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Nixon US Def. Sec. Blasts Cowboy Approach To Iraq

Nixon's US Defense Secretary Blasts "Texas Cowboy" Approach To Iraq

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- America attacked Vietnam and Iraq "based on intelligence failures and possibly outright deception," according to former U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird, who blasted President Bush's "west Texas cowboy approach."

Allegations of Americans torturing people in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and other prisons are reminiscent of "the mistreatment of our own POWs by North Vietnam," Laird said.

Laird was President Richard M. Nixon's controversial Secretary of Defense from 1969 to 1973, helping to orchestrate some of the bloodiest campaigns of America's war in Vietnam, which also destroyed much of Cambodia and Laos.

Laird's surprising analysis appears in his 8,500-word essay, titled "Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam," published in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

Laird compared Bush and Nixon, Iraq and Vietnam, and examined the often-twisted reasons America unleashed mayhem here in Southeast Asia, which he said killed 3.1 million "nationalists" and "communists" in North Vietnam.

Thousands of U.S.-backed South Vietnamese, plus more than 50,000 Americans and others, also perished in the Vietnam war, before defeated Americans retreated home to a country polarized by the killing and deception.

"In this business of trust, President Bush got off to a bad start. Nixon had the same problem. Both the Vietnam war and the Iraq war were launched based on intelligence failures and possibly outright deception," Laird said.

"In Iraq, the intelligence blunder concerned Saddam's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, which in the end may or may not have been Bush's real motivation for going to war."

Laird was satirized during his term by an anti-war song performed by New York City's irreverent Fugs which asked: "Are you a vampire, Melvin Laird?"

Mindful of society's perception, Laird said, "Bush is losing the public relations war by making the same strategic mistakes we made in Vietnam."

Laird warned, "His [Bush's] west Texas cowboy approach -- shoot first and answer questions later, or do the job first and let the results speak for themselves -- is not working."

American troops in Vietnam indiscriminately killed civilians, while agitated U.S. forces are killing Iraqi civilians, he said.

"Back then, frightened and untrained U.S. troops were ill-equipped to govern their baser instincts and fears. Countless innocent civilians were killed in the indiscriminate hunt for Vietcong among the South Vietnamese peasantry," Laird said.

"Our volunteer troops in Iraq are better trained and supervised, yet the potential remains for a slaughter of innocents. Reports have already surfaced of skittish American soldiers shooting Iraqi civilians in acts that can only be attributed to poor training and discipline."

He also criticized the current U.S. prison system which prevents trials for select victims and instead indefinitely cages and abuses them.

"For me, the alleged prison scandals reported to have occurred in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay have been a disturbing reminder of the mistreatment of our own POWs by North Vietnam.

"The conditions in our current prison camps are nowhere near as horrific as they were at the 'Hanoi Hilton,' but that is no reason to pat ourselves on the back," he said, referring to a POW jail run by Vietnamese communists.

"The minute we begin to deport prisoners to other nations where they can legally be tortured, when we hold people without charges or trial, when we move prisoners around to avoid the prying inspections of the Red Cross, when prisoners die inexplicably on our watch, we are on a slippery slope toward the inhumanity that we deplore."

Laird also confirmed Washington installed puppet dictators in Vietnam during the war by creating a sinister, Potemkin-style democracy.

"Elections [in Vietnam] were choreographed by the United States to empower corrupt, selfish men who were no more than dictators in the garb of statesmen."

Despite lofty U.S. rhetoric, Washington was willing to ignore demands for democracy and instead clamp Vietnamese under "any regime that advanced our Cold War agenda," he revealed.

Laird's essay was mostly supportive of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, which he claimed helps America and tackles Islamist terrorism.

He also supported the anti-communist goals of the war in Vietnam.

The Iraq war differs from Vietnam, however, because it is now partly a war for "Persian Gulf oil".

"The stakes could not be higher for the continued existence of our own democracy and, yes, for the significant matter of oil," Laird said.

"Picture those oil reserves in the hands of religious extremists whose idea of utopia is to knock the world economy and culture back more than a millennium to the dawn of Islam."

Laird personally suffered during the Vietnam war, when the president and secretary of state became paranoid and punishing.

"The president [Nixon] approved [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger's order to the FBI to tap my military assistant's home phone, hoping to catch the two of us in a plot to leak secrets."


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 27 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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