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Kissinger's Bad Advice on Iraq

By Ivan Eland
October 3, 2006

Editor's Note: As the situation in Iraq steadily worsens, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has emerged as a White House adviser, urging George W. Bush to resist calls for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. The question now is whether Kissinger is charting the same disastrous course for a prolonged war as he did in Vietnam.

In this guest essay, the Independent Institute's Ivan Eland examines whether Kissinger is the right man to have the President's ear at this dangerous moment:

The bellwether of the cautious establishment press, Bob Woodward, has finally unloaded both barrels on the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, in his new book, State of Denial.

The media hoopla surrounding the book has focused mainly on the administration’s deceptions surrounding the sorry state of affairs in Iraq and Andrew Card’s attempts, with the apparent blessing of Laura Bush, to get Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld fired. Neither of these facts is surprising.

The real surprise in Woodward’s book has received less attention:  The Bush administration’s main advisor during the war has been Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger, according to Woodward’s book, apparently has convinced the Bush White House that any troop withdrawals from Iraq will start a wave of public pressure to pull out all U.S. forces from Iraq. He is probably right in this analysis.

But Kissinger missed the main lesson of Vietnam and is now missing it in Iraq. As the U.S. generals in Iraq know, killing more Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militiamen than the United States loses of its own troops will not win a war that is fundamentally political.

As Lieutenant General William Odom (Ret.), former Director of the National Security Agency and opponent of the war, has noted, the Iraq situation will continue to deteriorate and the United States will eventually be forced to withdraw from Iraq. So withdrawing sooner, rather than later, according to Odom, will save U.S. lives and money and salvage what international prestige the United States has left.

If Nixon and Kissinger had followed similar advice in Vietnam, the United States, its military, and its international standing would not have been tarnished by four additional years of war. And even worse than Vietnam, continued U.S. occupation of Iraq is fueling and worsening the Islamic terrorist threat to the United States, according to an estimate from Bush’s own intelligence agencies.

Most amazingly, Woodward’s book indicates that General John Abizaid, the current chief of the U.S. military command that supervises the Iraq war, told U.S. Representative John Murtha, a decorated former Marine who advocates rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, that he was very close to agreement with the congressman’s position. When the commander in charge of the Iraq war believes that U.S. forces should be rapidly withdrawn from that country, that fact should be big news. But sadly it isn’t.

Consulting Kissinger on how to successfully “win” a counterinsurgency is like getting advice from Mel Gibson on public relations. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger came into office in 1969 vowing to get the United States out of Vietnam, while achieving “peace with honor.”

 Four years and 22,000 American casualties later, Nixon and Kissinger settled for a face-saving peace settlement that they could have obtained shortly after they took office. The final agreement merely provided a “decent interval” between U.S. troop withdrawal and the fall of the South Vietnamese regime to the communists.

Yet Kissinger’s version of these events is that by 1972, the United States had virtually won the Vietnam War, but Congress and the American people wimped out and snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Although the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam in the Linebacker II air offensive of 1972 and threats of using nuclear weapons probably led the North Vietnamese to negotiate more seriously, Kissinger’s argument that the United States had “won” the war is a fantasy. No one on either side of the ensuing negotiations believed that the North Vietnamese were going to honor the Paris Peace Accord after the United States left.

Even if one believes that the United States had won the war militarily, an effective counterinsurgency campaign also requires winning politically. Because the North Vietnamese were fighting for their own country and the United States was merely fighting in some faraway jungle, the North Vietnamese were prepared to take horrendous casualties to wait out the Americans.

As late as 1972, Nixon and Kissinger had a majority of popular support for the heavy Linebacker II offensive, and they, not the public, were the ones who were attempting to pressure the North Vietnamese to give them a “for show” peace deal that was a mere fig leaf. If the United States was winning the war, one should ask why Nixon and Kissinger were so eager to salvage any honor that the United States had left. In 1972, even Kissinger himself clearly wanted to end the war.

Even if the Congress and the American people were to blame for the loss of the Vietnam War, as Kissinger contends, politicians should take into account that democracies will not allow an indefinite waste of lives and money to win a war that has little to do with national security. And the Bush administration, after the Vietnam experience, should have known that the public tires quickly of such unneeded military adventures.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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