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God's Politics

President Bush’s first visit to Vietnam, amidst the search for policy alternatives in Iraq following the mid-term election defeat of the Republicans, brings back, for me, memories of 1968. (Here’s the personal angle: I began serving on the staff of Senator Mark O. Hatfield in ’68, remaining there through 1976. As an early, courageous opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Hatfield became a congressional leader in attempts to change U.S. policy, and I was entrusted with the staff work supporting him throughout this time.)

President Johnson’s Vietnam policies had been repudiated in the 1968 electoral process, beginning with Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary. Johnson withdrew, Robert Kennedy entered the race, was assassinated, and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee during the Grant Park chaos in Chicago. Richard Nixon became the Republican candidate.

Nixon ran with a “secret plan to end the war.” He knew that signaling a change from President Johnson’s direction had become a political necessity. When he took office in January, 1969, we waited for this plan to be revealed. It didn’t happen, because nothing of substance was there. Instead, a policy first called “de-Americanization” began to emerge: We’ll withdraw the number of U.S. troops by increasing the training and combat readiness of Vietnamese troops. Later it was termed “Vietnamization.” U.S. troop reductions slowly began. Meanwhile, the U.S. bombing campaigns were intensified. Then, in 1970, Cambodia was invaded by U.S. forces. The plan to end the war had now widened and prolonged it.

Nixon and national security advisor Henry Kissinger had no intention of changing their basic goal — preventing the North Vietnamese from winning what was, at its core, a civil war in Vietnam. They changed the language, changed the military tactics, and tried to change the level of direct U.S. casualties. But they didn’t change the basic policy.

The result, of course, was that the war simply continued. In the end, there were more casualties under Nixon than Johnson, the war’s destruction spread throughout Indo-China, and at home the country was torn apart. And eventually, Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City as the North Vietnamese prevailed and united the country.

Today the Vietnamese sell cappuccinos for $3.00 U.S. in upscale coffee shops and welcome Intel and other Western investors, fueling an economy growing at a rate second only to China.

The U.S. made a fundamentally wrong choice of policy in Vietnam. The electorate in the U.S. came to realize this, but policy-makers bought time by shifting language and tactics while maintaining a consistently wrong and increasing immoral policy. In Vietnam’s case, hundreds of thousand of Vietnamese, and thousands of Americans, died because of the mistaken judgment and hubris of policy-makers who refused to change a war policy that couldn’t succeed.

I remember well the reasons and rationales, which kept shifting. Other nations in Asia and around the world will fall to emboldened communists. (Instead, a few years later, the Berlin Wall fell.) At a meeting with Alexander Haig, I vividly recall him arguing how America’s word would not be trusted by other world leaders if we withdrew from Vietnam. Then Nixon argued that we had to fight to honor those who had already died. And always, prevailing in Vietnam was cast as a crucial part of a global struggle to defend our most cherished ideals of freedom against forces determined to defeat us.

Most of all, we refused to admit that we were wrong.

So on this evening’s news, we learn of leaked Pentagon documents with options that include sending more troops to Iraq, and other options to redeploy present U.S. troops in order to increase the pressure on the Iraq government to fight its own battles. A deliberate withdrawal of U.S. troops is dismissed.

Most everyone seems to agree now that Iraq is a mess. But few with the power to make policy are saying that the U.S. is wrong. I have no doubt that the next two to three months will witness a change in our tactics in Iraq. And already, since the election, we are seeing a remarkable change in language. What I fear is that there will be no fundamental change in a policy that is mistaken at its core, that becomes increasingly immoral, and that cannot succeed. That policy is to use military force to establish a democratic government capable of uniting Iraq’s various factions, providing for its security, and acting sympathetically to U.S. interests in the region.

President Bush, especially in the mid-term elections, raised the rhetorical stakes in this war. The credibility of the U. S. is on the line. We need to honor those who have already died. Most of all, we are engaged in the front lines of a global battle against terror where our most cherished ideals are at stake. If the President believes this, as I’m sure he sincerely does, then why should we expect his administration to make any fundamental change in policy?

In 1968, with elections demonstrating growing discontent toward the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, a basic change in direction would have been possible. But it would have required admitting that we were wrong — wrong in using military force to try to impose an internal political solution in Vietnam that was sustainable and to our liking. We could have found a way to reverse a policy that was wrong, and then minimize the unintended consequences of turning from our mistakes. Instead, Nixon made changes that were cosmetic, and the immoral tragedy endured.

It’s hard, I guess, to ask nations to repent. Power breeds impunity. Yet, this is the word we need to speak and to hear at this window of national reassessment. This is the wrong war, in the wrong place, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time.

Repentance, we know, always opens new possibilities. Admitting that we have been wrong is the most important step in deciding what we should do next. I wish the Iraq Study Group, and all the others offering advice to the President, would start there.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and a board member of Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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