Harsh words from Nixons Vietnam chief
- Harsh words from Nixon's Vietnam chief
By David Broder
Mel Laird has a unique perspective on the U.S. engagement in Iraq.
Not surprisingly, the man who was secretary of defense in the Nixon
administration and the architect of the policy that managed the
extraction of American forces from the seemingly endless war in
Vietnam has his own view of the current struggle.
In a lengthy essay in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs
magazine, Laird offers an analysis of the parallels and
differences between Iraq and Vietnam that challenges the thinking
of both President Bush and the critics of administration policy.
By speaking out publicly for the first time on the subject, the
longtime Republican leader who served 16 years in Congress before
going to the Pentagon for four years in 1969 and to the White House
staff for the final year of Nixon's presidency has done another
service to his country.
Laird does not concede, even now, that Vietnam had to fall to the
communists, blaming the loss directly on the Democratic Congress and
indirectly on the Ford administration for acquiescing in the cutoff
of aid to the Saigon regime.
Nor does he consider democracy in Iraq a lost cause.
However false the original premise of the war, the fight against
terrorism is one that must be won, he says. But speaking from
experience, he argues two points that call for a change in emphasis,
if not direction, in American policy, and a third that would require
Bush to execute a complete about-face.
Noting that the U.S. effort in Vietnam was undercut by its eagerness
to install "a real puppet government" in Saigon, made up of "selfish
men who were no more than dictators in the garb of statesmen," he
argues that in Iraq, "a legitimate government, not window-dressing,
must be the primary goal." To the extent that the United States is
seen as manipulating both the writing and the ratification of the new
Iraqi constitution, that advice has been ignored.
Second, Laird argues that the United States should "not let too many
more weeks pass" before beginning to withdraw troops from Iraq and
turning over the security of the country to Iraqi forces.
When he took over the Pentagon, Laird said, he changed the mission
statement "from one of applying maximum pressure against the enemy to
one of giving maximum assistance to South Vietnam to fight its own
That should have been U.S. policy in Iraq "even before the first shot
was fired." It ought to begin now and continue indefinitely, with the
pace to be restrained only by the judgment of American military
commanders on the capabilities of Iraqis to fill the security role.
"We owe it to the restive people back home to let them know there is
an exit strategy and, more important, we owe it to the Iraqi people,"
Laird says. "Our presence is what feeds the insurgency, and our
gradual withdrawal would feed the confidence and the ability of
average Iraqis to stand up to the insurgency."
White House officials would maintain they are doing their best to
establish a legitimate government in Iraq and to boost the fighting
capacity of Iraqi forces. But on Laird's third point, they cannot
pretend to be in accord.
Himself a veteran of World War II, Laird has harsh words to say about
abuse of prisoners in American hands.
"To stop abuses and mistakes by the rank and file, whether in the
prisons or on the streets, heads must roll at much higher levels than
they have thus far," he says.
"To me, the alleged prison scandals reported to have occurred in
Iraq, in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay have been a disturbing
reminder of the mistreatment of our own POWs by North Vietnam. The
conditions in our current prison camps are nowhere near as horrific
as they were at the `Hanoi Hilton,' but that is no reason to pat
ourselves on the back. The minute we begin to deport prisoners to
other nations where they can be legally tortured, when we hold people
without charges or trial, when we move prisoners around to avoid the
prying inspections of the Red Cross, when prisoners die inexplicably
on our watch, we are on a slippery slope toward the inhumanity that
Those are powerful words from a powerful source. One can only hope
they are heeded.