Return of the Neocons

The architects of the Iraq debacle should emulate their counterparts from the Vietnam era and gracefully exit the stage.

In the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter criticized the Nixon-Ford administration on several foreign policy issues. One was Ford’s decision to sign the Helsinki Accords, which in his view legitimized Soviet control of Eastern Europe.

But what if Democratic candidate Carter had called on national-security veterans of the Democratic administrations of presidents Kennedy and Johnson—such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and National Security Advisor Walt Rostow—to criticize the Nixon-Ford administration on issues such as Vietnam, Cambodia, the Soviet Union, China or the defense budget?

These veterans of the Kennedy and Johnson years could have blasted Nixon and Ford for “losing” Vietnam by signing the Paris Treaty, which set a date for American withdrawal from South Vietnam; or for not doing more to save Saigon in 1975 when the North Vietnamese overran the country. They could have scored Republicans for not even “leading from behind” when Pol Pot murdered millions of his fellow citizens in Cambodia’s hellish killing fields and for not retaliating against Cambodia when its military seized the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez.

These Kennedy-Johnson hawks could have asked why the Republicans had not only signed the Helsinki Accords but had agreed to an arms treaty with the Soviets that allowed them to have more strategic nuclear missiles than the United States and limited America’s ability to deploy missile defenses. In effect, Rusk, McNamara and Rostow could have argued that these “weak” Republicans had failed to capitalize on the “strategic victory” won by hard-line Democrats in the Cuban Missile Crisis to put the Soviets in their place.

And how could America throw our ally Taiwan under the bus, go hat in hand to “red China” and sign the Shanghai Accord with a country that had helped our North Vietnamese enemy?

Finally, how could these Republicans weaken our military at the height of the Cold War by cutting defense spending by 30 percent and ending conscription “against the opposition” of our generals and admirals?

Obviously, McNamara, Rusk, and Rostow would never have done these things, nor would the Democratic Party have asked them to make such statements. These statesmen had made catastrophic miscalculations about Vietnam that led to thousands of deaths. When these men left their national security posts, they went quietly into the night. Nor would candidate Carter have stooped so low as to include these people among his surrogates.

But in today’s world, the veterans of the George W. Bush administration and the Romney campaign show no such forbearance. Instead of going quietly into the night, these people—who failed to prevent 9/11, invaded Iraq under false pretenses, missed the golden moment in Afghanistan, undermined America’s standing in the world, authorized torture and rendition, and bankrupted the country by going to war without raising taxes and boosting defense spending to levels not seen since World War II—are on the campaign trail and in the media criticizing the Obama administration’s national security policies.

At the Republican convention in Tampa, President Bush’s alter ego on foreign policy, former secretary of state and national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, criticized President Obama for “leading from behind” while ignoring the fact that the aggressive policies she advocated created the Iraq disaster. Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, argued on Fox News that President Obama’s broader foreign policy is unraveling and criticized the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, for being “so wrong” about who was responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. This from a key player in an administration that claimed there were weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, in Iraq. He also failed to fully prosecute the war in Afghanistan and undermined the U.S. standing in the world by detaining prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

All told, seventeen of Romney’s twenty-four foreign-policy advisers served in the Bush-Cheney administration. Included are folks such as Dan Senor, who told us how well the war in Iraq was going even when the country was falling apart. Also included is Eliot Cohen, who called Iraq “the big prize” and advocated a new war with Iran as early as 2009. Cohen, too, is a close Romney adviser and has refused to acknowledge the mistakes of his past.

Foreign policy is a legitimate topic in the 2012 campaign. But the architects of the debacle that occurred in the George W. Bush administration should emulate their Democratic counterparts from the Vietnam era and gracefully exit the stage.

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.