Monday, January 01, 2007

Gerald Ford

After the recent death of former American President Gerald Ford, historian Juan Cole has published a retrospective of Ford's presidency, with the emphasis on his foreign policy:

He was against just assassinating people, and insisted on warrants for the wiretapping of US citizens.

All presidents make errors, and some abuses occurred on Ford's watch, though they often were initiated by Kissinger. But Ford faced with no illusions the challenges of his era, of detente with the Soviet Union, continued attempts to cultivate China, the collapse of Indochina, the fall-out of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War. Ford was right about detente, right about China, right about Arab-Israeli peace, right about avoiding a big entanglement in Angola, right to worry about nuclear proliferation (one of his worries was the increasing evidence that the Middle East had a nuclear power, Israel, and India was moving in that direction).

Ford's challengers on the Reagan Right were wrong about everything. They vastly over-estimated the military and economic strength of the Soviet Union (yes, that's Paul Wolfowitz). They wanted confrontation with China. They dismissed the Arab world as Soviet occupied territory (even though the vast majority of Arab states was US allies at that time) and urged that it be punished till it accepted Israel's territorial gains in 1967. They insisted that the Vietnam War could have been won.

But despite its illusions and Orwellian falsehoods, the Reagan Right prevailed. Ford only momentarily lost to Carter. Both of them were to lose to Reagan, who resorted to Cold War brinkmanship, private militias, death squads, offshore accounts, unconstitutional criminality, and under the table deals with Khomeini, and who created a transition out of the Cold War that left the private militias (one of them al-Qaeda) empowered to wreak destruction in the aftermath. The blowback from that Reaganesque era of private armies of the Right helped push the US after 2001 toward an incipient fascism at which Ford, the All-American, the lawyerly gentleman, the great Wolverine, must have wept daily in his twilight years.

[Note: "Wolverine" is a reference to Ford's early career as a footballer, not to the superhero of the same name.]

Cole paints a pretty picture of Ford, and I suppose it could even be true. Ford was unique in one sense, he was the only American president in recent times who gained power without being elected into office. That made him different from all the other rabid stoats who clawed and kicked their way into power by whatever means it took.

But only a little different: Ford may not have been elected president, but he was elected into an exceedingly senior position in the Republican Party. He might have been old-school conservative, but he was only a Good Guy in comparison to the team of criminals and czarists who have stolen the Republican Party. When push came to shove, Ford's foreign policy was no less ruthless than any other American president of the last century: long on the rhetoric of virtuousness, short on actual virtue. It has taken the reckless imperialist George Bush Junior to make Ford seem appealing: Ford, to his credit, was sensible and pragmatic, which is probably the best we can hope for in the president of the USA. But, whether driven by Ford or by Kissinger, the Ford administration continued the grand old tradition of the USA, of putting short term selfish gains ahead of long term benefits.

Cole's article does a good job of showing Ford's policy successes, but before we made Ford into a saint of old-fashioned virtuous conservativism, let's remember what else he and his administration did. He pardoned his former boss, the crook Richard Nixon, preventing justice from being done. Neither he nor Kissinger voluntarily ended the pointless war in Vietnam, it took the Congress to force his hand.

He gave the okay to Indonesian president Suharto -- who had massacred hundreds of thousands of political enemies when he came into power -- to invade East Timor, leading to the killing of a quarter or a third of the East Timor population. Not only did Ford give Suharto a nod and a wink to invade, but he provided material support for the invasion, such as ground-attack planes.

Despite Ford's otherwise admirable attempts to bring Israel to the negotiating table, his administration nevertheless opposed moves by the U.N. Security Council to reach a peace settlement in the Middle East. And he gave Rumsfeld and Cheney their start in politics.

And of course, in the end Ford displayed remarkable cowardice towards the GOP czars who came after him. What good did his tears for the sins of Reagan and Bush do for his country? Why didn't he speak up while he was still alive?

Ford might have been less wicked than the Republican presidents who followed him, and possibly even the Democrats, but in my heart of hearts I can't see terribly much to admire in him.

No comments: