another boring book review

- I've read it, so you won't have to.


If you watch a lot of political interviews on TV, between British journalists and American politicians, you will have noticed what you might call a deference gap. American elites are not used to being hectored the way British leaders are, and consequently they can get quite prickly. I remember watching one with Colin Powell. Powell got very upset at this jumped up Limey asking him questions he did not want to answer, not because he was being necessarily evasive, but he did not enjoy the assumed intimacy.

And so it is no surprise that this comprehensive, painfully forensic and closely observed narrative shies away from the kind of blunt criticism we are used to. Although it leaves the blame for Vietnam and Watergate where you would expect the blame to lie, it does it with a slow fuse, not an Exocet. You have to read it all, word by word, to get the drift. Essentially, Dallek concludes that the Vietnam war could have ended four years earlier, saving thousands of lives, and cites the reasons for this as being entirely political and mostly self-serving to the protagonists, Nixon and Kissinger. Nixon is accused of delaying peace talks before his election, to take any big coup from the Democrats, and he and Kissinger are described as getting nowhere in four years of negotiations with North and South Vietnam, due mostly to not really having a clue what to do. The resultant settlement in Vietnam being a sham that nobody expected would include anything other than the eventual conquest of the South, by the North. Kissinger's main gambit seems to be to go to the table prepared to do the kind of "deal" that is more like swapping cigarette cards than diplomacy; "you can have X country if you give us Y" - more the action of a cheap huckster than somebody dealing with real lives in millions. Not surprisingly the North Vietnamese reeled away from this kind of dealing, leaving the United States caught without what they desperately wanted; an "honorable" face-saving withdrawal.

If you are looking for a concise narrative of Watergate, this is not the book. Watergate weaves in and out of the last year of the Nixon Presidency, but the main thrust of the book is America's conduct of foreign policy. Watergate is discussed in the context of its impact on foreign relations, just as Gordon Brown's perceived weakness abroad impacts upon our global financial status.

So, where is the fun part? A strange question to ask of such a scholarly work, but I am also of low character and like a bit of spice. I suppose the spice is the not very astounding news that American Foreign Policy is conducted by protagonists Nixon and Kissinger, much in the way that two shrill and not very manly men would discuss how they are going to impress their friends and shaft their enemies.

Dallek underscores the insecurities of the two, the ego of Kissinger and the low self-esteem of Nixon. Indeed it is as a result of this trait in the latter that Nixon was finally nailed to Watergate, not the least because Nixon commanded tape recordings to be made of his conversations in order to back himself up in the event of a dispute over who said what to who. A culture of covert wire tapping developed, not out of a desire to find out what the Democrats were doing, but originally to find out who was saying what to who in their own administration. Those who blabbed to the press were dealt IRS investigations or summary transfer to the wilds in a shrewish act of vengeance.

Nixon's rages, his paranoia and his capacity for deceit and self-delusion runs through the story. There may be modern parallels. When you read this book, you cannot help get the feeling that this scenario is being played out at Number Ten Downing Street.

Nixon and Kissinger: Parters in Power, by Robert Dallek, is published by Allen Lane.


Jim Baxter said...

Deference gap is right. I've read this and other books by Dallek - there's a marked awe of the high US offices of state which clouds judgement of the characters who have held these offices, however rotten they are. Dallek is also quite uninterested in a wider readership than Americans - he writes about 'us' and 'our policy'. The man's objectivity is seriously faulty.

If you want real hatchet jobs on Nixon and Kissinger the good old Brits provide them - Anthony Summers and Christopher Hitchens

Jim Baxter said...

But then there's always this:

Wrinkled Weasel said...

Two people read this book?

Wrinkled Weasel said...

I followed the link. Is that another spoof, or is Liddy really a nutjob?

Jim Baxter said...

No, that's the real thing. He turns up on US comedy shows from time to time and does some acting -he's quite the celebrity.