Getting rid of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld was relatively easy compared with how painfully difficult it is going to be to get the United States out of Iraq. America’s retreat in defeat from Vietnam was, in the end, simple. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the co-Caesars of that stage of the war, declared that our mission was accomplished. Despite shamefully and callously prolonging the war for years at the cost of more than 20,000 additional US-military deaths, Nixon and Kissinger did what they said they would never do: cut and run. The international implications of victory by North Vietnam and its Viet Cong guerrillas were nonexistent, except — of course — for the Cambodians. They suffered genocidal slaughter at the hands of the indigenous Khmer Rouge, who assumed temporary control of Cambodia as a result of the power vacuum created by America’s disastrously destabilizing invasion of that nation.
The fact of the matter is that the Vietnam war was built on a Cold War misconception so massive as to be almost criminal: the belief that if South Vietnam fell to its own Communist movement, the rest of “free” Southeast Asia would follow suit. The domestic implications of the Vietnam defeat turned out to be far more pernicious than anything America feared overseas. Every four years, during each successive presidential election, the US — in one form or another — re-fought the Vietnam war. The attack of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is testimony to how skillful the Republicans have been in blaming the Democrats for an unfair share of the Vietnam debacle.
If Vietnam was rooted in a misconception that over the years became criminal in its application, the Iraq war was criminal in its very conception. It was the product of a big lie concocted by former Nixonians Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney and adopted with enthusiastic alacrity by President George W. Bush: that America’s former ally, the vicious dictator Saddam Hussein (yes, fellow Americans, Hussein was once “our” guy), was in league with the Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked Washington and New York. On top of that, the lie held that Hussein was preparing weapons of mass destruction — both chemical and nuclear — with which to menace the US. The implication was clear: Hussein was out to get us again; we must attack or be attacked.
Bush’s big lie is now recognized for what it is. But what is harder to recognize and vastly more difficult to correct is the strain of stone-cold authoritarianism that Bush and his Nixonian cronies have injected into the White House. It is an authoritarianism that the suburban- and rural-based Republican party, controlled by the weird but frighteningly effective alliance of Bible thumpers and economic royalists, has not only failed to rein in Congress, but has embraced and promoted as an almost national ideology. That ideology is easy to sum up: President Bush is right. President Bush knows best. Anyone who holds otherwise is un-American, or a Democrat (more or less the same thing in the GOP’s book), or a terrorist. At its simplest, it is Orwellian; in its philosophical and legal implications, it is pre-fascist — a term that should not be thrown around lightly, but is sadly suitable when applied to the Bush strongmen.
The Vietnam War and its aftermath taxed and strained the nation’s social fabric in ways that were only exceeded by the Civil War and the Great Depression. But the Iraq war — which Bush claims is part of a greater war on terror, but isn’t — has strained the legal and institutional fabric of Washington in ways that the mistaken foreign adventures of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan never did. Even at their most highhanded and duplicitous, these run-away presidencies — once caught — tended to fold in one way or another. Not so Bush, who defies the Constitution by claiming to embrace it in the name of a greater good. If democracy is imperiled here and in other parts of the West — and these trends are surprisingly similar in Tony Blair’s England, which is, let us not forget, our ally in Iraq — the threat won’t come in the form of a coup d’état. Rather, it will emerge from a sort of electoral dictatorship, a soft-form of despotism.
The recent electoral defeat suffered by the party of Bush is cause for optimism. Disengagement from Iraq will test this nation far more than engagement did. But in the process of getting out, the despotic and authoritarian nature of the Bush regime will pose domestic dangers perhaps far greater — or at least just as great — as any we might face from terrorists abroad.
Those who cheer Bush’s defeat at the polls — including this newspaper — should realize that the real battle for the nation’s heart and soul and political system is just beginning.