Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What DID Nixon Do? or, How NOT to Withdraw from Afghanistan

When you study diplomatic history as I do, you become used to the cold-blooded calculus policymakers routinely employ in making their decisions. But an article in Sunday's New York Times was stunning even by that jaundiced standard.

The author Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, argues that President Obama, in looking for a way out of Afghanistan, should ask himself: "What Would Nixon Do?"

Aside from the self-evident obscenity of substituting the name "Nixon" where the popular mind is used to seeing "Jesus," the article also advocates that Obama emulate what is arguably the most cynical and dishonest part of Nixon's foreign policy record: his withdrawal from Vietnam.

It became common in the years of his post-Watergate disgrace for Nixon defenders to point to his foreign policy as a positive aspect of his presidency. Indeed, there is something to that. I would argue, for example, that the long-run effect of Nixon's policy of detente is due more credit for the end of the cold war than Ronald Reagan's military build-up in the 1980s.

But Rose takes that generally plausible point and stretches it beyond reason, asserting that "Mr. Nixon actually did a lot right in Vietnam." No, he did not.

Rose's argument is that Nixon had the right idea: "to walk away from the war ... and avoid formally betraying an ally." The key word here is "formally." Nixon knew, as Rose concedes, that "South Vietnam is never gonna survive anyway," as he said to Henry Kissinger. The objective was to make sure there was a decent interval between American withdrawal and South Vietnam's collapse, so that the U.S. would not look too bad.

This is the course Rose urges on Obama! He summarizes thus: "It will mean denying what is going on, aggressively covering the retreat and staying after leaving." To translate: lie, kill, lie some more.

Rose glosses over the costs of this policy. "Denying what is going on" helped destroy Nixon's credibility with the American public. "Aggressively covering retreat" included such things as the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia (secret to Americans--the Laotians and Cambodians were well aware they were being bombed), the invasion of Cambodia (and subsequent destabilization that helped lead to the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge), and unprecedented bombing of the North.

Nixon did all that, and prolonged the war for four long years, only to accept a peace that in the end was not appreciably different from the one he helped scuttle in 1968. In October, right before the election, LBJ was close to a peace agreement. Nixon's campaign sent word to the South Vietnamese president that he should not accept any LBJ-brokered agreement, because Nixon would get him a better one if elected. The negotiations collapsed, Nixon was elected, and the war dragged on.

What did Nixon accomplish in those four years? In the words of Kissinger in 1972, they found a "formula that holds the thing together for a year or two, after which ... no one will give a damn." They got that.  South Vietnam collapsed in April 1975, over two years after the end of the American war.

What was the price of guarding America's image until no one gave a damn? Over 20,000 more Americans killed in action. You won't find that number anywhere in Rose's piece. Evidently that was not an important fact for him. There were about 100,000 South Vietnamese army soldiers killed in those years, even more North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.  And that doesn't even count the civilian casualties.

Rose calls on Obama show more "tough-mindedness." He does not tell his readers how many people will have to die for this pointless show of machismo.

Lastly, Rose shrugs off the fact that Nixon's policy failed to in any way save the situation in South Vietnam. That, he wants us to believe, is not the product of the policy, but of the impact of Watergate and the unwillingness of Congress to support "staying after leaving." With different circumstances, he says, Obama could pull off what Nixon could not.

This is a common claim for those who continue to insist that somehow, someway, the Vietnam war really was winnable. If only Nixon hadn't been distracted by Watergate, they wail (neglecting the fact that Nixon's paranoia over the anti-war sentiment in the U.S. was directly related to the crimes we lump together as "Watergate"). If only Congress hadn't kept President Ford from bombing the North in 1975 (as if air power alone could somehow have saved that hopeless regime). Then we would have won, they say.

This is fantasy. Nixon knew that. He only wanted to save face, not save South Vietnam.

There are indeed times, especially in foreign policy, when a president must be cold-blooded, even ruthless. But he need not be stupid about it. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of Obama's Afghanistan surge, and fear what may come in the wake of the inevitable American withdrawal from that country. But I am confident he will not be foolish enough to take Rose's advice and make like Nixon.

"It may seem crazy to regard the American withdrawal from Vietnam as anything but disastrous," Rose writes. Well, at least he got that right.

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