Is Richard Nixon really in San Clemente? Or back in the White House? The Mayagüez affair was handled with that unforgettable Nixon touch. The overwhelming concern behind it was not the safe recovery of the ship’s crew but a fear that prolonged negotiations over it would be “humiliating,” would show us to be—in Nixon’s plaintive phrase—a “pitiful helpless giant.” This fear of impotence was the dominant Nixon neurosis in foreign policy, and its marks are so clear in the White House response to the ship seizure as to make one wonder who’s really in the Oval Office. Ford’s public relations men are trying to sell him as a second Truman, but he’s unmistakably vintage Nixon; the bottle may carry a new label but the content is from the same cru.
Ford’s main victory in the Mayagüez affair was not over Cambodia but over Congress. The most important casualty was the War Powers Act of 1973. Nixon’s bitterest defeat in foreign policy was the vote with which Congress overrode his veto of that act. What Nixon could not block, his successor—in one swift stroke—has emasculated. The act requires a president, before sending troops into action, to “consult” with Congress. The Mayagüez affair has reduced this salutary restraint on trigger-happy executives to a dead letter.
What does consult mean? The word may be imprecise, in that it leaves open the question of who will make the final decision, and how; but it is not without meaning. Webster’s defines it, “To seek the opinion or advice of another; to take counsel; to deliberate together; to confer.” In the Mayagüez affair congressional advice was neither invited nor taken.
A select handful of congressional leaders—mostly the old-boy network—were told; they were not consulted. With Ford’s version of consultation, the Imperial Presidency of Nixon is back, full blown. The constitutional war-declaring power of Congress is again in deep freeze. Once again, in Kissinger’s word for it, the executive can be “flexible” and once again the country may be plunged into military adventures in Asia or elsewhere without full debate or even full knowledge of the facts. The Cambodians may not have been frightened, but we had better be.
With the old Nixon-Kissinger finesse, Ford went through all the motions but reduced consultation to a sly caricature. The decision to engage in military action was arrived at in a National Security Council meeting on Tuesday morning, May 13. But “consultation” with congressional leaders did not begin until 5:55 PM when the troops were already in motion, and only an hour and thirty-five minutes before the first shots were fired.
When the act was passed, everyone assumed not only that “consultation” would be before decision but that it would involve direct contact with the president. But Ford did it with a series of telephone calls. The calls were made by White House staffers so far down the bureaucratic totem pole …