Madeleine Albright’s appearance at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) marked the opening of the venue’s ninth season of providing artistic performances. Each season has also included a distinguished speaker’s series, and with Ms. Albright as the opening act, so to speak, that series and the whole season got off to an impressive start.
The former Secretary of State (she served in that office for the full second term of Bill Clinton’s presidency) responded to questions posed by Davis Political Science Professor Larry Berman and took a few from the capacity audience as well. During the course of the 90-minute exchange, she offered her views on many of the major foreign policy issues of the day, and much of her commentary reflected none too well on the presidency of George W. Bush.
In particular, she made clear that she regards the decision to invade Iraq as a major blunder, one that she called “one of the worst symbols of American power.” She claimed that, in addition to resulting in a loss of focus on the hunt for Osama bin Ladin specifically and the war against al Qaeda generally, the war in Iraq also benefitted Iran immeasurably by removing a counter-force in the region in the form of Saddam Hussein.
Her views on that particular subject and on the consequences (mostly negative in her view) of the Bush presidency raise the same kind of “what if” question that haunted many Americans at the height of the Viet Nam war in the 1960s.
That war was dramatically escalated by Lyndon Johnson, who became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. From approximately 15,000 military advisers the United States had “training” South Vietnamese forces when Johnson assumed office, the American involvement in Viet Nam reached a peak of 550,000 combat troops by the end of his presidency in January of 1969.
Richard Nixon, upon assuming the presidency, began a slow withdrawal, under a plan he dubbed “Vietnamization.” But he also escalated the U.S. offensive to include bombings of Hanoi, North Viet Nam’s capital city, and the mining of key harbors, a form of attempted blockade.
The United States was torn apart by the war, which left over 50,000 Americans soldiers killed and hundreds of thousands scarred physically and emotionally from the military efforts to defeat the North Vietnamese insurgency. That effort ultimately failed, as South Viet Nam finally fell in 1975, following the U.S. withdrawal from the battlefield two years earlier. The country is now united as Viet Nam, and has become a fairly stable, if not prosperous, independent communist state.
But what would Kennedy have done? That question was frequently asked during Johnson’s prosecution of the war. It was asked less during Nixon’s tenure in office, but a related question was whether Nixon would have ever been elected were it not for Kennedy’s assassination.
Of course, answers to both questions are purely speculative. As to the first, evidence suggests Kennedy would have been far less aggressive in escalating the U.S. presence in Viet Nam. He was a cold warrior in his opposition to Soviet dominance, but he had not sided with the military in the Cuban missile crisis, suggesting that he understood, perhaps better than Johnson, the perils of all war.
As to the latter question, Nixon barely beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968 as many Democrats, angry at Johnson (whose vice-president was Humphrey), sat out the election. Had Viet Nam not been the dominant issue it was and had Nixon not been able to present himself as the “peace candidate” (with a claimed “secret plan” to end the war), the strong likelihood is that the Democrats would have prevailed in that election.
Of such imponderables are many history books filled. But the reality of what happened cannot be changed, nor can the future that that reality led to.
Still, when a Madeleine Albright presents a compelling case that a specific decision was a major mistake, the imponderable question must be asked.
And so, if only for a brief moment of reflection, let’s consider what the course of our history might/could/would have been if Al Gore and not George Bush had won the 2000 presidential election, and if, as a result, the United States had not invaded Iraq and had instead remained engaged with the large coalition of international forces against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
It is surely fair to say that Iraq would still be a brutal dictatorship, but it would be isolated and essentially sequestered from the rest of the Middle East, a threat in only theoretical terms to those in the region and not at all to the West. Why? Because, as Albright emphasized, Hussein’s Iraq was boxed in at the time of the invasion. It had no military capability to wage war and would not have attained any such ability so long as the United Nations sanctions remained in place.
As for bin Ladin, al Qaeda and Afghanistan, with the focus properly on that war from 2003 on, instead of it being essentially ignored as it was until only recently, the great likelihood is that bin Ladin would have either been captured or killed and his network of terrorist cells left disorganized, if not destroyed. To think otherwise is to concede that he and his gang of terrorist thugs are unbeatable, which then leads to an entirely different calculus in terms of many decisions made and unmade by both the Bush and Obama administrations.
I’ll leave that imponderable (of whether bin Ladin and al Qaeda can ever be defeated) for another day. Suffice to say that the course of America’s history was unalterably affected by the Bush decision to make war in Iraq.
Whether it was based on the best available evidence or, as seems increasingly more likely, was just a bad decision, it has left the United States still on the hunt for bin Ladin nine years and counting after 9/11 and probably no less at risk of another attack than it was in March of 2003 when Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq.
Oh, and as for the other question that arose following Kennedy’s assassination, it’s highly unlikely that Barack Obama would have risen from relative obscurity to win the presidency had the U.S. not invaded Iraq.