Clarity unclouded by legal niceties

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The Independent Online
AS NIXON lay dying, I was watching Hillary Clinton feast publicly on humble pie in front of the White House press corps, over 'Whitewatergate'. The questioning was quite tough, the answers supremely diplomatic. No doubt the performance was to some degree insincere. But there was also an essential recognition that the press had the right to know the obscure details of Whitewatergate and that in great measure the scandal - if that is the right word for it - was exacerbated by the Clintons themselves. Hillary's solo appearance on the platform made it clear, too, that she was taking the rap, and that the best way of doing this was gracefully.

Sincere or not, it was impressive, and to compare Whitewatergate with the real thing, Watergate itself, is to be reminded how much the tone of American political life has changed. What the graceful blame-taking replaces is a paranoia-driven, scapegoat-seeking, blame-avoidance at any cost. Viciousness and self-pity set the Nixon tone. The tone Hillary set was certainly without self-pity. If the sweet reasonableness had been reluctantly arrived at, it was, nevertheless, most professionally conveyed.

Nor was it in any degree abject. Indeed, it contained a propaganda counter-thrust. Hillary's aim was to establish herself as embodying fundamentally American family values. It was, she said, her father who had first taught her as a little girl to read the stock tables; she had passed this lesson on to her daughter. Family values, in this formulation, meant earning an income, saving money and investing, to provide for family things such as a college education for her daughter, and a retirement income for Mom and Dad. That's why she had been speculating in cattle futures.

Many attacks are made on the Clinton presidency, and many of them are, no doubt, just. The ones that I think should be avoided are those based on nostalgia. Hillary may have been high-handed, but let us not start yearning for the days of Pat Nixon. Clinton may be weak on foreign policy. Attack that weakness by all means - except by calling for a return to foreign policy as it was once conducted by those masters Nixon and Kissinger.

Yesterday's papers were full of praise for Nixon's grasp of foreign policy, and rather short of condemnation when that policy was secret and illegal. There was praise for Nixon as the rehabilitator of China. But it was possible for Nixon to make a rapprochement with China precisely because he did not have a Richard Nixon at the head of the Democratic opposition accusing him of selling the West out in the interests of Communism.

In the case of South-East Asia, it is true that the Democrats had committed the American troops and that it was the Nixon administration which disengaged them. But by a trick of historical perspective it is now being said that Nixon's opponents, particularly on the campuses, couldn't see the wood for the trees: they couldn't see the withdrawal that was taking place even while the war was being waged, up to the Paris Peace Agreement of 1973.

What is being forgotten in this analysis, is the intensity of the war that was being waged. If the Vietnam War was unjust, then it was as unjust to wage it as a way of getting North Vietnam to the negotiating table as it was to be fighting for victory (whatever victory would have meant). If I am found trespassing on your property, I do not earn merit by throwing hand grenades in your face in order to cover my retreat.

The Nixon policy of Vietnamisation was always presented as a way for South Vietnam to win its war against the North, using its own human resources in combination with American hardware and know-how. Behind that policy another crept in, the doctrine of the Decent Interval, the aim of which was to secure a decent interval between American withdrawal from Indochina and the eventual collapse of the regimes that were being supported in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

So all those bombs were falling, all those people were dying, all those deluded soldiers were being patted on the back and sent out into the battlefield in order to cover up the fact that America was being defeated. And this was foreign policy as conducted by a visionary, a first-class analytic brain, a grasper of essentials, a strong president.

We can do without the current nostalgia for strength. Strong presidents who in their secret enclaves show a contempt for Congress and the law are not necessarily thereby better and more effective than 'weak' presidents with a regard for due process. The mere fact that a man is a crook does not make him a Bismarck, or a Machiavelli, or whatever the desirable type of the consummate politician may be.

It is true that it is hard, watching what has happened in Bosnia or most recently in Rwanda, not to yearn for a clear policy effectively implemented. But clarity is not, of itself, enough. Absolute non-intervention would be a clear policy in Bosnia. 'Bomb the Serbs into the Stone Age' would be both clear and 'strong'. Yet this was the kind of policy which failed famously in Vietnam.

I am not seeking in any way to excuse the weakness of the Clinton administration when it comes to foreign policy, only to lodge a plea for a distinction to be made between the justified desire for clear policy and a nostalgia for a more hegemonic America. It is nauseating to watch a country disappear beneath a pall of smoke, to watch a people being destroyed, either through policy or (which amounts to the same thing) through lack of it. And it is nauseating to read these tributes to Nixon which fail to point out that, 25 years later, Cambodia is still paying the price for having been bombed, invaded and brought into the Indochina war.

This was policy conducted from strength. Nixon did not come, Clinton-like, to Europe, to seek the support of allies for a certain course of action. He sought no by-your-leave, either from his allies or from the legislature, when it came to the bombing. He was untrammelled by any nice considerations of law.

I see no reason to mourn the passing of this old man, nor to look back on the foreign policy of his day with anything other than repugnance. I see no reason to regret the passing, if that is what it is, of American hegemony. It is better that we are through with all the persecution and the paranoia that went with it. We have other troubles now and can do with other sorts of strength.

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