A predecessor's lessons for Robert Gates

The new Pentagon chief has the opportunity to speak frankly on Iraq to Bush and the American people.

As Robert Gates assumes the Pentagon's helm Monday, he would do well to study the legacy of another defense secretary who replaced an embattled predecessor in time of war.

On March 1, 1968, Clark Clifford took the reins from Robert McNamara as Washington's Vietnam fortunes spiraled downward. Seventeen months later – six months after his tenure ended – Mr. Clifford wrote a mea culpa in the journal Foreign Affairs, calling it "the most important article of my life."

"For the first time," Clifford reminisced in his later memoir, "a major participant in shaping the [Vietnam] policy had admitted that we had been mistaken and outlined a strategy for American disengagement." But the atonement came too late.

Now it is Mr. Gates's turn to move on Iraq as he replaces another failed predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. During his Senate confirmation, Gates declared that he was ready: "[I did not] come back to Washington to be a bump on a log and not to say exactly what I think ...." If Gates is to be true to his word, he must avoid the perils that Clifford failed to navigate.

Remembered as the official who capped America's military presence in Vietnam at 549,500 soldiers, Clifford came to the Pentagon with a hawkish reputation. The cap and the reputation reflected two poles of a man torn by loyalty to a president and a gut that told him early on that Vietnam would end badly.

For years, Clifford acted as President Johnson's private Vietnam adviser. In a May 17, 1965, memo, he warned: "Our ground forces in South Vietnam should be kept to a minimum" to protect our installations and property in the country. Any substantial increase could result in a "quagmire ... without a realistic hope of ultimate victory." Mr. Johnson never replied.

Clifford would not give up. During a July 25, 1965 Camp David meeting with Johnson and his senior staff, Clifford predicted that a major boost in ground forces could result in 50,000 dead US soldiers. Mr. McNamara responded that South Vietnam would fall without more American troops. By month's end McNamara's view prevailed.

Rather than press his position, Clifford sat on his convictions: access to the president trumped principle.

However, in July 1967, Clifford's doubts reemerged. After receiving the "most optimistic" briefing by US officials in Vietnam, he returned "shocked" that regional allies expressed resentment over America's war. "The trip had buried for me once and for all, Washington's treasured domino theory."

Despite misgivings, Clifford chose to become Johnson's advocate in the internal debates. When McNamara began to waver, Clifford shot back: "The only way to get out of Vietnam is to persuade Hanoi that we are too strong to be beaten and too determined to be frightened."

However, North Vietnam's deadly January 1968 Tet offensive would chasten Clifford, tapping into his original skepticism about the war. But he decided to keep his views private and reveal them to the president only "gradually" as he assumed his Pentagon duties.

By the summer, Clifford mustered the courage to tell Johnson that Vietnam was lost. But LBJ would not hear it. He would not be the first president to lose a foreign war. Having spent his political capital, Clifford realized his friendship with Johnson "would never be the same." Yet loyalty prevented resignation; likewise, it blocked leveling with the American people. Asked to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he declined. In confidence, he told his friend and committee chairman, Sen. William Fulbright, "I can no longer support in good conscience, the president's policy."

Senator Fulbright, who had built his reputation as a Vietnam truth seeker, colluded in keeping the secretary's views secret. The result left Johnson unbound. In a May 17, 1968, address in Minneapolis, LBJ beat the drum, calling for a "total national effort to win the war.... We will – make no mistake about it – win." The future had another outcome in store.

Vietnam continues to haunt America. But unlike Clifford, Gates comes to the current conflict with a clean slate. He has not publicly pushed any position to resolve the quagmire. Furthermore, he does not have a close personal relationship with President Bush that would compromise his advice.

Gates has a fresh opportunity to speak "frankly" not only to Mr. Bush but to the American people about the state of the war. Clifford's legacy suggests nothing less will do. Public contrition after public service will be too late.

Bennett Ramberg served in the State Department during President George H.W. Bush's administration. He is the author of three books on international security.

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