It’s hard to imagine President Bush rejecting war in Iraq for any reason now -- possibly, I guess, if the head of every male in the Hussein clan were personally presented to him mounted on a pike. Nevertheless, many pundits have felt the need to ask whether Bush could back down now without losing face. Virtually all of them insist he couldn’t.
John McLaughlin disagrees.
Yes, that John McLaughlin. If you haven’t watched his talk show recently, you may be surprised to learn that the braying conservative is, in the case of Iraq, a surprise peacenik. Over the weekend, he found parallels to the Iraq crisis in some Cold War history. Here are excerpts and a summary of what McLaughlin said; the transcript is mine:
American policy towards Communist China under Mao Zedong was regime change. To keep pressure on Mao’s rogue regime, the U.S. backed exile Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek on the island of Taiwan, then known as Formosa, with guns, money, and political support.
Late in 1954, China threatened to invade Taiwan, then invaded the nearby islands of Qemoy and Matsu. President Eisenhower sent the 7th Fleet to rescue Nationalist soldiers on Taiwan.
Eisenhower then went to Congress for a resolution preapproving the use of military force against China at a time and place of his choosing. Within a month, he got the resolution.
Next he dispatched Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to Europe’s capitals to rally NATO support. Eisenhower told British prime minister Winston Churchill that he knew Europeans considered America “reckless, impulsive, and immature,” but he wanted NATO backing in the event of a U.S. war with China.
NATO said no. Churchill said no. Churchill dismissed Zhou [Enlai]’s inflammatory rhetoric as “just talk.”
In mid-March, Eisenhower told reporters he would consider using nuclear weapons in a war with China. Pentagon officials said the U.S. would “destroy Red China’s military potential” and promised a war within weeks. However,
Eisenhower changed his mind. He called his top advisors into the Oval Office on the first of April and told them he wanted a diplomatic resolution. Secretary of State Dulles balked, citing psychological effects -- U.S. credibility. Eisenhower persevered.
When Zhou Enlai gave a conciliatory speech three weeks later, Eisenhower seized the opportunity to stand down from war and start negotiations. He did so, and he preserved credibility with our allies in Taiwan and Japan, and he preserved NATO unity -- and no war.
Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose, in his classic book Eisenhower the President, called this “one of the great triumphs of his long career,” adding that one of the keys to Eisenhower’s success was flexibility, keeping his options open at every stage. “Eisenhower wanted options within options,” wrote Ambrose.
McLaughlin’s panelists were, to put it mildly, skeptical about whether this was an appropriate analogy; none of them thought Bush could pull back from war without losing face. However, Gerard Baker of the Financial Times noted, correctly, that
Eisenhower decided, against the wishes of many people in his administration over time, that the right policy was containment and deterrence
whereas the Bushies
are siding with those in the -- the same people, same kind of people who were saying fifty years ago that what you need to do is regime change, preemptive action. Preemptive action is what Eisenhower is being asked to do and he decided not to do it.
McLaughlin asked, “What was the professional background of Mr. Eisenhower?” He used the word “chickenhawks” in his next sentence. But, regrettably, what’s important about the Eisenhower example -- that war is hell, that the wiser course may be to refrain from unleashing hell even if restraint means that an enemy remains in place, and that those who have fought in wars often understand this far better than those who haven’t -- was generally lost on McLaughlin’s panel.
(Thanks to Jim for bringing this to my attention.)