Sunday, June 26, 2011

What would Nixon do in Afghanistan? Kill a million more

The Times' inaugural revamped Sunday Review section is garnished with an extraordinarily perverse argument by Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, regarding Obama's course in Afghanistan.  Rose asserts a) that in Afghanistan Obama should emulate Nixon's withdrawal strategy in Vietnam; b) that he is failing to do so; c) that Nixon's strategy was smart and could have worked; and d) that a similar strategy could work in Afghanistan.

Points a) and d) arguably have some truth to them; b) is largely refuted by Rose himself; and c) is factually wrong and morally objectionable.

Let's start with the deliberately provocative founding premise: that Nixon's "Vietnamization" and phased U.S. withdrawal could have worked.  Emphasizing the outré nature of this claim, Rose boldly quotes Nixon himself (and Kissinger) in seeming refutation:

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.”
After putting that up on the board, it takes some chutzpah to argue, as Rose does, that "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." I suppose you could write these grotesquely cynical assessments off as a combination of bravado -- each man showing off his tough-mindedness to the other --  a superstitious let's-expect-the-worst-and-hope-for-the-best impulse to ward off nemesis.

The problem with that is, Nixon's assessment of U.S. prospects in Vietnam was always and ever thus. Listen to him in 1966. According to his former law partner Leonard Garment, who accompanied him on campaign stops during the wilderness years before his 1968 presidential run, Nixon laid out the Vietnam endgame to financial backer Elmer Bobst (as recounted by Rick Perlstein in Nixonland):
"Bobst thought it [U.S. engagement in Vietnam] was an unmitigated disaster from which the United States must quickly withdraw. Nixon, said Bobst, agreed that Vietnam could not be "won" and that we would eventually have to withdraw."  That withdrawal, however, must take place under the most strategically propitious circumstances -- whether they be one, five, or ten years in the future. Until that time, the public would just have to be told what the public had to be told (p. 138, citing Garment's 1997 memoir, Crazy Rhythm).
In light of Nixon's pre-game and endgame can't-doism -- along with evidence that he sabotaged a potential peace deal in the runup to the 1968 election, passing word to the south Vietnamese that they would get a better deal under his leadership -- consider the costs. For a fig leaf of specious success, Nixon and Kissinger effected the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and over 20,000 U.S. soldiers. Their illegal bombing destabilized Cambodia, leading to the Khmer Rouge takeover and triggering a holocaust in which by most estimates 1-2 million people died by execution and starvation.  To conclude as Rose does that "Mr. Nixon actually did a lot right in Vietnam" -- while causing millions of deaths in pursuit of ends that he himself recognized as smoke and mirrors -- is obscene.

Nevertheless it's true, as Rose asserts, that the conditions that made collapse and defeat inevitable in Vietnam do not exist in Afghanistan (not to deny that other factors may cause failure):
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. 
That leads to the oddest conclusion: that Obama is bungling his Nixonian "Afghanistanization' strategy. This charge rests on a complaint that Obama is violating "the first rule of withdrawal":
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.
Never mind that by Rose's own account Obama is obeying his next two rules: "lay down suppressive fire so the enemy cannot rush into the gap you leave behind" and "remain engaged, providing enough support to beleaguered local partners so they can fend off collapse for as long as possible."   The simple fact that Obama has announced and is sticking to a timeline means that "his stated strategy is unlikely to lead to a successful withdrawal."

The claim that Obama's withdrawal schedule will scotch the effort to avoid a Taliban takeover or ongoing high-level civil war in Afghanistan is questionable on several counts -- particularly when contrasted with Nixon's "almost successful" strategy. First, Nixon himself unveiled early in his presidency his "Vietnamization" plan -- that is, to steadily draw down U.S. troops and replace them with Vietnamese troops, which he did.  It's true that Nixon pointedly refused to lay down a timetable for withdrawal -- as did George W. Bush after him in Iraq, before he was forced to do so by the Iraqi government he'd put in place. But Iraq is an essential precedent for such a timetable. Karzai, more dysfunctional than al-Maliki, has also demanded a target withdrawal date. And the dangers of imposing a timeline are fundamentally different when the enemy is backed by a superpower; in a conflict where control by a rival superpower is not a threat, the negative effects of continued perceived "occupation" by U.S. and allied troops looms larger. Nixon, in any case, drew down American troops rapidly, timeline or no; though he covered his tracks with brutal carpet bombing, it was clear where the U.S. was headed. 

Second, Obama has hardly cut bait: there will be some 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in September 2012, when the surge drawdown is complete, and the Pentagon has called Nato's goal of withdrawal most troops by the end of 2014 "aspirational." 

Then too, Rose has listed among Obama's assets relative to Nixon the fact that he is "widely trusted." Could it be that Obama has gained that trust in large part by spelling out what he hopes to accomplish, and when, and how, and forcing all parties to work within that framework?

You can't compare moral apples and oranges.  A president who announces modest goals (Obama has repeatedly defined down success in Afghanistan) and tries to meet them, inviting all parties to conflict to seek a stake in a negotiated solution, is playing on a different field from one who spends four years pulverizing an enemy he believes will triumph in any case.

See also: Rick Perlstein on the dark side of democracy

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