Political Animal


WAS THE VIETNAM WAR WORTH IT?….I finished up In Retrospect last night, and in the end I was disappointed. I’ve always felt a fair amount of sympathy for the position that Robert McNamara found himself in as Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and Johnson, and it’s always interesting to read first-person memoirs like this ? especially from a guy who’s obviously trying to be truthful ? but he never really tackled the primary geopolitical question of the Vietnam War: was it worth it?

There was a fairly widespread (though far from unanimous) feeling even back in 1965-67 that it was impossible for us to actually win the war against North Vietnam, but in a way this is beside the point. Even if we couldn’t win, the reason we were there was the fear that leaving would (a) damage U.S. prestige, (b) demonstrate that America didn’t stick to its commitments, and (c) cause a domino effect in which the fall of South Vietnam would inexorably lead to the fall of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.

So what does McNamara think? He states over and over that ? in retrospect ? we overestimated the damage that would have been done by pulling out of Vietnam. Unfortunately, that’s all he does: state it over and over. For a guy who spent seven years at the very center of this debate and who has had 30 years to think about it since, I would have expected some serious analysis of this proposition. What would have happened if we had pulled out in 1964? And more to the point, given the evidence available at the time, was the domino theory an unreasonable one?

For example, at one point McNamara talks about a memo written in 1965 by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in which he says that if U.S. commitments are seen as unreliable, “the communist world would draw conclusions that would lead to our ruin and almost certainly to a catastrophic war.” This was a common view at the time, and keep in mind that “catastrophic” in this regard means “nuclear,” a very realistic possibility to men like Rusk. McNamara explains:

The reader may find it incomprehensible that Dean foresaw such dire consequences from the fall of South Vietnam, but I cannot overstate the impact our generation’s experiences had on him (and, more or less, on all of us). We had lived through appeasement at Munich; years of military service during World War II fighting aggression in Europe and Asia; the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe; repeated threats to Berlin, including that of August 1961; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; and, most recently, Communist Chinese statements that the South Vietnam conflict typified “wars of liberation,” which they saw spreading across the globe.

But that’s it. Sure, Rusk’s view strikes us as an overreaction ? but only because we know now that we won in the end. But was it an unreasonable view at the time?

McNamara never really tries to answer that question, and this is odd since one of his primary criticisms of himself and his colleagues is that they never really seriously analyzed the situation at the time, instead just accepting the conventional wisdom and then reacting to events. But now, 30 years later, he seems to be doing the same thing except that this time he’s accepting the new conventional wisdom that the domino theory was overblown.

That’s too bad. Given that McNamara was a famously analytic person, it would have been interesting to see him analyze the situation all over again given the information available at the time. That he doesn’t robs the book of any lasting impact.


IT’S ALL ABOUT OIL, PART 2….A couple of posts down I talked about John Herrington’s LA Times op-ed in which he suggests, essentially, that we should take control of Iraqi oil for the next century and sell it back to ourselves at reasonable prices. I asked, hoping I was wrong, “Did someone in the Bush administration get him to send this idea up the flagpole to see what kind of reaction it gets?”

I was hoping Herrington’s view was just an isolated instance of overactive conservative looniness, but apparently not. A few minutes ago I got an email from a correspondent I trust who said that he recently had dinner with a relative who’s an energy economist and does some government consulting:

He gave me the impression that something along these lines is under serious consideration in some quarters in the government. He was all for it, but doesn’t think it’s going to happen because, according to him, American oil producers like OPEC which restrains Gulf producers from engaging in vigorous price competition with domestic suppliers.

At any rate, I don’t think your fears are misplaced.

So the main thing keeping the Cheney crowd from following Herrington’s prescription is that the domestic oil guys don’t want competition from cheap Iraqi oil? That makes me feel better….


YEAH, SADDAM IS A BAD GUY….It’s hard to know what to think about this Telegraph story about a “human shield” who went to Iraq and discovered……that Saddam Hussein is a bloody tyrant. I mean, bully for him for having the balls to publicly admit that he was idiot, but you really have to wonder about people like this. There are perfectly defensible reasons for opposing the war, but thinking that Saddam is a beloved, enlightened ruler is not one of them.

The weirdest part is the last couple of paragraphs:

Last Thursday night I went to photograph the anti-war rally in Parliament Square. Thousands of people were shouting “No war” but without thinking about the implications for Iraqis. Some of them were drinking, dancing to Samba music and sparring with the police. It was as if the protesters were talking about a different country where the ruling government is perfectly acceptable. It really upset me.

Anyone with half a brain must see that Saddam has to be taken out. It is extraordinarily ironic that the anti-war protesters are marching to defend a government which stops its people exercising that freedom.

This guy had to spend a month on the ground in Iraq to figure this out, but now anyone “with half a brain” ought to see things his way? He may have seen the light on Saddam, but apparently he’s still an idiot.


SUING THE GUN INDUSTRY….Gun control is not one of my hot button issues, so I haven’t been following the gun lawsuit in New York very closely. But Brian Linse has, and he thinks it could do for the gun industry what tobacco lawsuits are doing to the cigarette industry.

Even if I agree with their goals, I’m not entirely supportive of efforts like these to use the courts to accomplish things that really ought to be handled by legislatures. Still, Brian is right: it’s an interesting case and it could have far reaching consequences. It’s worth checking up on.