When I saw pictures of the British sailors and marines, on the eve of their freedom from Iran, dressed in ill-fitting suits that Iranian tailors had run up for them, memory raced back nearly 40 years when a similar drama was being played out in another country of which the United States then disapproved.It was Cambodia in the autumn of 1968, in that last twilight time before regime change, war, and the Khmer Rouge tore that country to pieces. Prince Norodom Sihanouk had managed to keep Cambodia out of the inferno that was raging in neighboring Laos and Vietnam, but the United States was cross at him for allowing the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese to use his territory -- not that he really had any choice.
Some American soldiers, on a river boat, had wandered up the Mekong from Vietnam into Cambodian territory and been captured. Sihanouk played the incident with the same theatricality as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did with his British prisoners.
"When we do something from Islamic compassion, we expect nothing in return," Ahmadinejad said, and so he freed his prisoners as a gift.
Sihanouk used the occasion of a national holiday to release his captives. He, too, had sent tailors around the jail to measure his prisoners for new suits -- white linen suits in this case. Sihanouk threw in neckties as well -- the tie of his political organization. Like the Iranians, he made a public spectacle of his country's generosity, and spoke, too, of religion.
"I love Buddha," he said in his high-pitched voice, "all Cambodians are small Buddhas. . ." and they would be compassionate and let the prisoners go.
But he refused to give back their boat. "It has no heart, it has no soul, it will do very well here with our little navy," he said.
I was amused when a Financial Times editorial used the word "mercurial" when referring to Ahamadinejad. That was the favorite adjective newspapers used for Sihanouk, although for my money Sihanouk had a great deal more to recommend him than the Iranian president.
Scarcely 18 months later, Sihanouk was deposed. I have never believed that the Americans were directly involved in the coup, but they certainly encouraged it, and took advantage of it. An American invasion, and a no-quarter war followed for five years, until the long, genocidal night of the Khmer Rouge descended across the land.
It was the final spasm of a disastrous American foreign-policy mistake that had engulfed Indochina, and I thought, when it was finally over, that a painful lesson had been learned. I was wrong.
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
Get our best delivered to your inbox.
Some of the same characters in the American government who later brought us Iraq -- Vice President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld high among them -- took the wrong lesson away from the Indochina debacle. They thought: Just give us another chance and we'll get it right.
They didn't get it right, of course, and now Iran is in America's crosshairs. It is probably fortunate for Ahmadinejad that his captives were not Americans for it is unlikely that the Bush administration would have played the incident with the same skill as the British. A hostage crisis might have been just what Cheney needed to press for an attack upon Iran.
It is unlikely that Iran's dramatic release of the British servicemen, and one woman, will gain any good will with the Bush administration, any more than Sihanouk's gesture did with Nixon. In the end Congress closed down the Indochina war, and the last fighter bomber flying the last mission flew away with the pilot playing "Turkey in the Straw' on his harmonica over the radio.
Terrible things happened to Indochina after American power was withdrawn, and reasonable people worry that the same things will happen in Iraq. But the real betrayal was going in, not out, and the great mistake was to believe that the American public support would keep a losing war going on forever.
Iraq has passed beyond the ability of the United States to control in anything but the most temporary and superficial way. General David Petraeus undoubtedly spoke the truth when he said: "The Washington clock is moving faster than the Baghdad clock."
The Iraq drama will play out to its inevitable end, but if Congress really wants to do some good it should start putting up every possible legal barrier to a war with Iran.
Correction: My apologies to the ghost of Horatio Herbert Kitchener for misnaming him in last week's column.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2007 The Boston Globe