What Would Nixon Do?

Posted on June 26, 2011


President Nixon conferred with Henry A. Kissinger, right, after Mr. Kissinger's return from secret negotiations in Paris

PRESIDENT OBAMA has made good on his pledge to begin drawing down American forces in Afghanistan, but his stated strategy is unlikely to lead to a successful withdrawal.

Mr. Obama announced last week that 10,000 troops would come home by December and another 23,000 by next summer. By 2014, he confidently proclaimed, “the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”

Administration hawks, largely in the military, are uneasy; they had wanted to go slower, so as to safeguard recent gains made against the Taliban. Administration doves, largely in the White House, are disappointed; they had wanted to pull back faster, seeing the killing of Osama bin Laden as an ideal opportunity to get out.

The president split the difference, suggesting that he was charting a “centered course.” But he has actually once again evaded the fundamental choice between accepting the costs of staying and the risks of leaving.

What he needs is a strategy for getting out without turning a retreat into a rout — and he would be wise to borrow one from the last American administration to extricate itself from a thankless, seemingly endless counterinsurgency in a remote and strategically marginal region. Mr. Obama should ask himself, in short: What would Nixon do?

Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, tried to manage the risks of exiting the Vietnam War by masking their withdrawal with deliberate deception and aggressive covering fire. They almost succeeded — and if tried again in today’s more favorable environment, their strategy would most likely work.

The Nixonian approach has its costs: it would generate charges of lying, escalation and betrayal. And embracing it would require the president to display a deftness and a tough-mindedness he has rarely shown. But it could also provide the ticket home. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s best option is to repeat Mr. Nixon’s Vietnam endgame and hope for a different outcome — to get 1973, one might say, without having it followed by 1975.

It may seem crazy to regard the American withdrawal from Vietnam as anything but disastrous. Our local ally collapsed two years after signing a peace deal, our enemies triumphantly conquered the country we had fought for more than a decade to defend, and the image of panicked friends reaching in vain for the last helicopter out of Saigon remains seared into our national consciousness. But Mr. Nixon actually did a lot right in Vietnam, and his approach there was not the primary cause of the war’s ignominious end.

In late 1969, faced with increasing domestic pressure to end the war, the president and Mr. Kissinger settled on a strategy to reduce the American role in ground combat while fending off a South Vietnamese collapse. They sought to walk away from the war, get American prisoners back and avoid formally betraying an ally — something they believed would damage America’s reputation. They recognized that their approach would leave the South Vietnamese vulnerable following the American withdrawal, but considered that an acceptable price to pay for getting out.

They never said this last bit publicly, of course. But in private, they were more candid, as the White House tapes showed. During an August 1972 Oval Office chat, Mr. Nixon told Mr. Kissinger:

“Let’s be perfectly cold-blooded about it…. I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably is never gonna survive anyway…. [C]an we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam?”

Mr. Kissinger replied that American policy could remain viable if Saigon’s collapse “ looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say, in a three- to four-month period, we have pushed President Thieu over the brink…. it will worry everybody… So we’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which… no one will give a damn.”

Although Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger had steeled themselves for the possibility of an eventual South Vietnamese collapse, they hoped it could be avoided and did what they could to prevent it. And had events in Washington played out differently — with Watergate not crippling the administration and with Congress less hell-bent on slamming the door behind the departing ground troops — they might have succeeded.

Mr. Obama does not have a Watergate to contend with, nor does he face a passionately antiwar Congress. And his opponents on the battlefield don’t have the capabilities or support the North Vietnamese did. Without these stumbling blocks, he should be able to pull off a Nixonian strategy in Afghanistan. But this will involve more than simply tinkering with the number of troops being pulled out. It will mean denying what is going on, aggressively covering the retreat and staying after leaving.

THE first rule of withdrawal is you do not talk about withdrawal. You may agree with the doves about the value of exiting, but you should respect the hawks’ fears about what will happen once people realize what you are doing. You must deflect attention from the true state of affairs, doing everything you can to keep your foes and even your friends in the dark as long as possible.

The second rule of withdrawal is to lay down suppressive fire so the enemy cannot rush into the gap you leave behind. The Nixon administration was brutal and ham-fisted about this, using secret bombing runs along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and expeditions into Cambodia and Laos to buy time and space for its “Vietnamization” programs to work. Thanks to technological advances, the Obama administration can do the same thing while incurring far fewer human, financial, legal and political costs. Drone attacks and raids against enemy targets in Pakistani sanctuaries today are a precision replay of actions in Cambodia and Laos, but more effective and less controversial.

The third rule of withdrawal is to remain engaged, providing enough support to beleaguered local partners so they can fend off collapse for as long as possible. Withdrawal should be defined as the removal of ground forces from direct combat, not the abandonment of the country in question.

The Nixon administration tried to do this, and its success in stopping North Vietnam’s Easter offensive in 1972 showed that it could work. But once American troops and prisoners came home, few displayed any appetite for reengagement. Congress ordered an end to all military operations in Southeast Asia and cut aid to Saigon, making its eventual collapse a foregone conclusion. A weakened Nixon and his novice successor could do little to help their erstwhile allies in Saigon, even if they had wanted to.

Unlike Mr. Nixon, however, Mr. Obama is relatively popular and widely trusted. He has gained credibility on national security thanks to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Congress is obsessed with domestic economic issues rather than foreign policy and deferential rather than hostile to military leaders — who themselves support staying engaged in Afghanistan.

Such a favorable domestic environment is matched by a relatively favorable international one, in which America’s ability to project power remains strong and most of the world shuns radical jihadists. Should Mr. Obama seek to fend off a complete enemy victory in Afghanistan even after most American combat forces leave, he should be able to succeed — at least until, as Mr. Kissinger put it, no one gives a damn.

Having tired of the fight in Afghanistan, the United States now has to perform political triage, deciding what goals are still worth fighting for and how they can be achieved.

In Vietnam, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger sought to extricate the United States from a war even as the local combatants continued to struggle. The Obama administration should try to do the same in Afghanistan — while planning carefully for how to keep withdrawal from turning into defeat.

Gideon Rose

America’s Afghan exit foretells a new and formless world

Signature photo of the fall of Saigon

The US can no longer lay claim to being global policeman.

THE withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, formalised by Barack Obama late last week, cannot be precisely compared to America’s humiliation in Vietnam nearly 40 years ago. There have been no photographs – not yet, anyway – of US embassy staff being airlifted out of the Kabul embassy.

The approximately 5000 American deaths from the two failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan does not compare to the more than 40,000 who lost their lives in Vietnam.

The exit, so Obama insists, will be carefully managed. But president Nixon made the same claim when he announced his policy of ”Vietnamisation” after being returned to power in 1972. Nixon envisaged a smooth transition as the US departed and a South Vietnamese administration took its place. But neither the Saigon government nor its US-trained army could cope as America scuttled for the exit in the spring of 1975.

Let’s throw the clock forward to 2014, the year Obama says allied troops must go. This much is certain: the Taliban will return to power, conceivably with Mullah Omar coming down from the mountains to resume his old position, so rudely interrupted, as effective head of state.

It is unlikely that Taliban commanders will take kindly to the flourishing nightlife and lively restaurants that have sprung up under President Karzai’s rule. All this will close at once, while Kabul’s notorious Swimming Pool Hill – where blindfolded criminals and homosexuals were pushed off a high-diving board to their deaths – may open again for its ghoulish business. At best, Kabul will come to resemble a provincial Saudi Arabian city.

It is likely that Afghanistan will face a civil war, just as it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. If so, humanitarian agencies will find it impossible to operate, and reports of hideous carnage and atrocities will seep out of the country, with Western powers unable to do more than wring their hands. In any case, it is unlikely that Obama’s sketchy three-year plan will work.

There is no serious incentive – apart from cash – for any Afghan to stay loyal to the departing Americans. They must look to secure their future.

Meanwhile, governments such as Britain’s and Australia’s, with troops still operating inside Afghanistan, will be forced to answer a very troubling question: why are we sending our bravest and best young people to be maimed and killed when we are going to leave, anyway?

Those countries with a genuine long-term interest in the region will get more and more involved, and be entitled to do so – China, Iran, India, Russia and, above all, Pakistan. No force on Earth will prevent the Pakistan government from backing the Afghan Taliban.

So where does this latest humiliation leave the US? Many predicted that defeat in Vietnam would mark the end of the American century, yet they were soon proved wrong and the US went on to enjoy a period of astonishing global success. But that happy epoch is over.

Certainly, America remains the greatest military force on Earth. Yet the sorry lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that this prodigious military muscle is practically useless for 21st-century warfare.

There is a sense that last week’s Afghan defeat was ordained when Obama, with his mandate to bring George Bush’s senseless ”war on terror” to an end, won the 2008 presidential election. Now Obama has fulfilled his promise, yet the task that lies ahead for him is tougher still. More serious than America’s military defeat in Afghanistan is its moral defeat. Again and again, it has behaved as hideously, and with the same barbaric contempt for human rights, as its worst enemies. Obama needs to reunite the US with civilised values.

The rest of the familiar postwar architecture has gone. America is no longer capable of being the policeman of the world, and may retreat to its historic isolation. Across the Atlantic, the debt crisis may yet destroy the European dream. History is moving faster than ever, and taking us into a new and formless world.

Peter Oborne

Posted in: Politics