James Baker, the Clark Clifford of the Iraq War

In recent days, reports have begun to appear in mainstream US media sources such as Time magazine and the Los Angeles Times hinting at a new strategy on Iraq from Washington.  This strategy, which is scheduled to be officially made public after the November congressional elections, is the product of a so-called bipartisan commission headed by one of the empire’s old guard, James Baker III.  Baker, who served under Reagan and George Bush the Elder and helped to ensure the younger Bush’s ascendancy to the White House in the fraudulent election of 2000, is one of those men in the circles of US power who never go away.  Like Henry Kissinger, Baker is played up in the mainstream media as a wise man, whose voice of reason is always welcome.  Of course, reason and wisdom, like beauty, are often in the eye of the beholder.

Clark Clifford was also such a man.  Never far from the men who made the decisions during his adult life and always available for advice on how to keep the empire intact, Mr. Clifford was called into service as an advisor to Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) in spring of 1968, not long after the humiliating political defeat of US designs in Vietnam during Tet 1968.  As a matter of fact, the events of Tet 1968 have been brought up recently by none other than George Bush himself in regards to the war in Iraq.  Bush noted similarities between the two events in a question-and-answer session on October 18, 2006 when he was asked to comment on a column written by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wherein Friedman said that the current offensive is the “jihadist equivalent of the Tet offensive” in Iraq.  Ignoring the simplistic characterization of the resistance for now, Friedman went on to say that, although “[i]t would be depressing to see the jihadists influence our politics with a Tet-like media/war frenzy,” the fact is that fewer and fewer US residents are convinced that a continued US military presence in Iraq is doing any good.  In typical fashion, Friedman is not calling for withdrawal, but he’s not urging a continuation of the occupation either.  He’s just not taking a stand.

Anyhow, back to the wise men Clifford and Baker.  In the spring of 1968, LBJ met with generals, advisors other than Clifford, and Clifford himself.  The topic was, what to do about Vietnam?  There were those at the table who were convinced that another large increase in US troop numbers and bombing raids could win the war.  In addition, these men — generals and civilians alike — urged Johnson to give the go-ahead for the commander of US forces in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, to invade Laos and Cambodia in order to destroy enemy sanctuaries that they believed existed in those countries.  It was this group of men who wanted a total victory and believed such an outcome was still possible, the US public be damned.

Clark Clifford represented the other group of advisors.  This group still believed in the rightness of the US mission in Vietnam, but felt that the cost to the United States was too high to increase the military assault.  Already, the effects of the war were being felt on the economy and the military was growing thin.  There were simply no more soldiers to send unless the number of men drafted was drastically increased (at a time when there were already 500,000 GIs in Vietnam), and no one wanted to extend tours of duty or forcibly return GIs who had already served one tour in the war zone.  In addition, the US public was torn in two over the war and those opposing the war were reaching a majority.  The answer to this situation from those advisors represented by Clifford was to change tactics.  What this meant on the ground was this: run a less aggressive ground war, use bombing as leverage in negotiations, and begin to negotiate with the NLF and Hanoi.  These men felt that this plan ran a better chance at keeping the US in Vietnam after hostilities had ceased than the elusive chase for total victory would.  It would be months before elements of this strategy would begin to be part of US Vietnam policy and years before US forces would end their hostilities there.  The inauguration of Richard Nixon in January 1969 would actually temporarily expand the ground war once again, and US forces did eventually invade Cambodia in May 1970 — a move that (it could be argued) actually shortened the war, thanks to the outbreak of rebellion across the nation after the invasion was announced.

Today, we have James Baker and his task force.  According to news articles based on leaks from the task force’s report, its underlying assumption is that Washington can no longer achieve its original goals in Iraq.  What this seems to mean is that the attempts to install “democracy” in the country will be put aside.  Instead, the new US goals will be to achieve “stability” and set up a government that can contain the forces aligned against US desires in the region.  Just as Clifford and his cohorts encouraged negotiation with the NLF and Hanoi, Baker’s commission is supposedly calling for similar negotiations with Syria and Iran (although apparently not with the resistance).  To this end, one has to wonder about the US involvement in spreading recent rumors that a military coup is being planned in Baghdad.  Indeed, one has to wonder how much involvement the US has in the coup itself, if those rumors are true.  It’s not like that would be unusual.  Not only does the US have a history of supporting and installing military governments in countries around the world, it has played the main role in establishing the succession of failed governments in Baghdad ever since it invaded in 2003.

Do the debates of 1968 over US policy in Vietnam have any relevance to today’s situation in Iraq?  I believe they do.  Debates are certain to arise between those in the Bush administration who still believe a total victory in Iraq is possible and those who think it’s time for another approach, and the debates will be as heated as any that happened in LBJ’s White House.  After all, Dick Cheney said as recently as October 19, 2006 that the only answer in Iraq is total victory.  His nominal boss, George W., reiterated the same phrase the following day, insisting that he will stay the bloody course already embarked on.  On the other hand, if the fundamental objective of this whole Iraq exploit was to gain and maintain control of the oil under that nation’s sands, then Mr. Cheney and his ultrahawks may have to settle for something less, despite their lust for victory. 

For those in the US antiwar movement, our fundamental task remains the same: immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all US forces.  There is no other way to end this war except through total annihilation of the majority of Iraq’s people.  However, as the recommendations of the task force become common knowledge, we will surely see various Congresspeople, and others in the circles of power who have given hope to some of us, back away from talk of any kind of withdrawal, touting instead one more ill-fated plan to win.  Indeed, that’s part of the reason the task force is bipartisan.  The White House wants a veneer of consensus over its goals — a veneer too many Democrats are only too willing to provide.

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <rjacobs3625@charter.net>.

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