Saigon to Baghdad
The Timely Death of Gerald Ford
Frank Rich/The New York Times, January 7, 2007
THE very strange and very long Gerald Ford funeral marathon was about many things, but Gerald Ford wasn’t always paramount among them.
Forty percent of today’s American population was not alive during the Ford presidency. The remaining 60 percent probably spent less time recollecting his unelected 29-month term than they did James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Despite the lachrymose logorrhea of television anchors and the somber musical fanfares, the country was less likely to be found in deep mourning than in deep football. It’s a safe bet that the Ford funeral attracted far fewer viewers than the most consequential death video of the New Year’s weekend, the lynching of Saddam Hussein. But those two deaths were inextricably related: it was in tandem that they created a funereal mood that left us mourning for our own historical moment more than for Mr. Ford.
What the Ford obsequies were most about was the Beltway establishment’s grim verdict on George W. Bush and his war in Iraq. Every Ford attribute, big and small, was trotted out by Washington eulogists with a wink, as an implicit rebuke of the White House’s current occupant. Mr. Ford was a healer, not a partisan divider. He was an all-American football star, not a cheerleader. He didn’t fritter away time on pranks at his college fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, because he had to work his way through school as a dishwasher. He was in the top third of his class at Yale Law. He fought his way into dangerous combat service during World War II rather than accept his cushy original posting. He was pals with reporters and Democrats. He encouraged dissent in his inner circle. He had no enemies, no ego, no agenda, no ideology, no concern for his image. He described himself as “a Ford, not a Lincoln,” rather than likening himself to, say, Truman.
Under the guise of not speaking ill of a dead president, the bevy of bloviators so relentlessly trashed the living incumbent that it bordered on farce. No wonder President Bush, who once hustled from Crawford to Washington to sign a bill interfering in Terri Schiavo’s medical treatment, remained at his ranch last weekend rather than join Betty Ford and Dick Cheney for the state ceremony in the Capitol rotunda.
Yet for all the media acreage bestowed on the funeral, the day in Mr. Ford’s presidency that most stalks Mr. Bush was given surprisingly short shrift — perhaps because it was the most painful. That day was not Sept. 8, 1974, when Mr. Ford pardoned his predecessor, but April 30, 1975, when the last American helicopters hightailed it out of Saigon, ending our involvement in a catastrophic war. Mr. Ford had been a consistent Vietnam hawk, but upon inheriting the final throes of the fiasco, he recognized reality when he saw it.
Just how much so can be found in a prescient speech that Mr. Ford gave a week before our clamorous Saigon exit. (And a speech prescient on other fronts, too: he called making “America independent of foreign energy sources by 1985” an urgent priority.) Speaking at Tulane University, Mr. Ford said, “America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam” but not “by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” He added: “We, of course, are saddened indeed by the events in Indochina. But these events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world.”
All of this proved correct, and though Mr. Ford made a doomed last-ditch effort to secure more financial aid for Saigon, he could and did do nothing to stop the inevitable. He knew it was way too late to make the symbolic gesture of trying to toss fresh American troops on the pyre. “We can and we should help others to help themselves,” he said in New Orleans. “But the fate of responsible men and women everywhere, in the final decision, rests in their own hands, not in ours.”
Though Mr. Ford was hardly the unalloyed saint of last week’s pageantry, his words and actions in 1975 should weigh heavily upon us even as our current president remains oblivious. As Mr. Ford’s presidential history is hard to separate from the Bush inversion of it, so it is difficult to separate that indelible melee in Saigon from the Hussein video. Both are terrifying, and for the same reason.
The awful power of the Hussein snuff film derives not just from its illustration of the barbarity of capital punishment, even in a case where the condemned is a mass murderer undeserving of pity. What really makes the video terrifying is its glimpse into the abyss of an irreversible and lethal breakdown in civic order. It sends the same message as those images of helicopters fleeing our embassy in April 1975: Iraq, like Vietnam before it, is in chaos, beyond the control of our government or the regime we’re desperately trying to prop up. The security apparatus of Iraq’s “unity government” was powerless to prevent the video, let alone the chaos, and can’t even get its story straight about what happened and why.
Actually, it’s even worse than that. Perhaps the video’s most chilling notes are the chants of “Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!” They are further confirmation, as if any were needed, that our principal achievement in Iraq over four years has been to empower a jihadist mini-Saddam in place of the secular original. The radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, an ally of Hezbollah and Hamas, is a thug responsible for the deaths of untold Iraqis and Americans alike. It was his forces, to take just one representative example, that killed Cindy Sheehan’s son, among many others, in one of two Shiite uprisings in 2004.
The day after Casey Sheehan’s slaughter, Dan Senor, the spokesman for the American occupation, presided over a Green Zone news conference promising Mr. Sadr’s woefully belated arrest on a months-old warrant for his likely role in the earlier assassination of Abdel Majid al-Khoei, a rival Shiite who had fiercely opposed Saddam. Today Mr. Sadr and his forces control 30 seats in the Iraqi Parliament, four government ministries, and death squads (a k a militias) more powerful than the nominal Iraqi army. He is the puppetmaster who really controls Nuri al-Maliki — the Iraqi prime minister embraced by Mr. Bush — even to the point of inducing Mr. Maliki to shut down a search for an American soldier kidnapped at gunpoint in Sadr City in the fall. (And, you might ask, whatever happened to Mr. Senor? He’s a Fox News talking head calling for a “surge” of American troops to clean up the botch he and his cohort left behind.) Only Joseph Heller could find the gallows humor in a moral disaster of these proportions.
It’s against the backdrop of both the Hussein video and the Ford presidency that we must examine the prospect of that much-previewed “surge” in Iraq — a surge, by the way, that the press should start calling by its rightful name, escalation. As Mr. Ford had it, America cannot regain its pride by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned and, for that matter, as far as Iraq is concerned. By large margins, the citizens of both countries want us not to escalate but to start disengaging. So do America’s top military commanders, who are now being cast aside just as Gen. Eric Shinseki was when he dared assert before the invasion that securing Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops.
It would still take that many troops, not the 20,000 we might scrape together now. Last month the Army and Marines issued an updated field manual on counterinsurgency (PDF) supervised by none other than Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the next top American military commander in Iraq. It endorsed the formula that “20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents” is “the minimum troop density required.” By that yardstick, it would take the addition of 100,000-plus troops to secure Baghdad alone.
The “surge,” then, is a sham. It is not meant to achieve that undefined “victory” Mr. Bush keeps talking about but to serve his own political spin. His real mission is to float the “we’re not winning, we’re not losing” status quo until Jan. 20, 2009. After that, as Joseph Biden put it last week, a new president will “be the guy landing helicopters inside the Green Zone, taking people off the roof.” This is nothing but a replay of the cynical Nixon-Kissinger “decent interval” exit strategy concocted to pass the political buck (to Mr. Ford, as it happened) on Vietnam.
As the White House tries to sell this flimflam, picture fresh American troops being tossed into Baghdad’s caldron to work alongside the Maliki-Sadr Shiite lynch mob that presided over the Saddam hanging. Contemplate as well Gerald Ford’s most famous words, spoken as he assumed the presidency after the Nixon resignation: “Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”
This time the people do not rule. Two months after Americans spoke decisively on Election Day, the president is determined to overrule them. Our long national nightmare in Iraq, far from being over, is about to get a second wind.