On the lessons of Vietnam: I wonder who’s Kissinger now. Obama? Cruz? Clinton? Kerry?

Photo by Jay Janner

Good day Austin:

I finally see what Jill St. John saw in Henry Kissinger.

It’s the timbre of his voice that sets your heart aflutter and fells you emotionally – Timber!

 

jwj Vietnam Summit 3577

Of course, I’m familiar with Kissinger’s slow, accented, deeply lower-register delivery, but seeing him  – hearing it – up close and personal last night at the Vietnam War Summit  at the LBJ Library was the difference between watching Jurassic World on TV and experiencing it in an Imax theater.

Also, I think The Voice is deeper and more gravelly and guttural than ever, perhaps because, as last night, at 93 come May 27, Kissinger’s chin now rests on his chest as he speaks

Listening, I realized how much of his credibility depends on the quality of his voice, the measured delivery and the muddiness of his accent, which lends a slight veil of mystery to exactly what he said, a useful tool for a diplomat.

It left me wondering, if you were to dub in Mike Tyson’s high-pitched lisping voice would anybody have paid attention to him?

The first day of the Vietnam War summit confirms the sense that the United States was doomed in Vietnam because its leaders – and the American people – were simply not willing to do – practically or morally – what it would take to destroy the enemy, and that bombing the enemy to the bargaining table was doomed because the enemy was willing to bear any cost – no matter how high – to prevail, which meant reuniting Vietnam as a single, unified, Communist country, and that they had no interest in negotiating any kind of compromise.

That said, it was all a matter of once you got in and realized you were doomed, how do you get out.

Here is what Kissinger said (or what I thought he said. on a couple of occasions his low German accent left a particular word not precisely intelligible.).

Speaking of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford, Kissinger said:

All of the presidents were haunted in their way. Each of them was dedicated to finding a peaceful solution. Each of them had the dilemma of how you relate American honor to the ending of the war. There was nobody who wanted war. Nobody who wanted to escalate the war. They all wanted peace but  the question is what conditions they would (accept) without turning over the millions who had relied on the word of previous presidents who had committed themselves.

Kissinger said the American people, isolated as they are from the rest of the world, “have a tendency to think peace is the normal condition among people or countries and when there is a war or there is instability, it is sort of an accident which you can remedy by one set of actions, after which you can  go back to a situation of civility.”

“We’ve been involved in five wars since World War II,” Kissinger said. “We’ve entered each of these wars with wide public consensus. But, after some period of time, we needed an extrication strategy. The best extrication strategy is to get out, but you can also call that defeat.

“If you cannot describe objectives that you can sustain you should exit, he said.

“You have to distinguish  those things you will do only f you have allies and those you must do because your national security requires it.”

“We have to learn … not to get into  conflicts unless you can describe an end that you are wiling to sustain and unless you willing in the extreme to sustain it alone, or,  to know when you have to end it.”

“Those are lessons from Vietnam.”

Very good.

And:

We also have to learn to moderate our domestic debate because, in the course of the Vietnam War what started as reasonable debate about  whether we were engaged in a process that we could master, turned into an attack on the moral quality of America’s leaders and when one teaches one’s people that …  for 20 years, that they are run by criminals and fools, then you  can get a political debate that becomes more and more violent and we suffer from it in some of our current political debate.

Among those who questioned the moral authority of America’s leaders during Vietnam was John Kerry, who served in Vietnam and then challenged he war as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Kerry, now secretary of state, will speak the LBJ Library’s Vietnam War Summit tonight.

Kissinger noted the symbolic irony “that Secretary Kerry is coming here tomorrow night. He was walking around with a placard outside the White House when I served there. We’ve become good friends in the interval and he came to my 90th birthday and made a toast.”

It was too bad, Kissinger said, that he and Kerry “didn’t have an opportunity to talk” back when they were on opposite side of the White House fence during Vietnam.

It will be interesting to hear what Kerry has to say tonight about the lessons of Vietnam because, it appears that in the Obama administration, it is Obama, far more than either Kerry or his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who seems to be informed by Vietnam in his reluctance to intervene abroad if he does not believe it represents an existential threat to the United States, and if he does not think the American people have the will to see it through.

This became clear in Jeffrey Goldberg’s revealing interview(s) with Obama in the Atlantic.

Over the past year, John Kerry has visited the White House regularly to ask Obama to violate Syria’s sovereignty. On several occasions, Kerry has asked Obama to launch missiles at specific regime targets, under cover of night, to “send a message” to the regime. The goal, Kerry has said, is not to overthrow Assad but to encourage him, and Iran and Russia, to negotiate peace. When the Assad alliance has had the upper hand on the battlefield, as it has these past several months, it has shown no inclination to take seriously Kerry’s entreaties to negotiate in good faith. A few cruise missiles, Kerry has argued, might concentrate the attention of Assad and his backers. “Kerry’s looking like a chump with the Russians, because he has no leverage,” a senior administration official told me.

The U.S. wouldn’t have to claim credit for the attacks, Kerry has told Obama—but Assad would surely know the missiles’ return address.

Obama has steadfastly resisted Kerry’s requests, and seems to have grown impatient with his lobbying. Recently, when Kerry handed Obama a written outline of new steps to bring more pressure to bear on Assad, Obama said, “Oh, another proposal?” Administration officials have told me that Vice President Biden, too, has become frustrated with Kerry’s demands for action. He has said privately to the secretary of state, “John, remember Vietnam? Remember how that started?” At a National Security Council meeting held at the Pentagon in December, Obama announced that no one except the secretary of defense should bring him proposals for military action. Pentagon officials understood Obama’s announcement to be a brushback pitch directed at Kerry.

 J. Scott Applewhite

J. Scott Applewhite

Ditto Obama on Clinton and Libya.

But what sealed Obama’s fatalistic view was the failure of his administration’s intervention in Libya, in 2011. That intervention was meant to prevent the country’s then-dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering the people of Benghazi, as he was threatening to do. Obama did not want to join the fight; he was counseled by Joe Biden and his first-term secretary of defense Robert Gates, among others, to steer clear. But a strong faction within the national-security team—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, who was then the ambassador to the United Nations, along with Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and Antony Blinken, who was then Biden’s national-security adviser—lobbied hard to protect Benghazi, and prevailed. (Biden, who is acerbic about Clinton’s foreign-policy judgment, has said privately, “Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.”) American bombs fell, the people of Benghazi were spared from what may or may not have been a massacre, and Qaddafi was captured and executed.

But Obama says today of the intervention, “It didn’t work.” The U.S., he believes, planned the Libya operation carefully—and yet the country is still a disaster.

The cover of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine was a piece by Mark Landler on How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders sought to exploit Clinton’s affinity for Kissinger at a Democratic debate back in February.

From Gary J. Bass at Politico:

ll the dastardly deeds for which Henry Kissinger can be blamed, here’s an especially odd one: he made Hillary Clinton lose a foreign policy debate with Bernie Sanders. Last night at the Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee, in a moment to baffle the youthful voters who helped give Sanders his crushing victory over Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, Sanders (age 74) blasted his opponent (age 68) for being too cozy with Kissinger (age 92).

Kissinger usually gets a free pass in Washington, where celebrity has a way of overshadowing historical analysis, but it’s still jarring to see Hillary Clinton embracing him. After all, in her youth, she protested against the Vietnam war and served as a staffer on the House Judiciary Committee considering impeaching President Richard Nixon for Watergate. But in more recent days, she lauded Kissinger’s historic outreach to China in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, and wrote a fawning Washington Post review of his latest book in September 2014, calling him a personal friend and adviser while praising the book as “vintage Kissinger, with his singular combination of breadth and acuity.”

Despite Kissinger’s efforts to cultivate Clinton and other grandees, his reputation has been undermined by the realities revealed on the White House tapes. In 1969, he recommended a risky nuclear alert in 1969 to spook the Soviet Union. In September 1971, he privately told Nixon, “If we had done Cambodia in ’66, and Laos in ’67, the war would be history.” And in 1971, in one of the darkest American chapters of the Cold War, he and Nixon supported a brutal military dictatorship in Pakistan while it unleashed a devastating crackdown on what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. Both the CIA and the State Department conservatively estimated that about two hundred thousand people perished, while ten million desperate Bengali refugees fled into India. Kissinger joked about the massacre of Bengali Hindus, and privately scorned those Americans who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.”

In the Milwaukee debate, Sanders announced that he had a “very profound difference” with Clinton. “In her book and in this last debate, she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger,” he said with disbelief. “Now I find it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.” He slammed Kissinger for bombing Cambodia, which “created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some three million innocent people, one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.”

photo by Alex Brandon

photo by Alex Brandon

Sanders’ attack was doubly effective, giving him a rare chance to put his rival—a confident former secretary of state who is noticeably more adept on world politics—on the defensive on foreign policy, while also tarring Clinton as a profane creature of Washington. He got to showcase himself as someone who hadn’t been slowly corrupted by establishment cronyism. And the voters who are likeliest to care about this 1970s flashback aren’t Sanders’ young enthusiasts, but baby boomers who should be in Clinton’s camp.

Sanders had a point about Cambodia, although the history isn’t as straightforward as he suggested. While Kissinger deserves some credit for his efforts to end the Vietnam war, he also escalated the conflict and promoted sideshow wars in Laos and Cambodia. When massive bombing failed to wipe out communist sanctuaries inside Cambodia, Kissinger, while considering the arguments of dovish White House staffers, came to support a U.S. ground invasion, which was launched in May 1970. In December of that year, when Nixon complained that the U.S. Air Force was merely “bombing jungles” in Cambodia, Kissinger passed along the order: “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”

According to a leading Cambodia historian, Ben Kiernan at Yale University, the civilian death toll from these bombing campaigns drove many Cambodians to rally to the radical Khmer Rouge, which went from being a relatively minor guerrilla force to conquering Phnom Penh in April 1975. That November, a few months after the Khmer Rouge began their bloody reign, Kissinger asked Thailand’s foreign minister about a top Khmer Rouge leader: “How many people did he kill? Tens of thousands?” Then Kissinger added, “You should also tell the Cambodians [the Khmer Rouge] that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way.”

Hillary Clinton’s response in the Milwaukee debate was flat-footed. Surely there must be issues where she disagrees with Kissinger. But rather than offering any criticism of him, or mentioning her own opposition to the Vietnam war, she ducked by saying that “whatever the complaints you want to make about him are,” Kissinger is worth talking to because of his “his ongoing relationships with the leaders of China”—a formulation which, while correctly noting Kissinger’s formidable guanxi in Beijing, sounds like cronyism taken to a global level.

Sanders was on much shakier ground when he slammed Kissinger as a proponent of the domino theory in Vietnam, which he, in a particularly Seinfeldian moment, explained in yadda-yadda terms: “You know, if Vietnam goes, China, da-da-da-da-da-da-da.” (He seemed aware that many of his young supporters would not know what the domino theory was: “Not everybody remembers that, you do, I do.”) But China, then in the throes of Mao Zedong’s radical Cultural Revolution, had been communist since 1949, so could hardly be a falling domino; the domino theory was propagated by plenty of Democrats in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations; and Kissinger’s main linkage of China with Vietnam was to hope that an American opening to China would help to end the Vietnam war. More broadly, there’s still ample opportunity for Clinton operatives to beat up Sanders for a New Left critique of American foreign interventionism and globalization.

Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library and Kissinger’s interlocutor  last night, asked the war criminal question.

There are many who allege that you are a war criminal due to the systematic carpet bombing of Laos and Cambodia. Why was that bombing necessary?

Kissinger said it was necessary and successful and reduced causalities.

But, before he got to that he said, “I think the word `war criminal’ should not be thrown around in the domestic debate. It is a shameful reflection on the people who use it.”

And, he said, “First there was no carpet bombing. That is absolute nonsense, it’s not true.”

In other words, if you don’t want to be accused of war crimes, “carpet bombing” – suggesting indiscriminate bombing with significant civilian casualties – is best avoided.

But that apparently is not a lesson Ted Cruz has learned.

For many months he has said, “If I am elected president, we will utterly destroy ISIS. We won’t weaken them. We won’t degrade them. We will utterly destroy them. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion”

He has described a desire to “make the sand glow.”

Cinton has said that kind of “tough talk,” suggests that Cruz is “in over his head.”

On ABC This Week, Jonathan Karl had this exchange with Charles Koch, who one would presume Cruz might have wanted or even thought would be in his corner.

JONATHAN KARL: And when you hear another top presidential candidate talking about making the sand glow and carpet bombing in the Middle East…

CHARLES KOCH: Well, that’s gotta be hyperbole, but I mean that a candidate, whether they believe it or not, would think that appeals to the American people. This is frightening.

Cruz, meanwhile, was the victim of some political carpet bombing in yesterday’s five Northeast and Middle Atlantic primaries.

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Not good for Cruz

But Cruz seemed bright and bushy this morning in Indiana.

“I recognize Donald Trump did well at home,”  Cruz said, with “home” in this case referring to a huge stretch of the Northeast.

But, as he insisted Tuesday night, the campaign now “moves back to more favorable terrain.”

Meaning Indiana, which votes Tuesday.

To that end, Cruz promised a big announcement at 4 p.m. today, 3 p.m. our time.

Speculation focused on his announcing a running mate. Carly Fiorina is the name that has been mentioned. That would be good for Fiorina but I don’s see how it does much for Ted in making him more appealing or in proving his electability or governing capacity.

Nikki Haley, yes. Carly Fiorina, no.

Or maybe he’s got the endorsement of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence – or better yet is naming Pence his running mate – which would outmatch Trump’s endorsement Wednesday by Bobby Knight.

In any case, Cruz constructed Trump’s success as a media plot to guarantee a general election between “two rich liberal New Yorkers” in Trump and Clinton, who he said are indistinguishable on the issues.

 

“The media is going to have some heart palpitations tonight,” he said of Trump’s impending victory.

 

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The problem for Cruz, however, is that Trump has now succeeded in a far broader swath of America than he has, most especially in sweeping the South, with the notable exception of Texas. which was to have been Cruz’s home turf.

 

New York Times

New York Times

“Ted Cruz is now a marginal, regional candidate. a loser,” Mike Barnicle said on Morning Joe this morning.

For Cruz, “Indiana is the Alamo,” said Kasie Hunt on MSBNC.

And from Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

Trump is not at all conventional. That introduces a lot of unpredictability into the equation.

I think there’s a good chance that Trump would lose even worse than Cruz. But he could also do substantially better. Do I think Trump will win the presidency? No. Let’s be clear: nominating Trump is an epic disaster for the GOP. I think he’s too unpopular with too many key segments of the electorate. But he has more upside potential than Cruz.

And from FiveTbirtyEight, noting that Trump is prevailing amid declining turnout:

So it may not be that undecided voters are gravitating to Trump so much as anti-Trump Republicans are discouraged. Trump faces unusually high levels of intraparty opposition for a front-runner — or at least, he had seemed to until the past two weeks. But Kasich and Ted Cruz are also deeply flawed, and somewhat factional, candidates. It’s asking a lot of voters to cast a tactical vote against Trump when that tactic requires (i) going to a contested convention in order to (ii) deny the candidate with the plurality of votes and delegates the nomination in order to (iii) give the nomination to a candidate they don’t particularly like anyway. The #NeverTrump voters might not be voting for Trump, but they might be staying at home.

xxxxxxx

Indiana is important not only because of its delegates, but also because it will give us an indication as to whether the apparent change in Republican attitudes is temporary or permanent. If Trump wins Indiana despite its middling-to-fair (from his standpoint) demographics, he won’t quite be the presumptive nominee because he’ll still need to follow through with a decent performance in California. But he’ll at least be in the liminal zone that Hillary Clinton spent a lot of time in, with the race not quite wrapped up mathematically but close enough that something (a gaffe, a scandal) would have to intervene to deny him the nomination. Incidentally, Trump’s potential support from the uncommitted delegates in Pennsylvania will give him more margin of error in that situation.

If Trump loses Indiana, however, that will suggest the race is still fairly volatile week-to-week, that he’s very likely to lose states such as Nebraska that vote later in May, and that the geographic and demographic divergences in the GOP haven’t reversed themselves so much as become more exaggerated. It will improve the morale of anti-Trump voters and change the tone of press coverage. And mathematically, it will make it hard (although not quite impossible) for Trump to win 1,237 delegates outright; he’d be back to fighting tooth-and-nail for every uncommitted delegate.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in Indiana. But Trump’s strong results over the past two weeks have changed the Hoosier State from potentially being “must-win” for Trump to probably being “must-win” for his opponents.

And this cautionary word from Josh Kraushaar at National Journal.

The GOP nom­in­a­tion fight is go­ing down to the wire, and In­di­ana is the only con­test left that could go either way. Every little shift mat­ters. Cruz doesn’t have as much mo­mentum en­ter­ing In­di­ana as he did in the run-up to Wis­con­sin, but he doesn’t need a 13-point blo­wout to stop Trump, either. Even a razor-thin vic­tory should net Cruz a ma­jor­ity of del­eg­ates in the state. The al­li­ance that the Cruz and Kasich cam­paigns brokered wasn’t pretty, but it could be the tac­tic­al de­cision that blocks Trump from the GOP nom­in­a­tion.

Finally, there’s this.

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