emphasizes that Bundy belived that "Counselors Advise but Presidents Decide." One of Bundy's most important themes (passed to us through Goldstein) is that the Americanization of the (Vietnam) war could only have happened under the Johnson presidency. Bundy could stress his point to any president, but ultimately, it was Kennedy or Johnson (or Bush) who would make the decisions. Under Kennedy, Bundy advocated the same thing that he advocated under Johnson: Americanization of the war. The steps were only taken under Johnson. In this schema, Bundy was only as much of an architect as far as his superiors used his plans. Bush, on the other hand, could take or leave the plans that were handed to him. Until Goldstein writes the book, it's not clear whether he was a president in the Kennedy (hear the advice and go your own way) or a Johnson (take the piss poor advice) kind of guy. What is clear is that Goldstein and Bundy got the lessons right.

We've already covered "Counselors Advise but Presidents Decide." Number 2, "Never Trust the Bureaucracy to Get it Right," stems from Bundy and co.'s bungled attempt at regime change in Vietnam that ended up making things much worse for the American cause. Clearly, this is a lesson that America has not and may not ever heed. Goldstein/Bundy's third lesson is "Politics is the Enemy of Strategy." Johnson, the men believe, made decisions in the year before he was elected and post-election about ignoring and Americanizing the war that Kennedy would not have made with the knowledge that he was elected and carried a strong mandate. If this isn't a truism that belongs on every president's wall, I'm not sure what does belong there. Clearly not "in God we trust," which seems to be what's painted in the White House now. Lesson four, "Conviction without Rigor is a Strategy for Disaster," while written about Vietnam hardly needs explaining as it relates to Iraq (#2) or Afghanistan. With no will to fight the war, no consistent agreement on how it would be fight, and the resources not appropriately allocated, the war had no "oomph" behind it. Disastrous. One of the most interesting parts of "Lessons in Disaster" comes with lesson 5: "Never Deploy Military Means in Pursuit of Indeterminate Ends." Although I've often suspected this, perhaps cynically, the people behind Vietnam had no real goal in Vietnam. They didn't have one, they didn't have a means to get there, and most of them, including Bundy, didn't really see this as a problem. I now feel less cynical in saying that I don't believe Bush/Cheney have a real goal in Iraq. "Regime change," maybe, area stabilization, maybe, oil, probably, but after reading this book, I'm willing to bet that it's not articulated anywhere or with a clear strategy of how to get there. Finally, just to drive the point home that Bush coulda/woulda/shoulda looked back to history, the final Lesson is "Intervention is a Presidential Choice, Not an Inevitability." There was no Vietnam War until Bundy, cohorts, and most especially Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson ensured that it happened. There was no Iraq war until Cheney/Bush. Intervention is a presidential choice. History repeats itself, unnecessarily.