Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Machiavellian courtiers

Former Vice President Mondale had an op-ed in the Strib today, apparently a reprint of a piece in the Washington Post. Here's the lede:

The Washington Post's recent series on Dick Cheney's vice presidency certainly got my attention. Having held that office myself over a quarter-century ago, I have more than a passing interest in its evolution from the backwater of American politics to the second most powerful position in our government. Almost all of that evolution, under presidents and vice presidents of both parties, has been positive -- until now. Under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, it has gone seriously off track.

No kidding, Fritz.

But Spot thinks it is not so much a subversion of the office of vice president as a continuation of the role of the Machiavellian courtier in Republican administrations stretching back to Richard Nixon. Cheney has been in a position to observe and learn from the two best: Henry Kissinger and James Baker. Working behind the scenes, in secrecy, controlling access to information, marginalizing the regular organs of government, and ultimately limiting policy options available to the government: these are the hallmarks of such courtiers. The probability of such a courtier increases when you have a weak president like the Dauphin.

Spot doubts that he has to say much to introduce either Kissinger or Baker.

Kissinger in the position of National Security Adviser—not Secretary of State—negotiated the "peace accord" with North Vietnam:

Kissinger's involvement in Vietnam started prior to his appointment as National Security Adviser to Nixon. While still [a faculty member] at Harvard he had worked as a consultant on foreign policy to both the White House and State Department and, in the summer of 1967, had acted as one of a series of intermediaries between Washington and Hanoi in a peace initiative codenamed "Pennsylvania". In the autumn of 1968, he used his contacts with the Johnson administration to tip-off the Nixon camp about an anticipated breakthrough in the Paris talks, which Nixon feared could cost him the campaign.

Kissinger is updated on the latest situation in South Vietnam on April 29, 1975.

Kissinger is updated on the latest situation in South Vietnam on April 29, 1975. (Wikipedia)

Nixon had been elected in 1968 on the promise of achieving "peace with honor" and ending the Vietnam War. In office, and assisted by Kissinger, Nixon implemented a policy of Vietnamization that aimed to gradually withdraw U.S. troops while expanding the combat role of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) so that it would be capable of independently defending South Vietnam against the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam and North Vietnamese army (Vietnam People's Army or PAVN). Kissinger played a key role in a secret American bombing campaign of Cambodia to target PAVN and Viet Cong units launching raids against South Vietnam from within Cambodia's borders and resupplying their forces by using the Ho Chi Minh trail and other routes, as well as the 1970 Cambodian Incursion and subsequent widespread bombing of Cambodia. The bombing campaign inadvertently contributed to the chaos of the Cambodian Civil War, which saw the forces of dictator Lon Nol unable to defeat the growing Khmer Rouge insurgency that would emerge victorious in 1975.

And Henry loved power, a characteristic of the Machiavellian courtier:

At the height of his popularity, he was even regarded as something of a sex symbol, earning him the nickname 'Henry the Kiss'. He was seen dating such starlets as Jill St. John, Marlo Thomas, Shirley MacLaine, and Candice Bergen. He was quoted as saying "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac". There was even discussion of ending the requirement that a U.S. president be born in America by amending the U.S. Constitution so that Kissinger could have a chance to run.

According to John Ralston Saul (in Voltaire's Bastards):

Kissinger added to his organizational skills an advanced sense of how to place himself on the trajectory of information in order to become its messenger or reinterpreter or simply in order to be able to stop it. His need to control the flow of information was tied to an obsession with secrecy and, of course, to a climate of fear which seeped into everyone's life as he ceaselessly manipulated everything within reach.

James A. Baker wasn't called the Velvet Hammer for nothing. Baker was the principal courtier of Bush the Elder; here's a quote from Baker:

The trick is getting them where you want them, on your terms. Then you have the options. Pull the trigger or don't. It doesn't matter once you've got them where you want them. The important thing is knowing that it's in your hands, that you can do whatever you determine is in your interest to do.

(Time Magazine, February 13, 1989) By the way, Baker was describing how to kill a wild turkey.

Back to what Fritz says about Cheney:

[The role of vice president] all changed in 2001, and especially after Sept. 11, when Cheney set out to create a largely independent power center in the office of the vice president. His was an unprecedented attempt not only to shape administration policy but, alarmingly, to limit the policy options sent to the president. It is essential that a president know all the relevant facts and viable options before making decisions, yet Cheney has discarded the "honest broker" role he played as President Gerald Ford's chief of staff.

The role of Dick Cheney was foreshadowed when he chose himself to run for vice president. Cheney is a consummate government manipulator, like Kissinger and Baker. He, along with Donald Rumsfeld, created an alternative intelligence network designed to create a case for war against Iraq, subverting the traditional intelligence agencies of the government, and in some cases suppressing their dissent.

Cheney's power play was facilitated by the trend of concentration of government power within the West Wing, and the marginalization of cabinet members and their staffs. Cabinet meetings are reduced to kabuki theater. Secrecy in the executive branch facilitates and encourages the rise of the courtier. It is not an accident that Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes have had the most secret administrations in memory, maybe history.

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