Robert Dallek: Bush compared with Nixon & Kissinger

Historians in the News

The current war in Iraq is mentioned only once in Robert Dallek’s engrossing new book, “Nixon and Kissinger,” and yet the reader cannot help regarding his account of the Nixon White House and its handling of the Vietnam War as a kind of parable about the presidency of George W. Bush and its determination to stay the course in Iraq.

Indeed, Mr. Dallek seems to have taken up the much-written-about subject of Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser (and later secretary of state) Henry A. Kissinger with just this sort of subtext in mind, for he ends his preface with this observation: “Arguments about the wisdom of the war in Iraq and how to end U.S. involvement there, relations with China and Russia, what to do about enduring Mideast tensions between Israelis and Arabs, and the advantages and disadvantages of an imperial presidency can, I believe, be usefully considered in the context of a fresh look at Nixon and Kissinger and the power they wielded for good and ill.”

Though much of the Nixon White House’s copious tape and paper trail has been available for years and books by insiders like H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, have minutely chronicled the Jacobean atmosphere that thrived in that embattled White House, Mr. Dallek has shrewdly drawn upon recently declassified archives, including transcripts of Mr. Kissinger’s phone calls and the papers of Alexander M. Haig Jr., Mr. Kissinger’s deputy on the National Security Council and later Nixon’s chief of staff.

And while his book leans heavily at times on the work of earlier authors — most notably Richard Reeves’s gripping 2001 account of the Nixon presidency (“President Nixon: Alone in the White House”), Walter Isaacson’s incisive 1992 biography of Mr. Kissinger (“Kissinger”) and David Greenberg’s fascinating 2003 deconstruction of Nixon’s image (“Nixon’s Shadow”) — he has succeeded in drawing a compelling portrait of the two men while analyzing the momentous consequences their foreign policy decisions had on America and the world....

Both men saw themselves as foreign policy realists, yet their missteps would be compared by analysts and pundits to the missteps made by neoconservative ideologues in the Bush administration. In both cases, there was a drive to expand executive power. In both cases there was a distrust of the foreign policy elite, which led to policy-making outside the usual channels and a circumvention of experts at the State Department and the C.I.A. In both cases there was a growing isolation at the White House as increasingly unpopular wars ground on. And in both cases there were huge ambitions to recast world affairs....

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