Gordon's column from Wednesday's Gulf News.

Does Robert McNamara's career - and his fate in the decades after he left government - hold any lessons for his successors in the Bush and Obama administrations?

BONUS: Click here, or go to the "Articles" section for Gordon's piece on Michael Jackson from Friday's Gulf News.

By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News

America is an unusually forgiving society. Philandering TV preacher Jimmy Swaggart was welcomed back by his flock. After his time in prison, junk bond king Michael Milken remade himself, becoming a respected philanthropist.

Former president Richard Nixon built an entire political career on tripping himself up, then working his way back. Another former president Bill Clinton, needless to say, is in a class by himself.


Americans have a long history of not forgetting people's misdeeds, but still allowing the fallen a second chance provided they are willing to work hard enough to earn it.

And then there is Robert McNamara.

When the former defence secretary died last week, aged 93, it quickly became clear that America's capacity for forgiveness really does have limits.

To judge by the commentary on his passing most of the country still views the architect of the Vietnam War roughly the way it views serial killers.


The depth of the bitterness was striking. Even more interesting was its breadth. Decades after the war ended one of the few things its supporters and opponents seem able to agree on is their intense loathing of McNamara.

This thought preoccupies me because what it really means is that 34 years after the fall of Saigon we as a society obviously have not moved on.

This, in turn, makes me wonder how long Iraq is destined to haunt our politics and our diplomacy. Will the divisions of this decade still be ripping us apart in 2050?


"Anyone whose hubris creates a situation that causes so much national disaster doesn't get public forgiveness," the New York Times's Gail Collins wrote.

"No letting him glide slowly back into any position of respect. We don't want to encourage future decision-makers to think they could ever get away with something like that."


"That," she added, "goes for the Bush guys, too."

Vietnam destroyed a host of reputations. President Lyndon Johnson first and foremost, but also his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, secretary of state Dean Rusk and generals Maxwell Taylor and William Westmoreland.

What separated McNamara from these men (aside from the fact that he managed to outlive them all by a couple of decades) was that he eventually showed some contrition.

Too little contrition, perhaps. Certainly coming far too late; but still, contrition nonetheless. Like many of the Kennedy/Johnson era insiders, former US president George W. Bush and his senior people, from former vice-president Dick Cheney on down, are adamant that they have absolutely nothing to apologise for.


It may be that our current political culture - ruled as it often is by the breathless round-the-clock conflict-driven world of cable news and the internet - is simply incapable of self-examination; a trait which, in any case, Bush and his acolytes seem to find unmanly.

It may also be that we are all simply too close in time to the still unfolding disaster of Iraq to have any real perspective on it.

It is both noteworthy and chilling when the Washington Post's highly respected military correspondent, Thomas Ricks, writes in his new book The Gamble that the Iraq war may only now be reaching its midpoint.


Of course, for those whose lives are ripped apart or indelibly scarred by war no apology by a politician or military leader is ever likely to be sufficient. But the broader public can, and should, demand an accounting, even if it is only for historical purposes.

Generals are often, and rightly, criticised for insisting on refighting the last war. Politicians too often blunder into the next war through a mixture of ignorance and arrogance, and then get a pass on their mistakes.

McNamara's last major turn on the public stage came in 2003 when, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, he was the subject of Errol Morris' chilling documentary The Fog of War.

"What makes us omniscient?" a gaunt, aged McNamara wonders aloud at one point during the film. "Have we a record of omniscience?"

"We are the strongest nation in the world today. I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political, or military power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there! None of our allies supported us; not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning."

In death many people still find McNamara worthy only of scorn. But in the four haunted decades that followed his time in government those in power today, as well as their immediate predecessors, would do well to find a cautionary tale. It is a tale worth pondering as they try to move forward.

Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator who teaches political science at the University of Vermont. As a journalist, he has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades.
 


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