Obama’s Nixonian Dilemma with Iraq

News Abroad

Mr. Robertson is a doctoral candidate in Diplomatic and Modern Vietnamese history at Texas Tech University and is writing a dissertation on the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War.

With several public commentators and scholars comparing President-elect Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, it has surprised me that there has been little attempt to compare Obama’s election with Richard M. Nixon’s election, exactly forty years ago. Both inherited divisive wars from the previous administration and both campaigns failed to provide clear answers or solutions for disengagement from Vietnam and Iraq.

Nixon largely avoided establishing a clear position on Vietnam while promising to pursue a “peace with honor,” and Obama promises to “responsibly end the war in Iraq.” Both, moreover, sought the advice of Henry Kissinger. Jeffrey Kimball, the eminent scholar on Nixon and the Vietnam War, revealed that Nixon hoped his credentials as a career anti-communist and potential nuclear threats against North Vietnam and the Soviet Union would force the North Vietnamese to agree to a cease-fire. Nixon based this approach on the belief that Eisenhower’s nuclear threats toward China and North Korea forced both countries to sue for a cease-fire (though recent scholarship suggests that Stalin’s death played a principal factor in North Korea’s, China’s and, the Soviet Union’s decision to agree to a cease-fire). Obama, on the other hand, campaigned on a promise to “press Iraq’s leaders to take responsibility for their future and to substantially spend their oil revenues on their own reconstruction,” and “increase stability in Iraq by launching “an aggressive diplomatic effort to reach a comprehensive compact on the stability of Iraq and the region.”

While Obama’s policy toward Iraq remains to be seen, historians possess a treasure’s trove of evidence that sheds light on Nixon’s approach to Vietnam. During the transition period, Henry Kissinger, one of Johnson’s delegates at the Paris Peace Talks and soon to be Nixon’s national security advisor, transferred members of the Johnson administration into his own staff and advocated Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s approach of “staged withdrawals of external forces” and asserted that “the primary responsibility for negotiating the internal structure of South Viet Nam should be left for direct negotiations among the South Vietnamese.” Thus, the Nixon administration’s Vietnamization policy, based on the Johnson administration’s “de-Americanization” policy, sought to arm the South Vietnamese, pressure the Democratic Republic of Vietnam through triangular diplomacy, and prevent or delay the fall of the Nguyen Van Thieu government.

Nixon ignored the advice of many of his advisors, including Daniel Patrick Monyihan, who advocated abandoning Vietnam and blaming the war on Johnson and Kennedy. Instead, Nixon initially relied on nuclear threats and further expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos to convince the North Vietnamese to recognize the “legitimacy” of the South Vietnamese government and engage in serious negotiations. When these approaches failed, Nixon played with the idea of abandoning Vietnam entirely, but Kissinger continually reminded him that the fall of Vietnam would greatly hamper the administration's attempts to realign American foreign policy with the Soviet Union and China and hurt Nixon’s reelection chances in 1972. Thus, Nixon, despite continual pressure from the public and congress to end the war, continued the American effort in Vietnam until 1973, producing a "decent interval" in which to disengage and leave South Vietnam to its fate.

President-elect Obama faces many of the same challenges Nixon faced in 1968. Popular support for the war in Iraq has reached an all-time low. And he faces the decision of whether to cut our losses or to basically continue the policy of the Bush administration. With many policy experts concluding that the U.S. troop surge has been successful, Obama will have little incentive to choose an alternative approach to Iraq. To further complicate matters, if Obama does choose to withdraw U.S. troops too quickly from Iraq, there is a good chance that the Iraqi government will collapse and the region will become further destabilized. There can be little doubt that if Iraq did fall, Obama would have to struggle to convince Americans to support his policies. The political fallout could damage his chances for reelection in 2012.

Some may argue that Obama has the advantage of working with a Congress and Senate controlled by the Democrats (whereas Nixon faced a Congress controlled by the opposing political party). The Democratic controlled Congress, however, has done very little to restrict President George W. Bush’s prosecution of the war. In fact, last summer, the Democratic controlled Congress appropriated $162 billion dollars to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as “Johnson’s war” became “Nixon’s War,” “Bush’s War” could very easily become “Obama’s War.” Nixon’s continuation of the war, while he believed he was maintaining global credibility by supporting South Vietnam, did countless damage to the United States’ image abroad, resulted in 20,000 additional U.S. casualties and contributed to millions of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian casualties. In the end he failed to save the Republic of Vietnam.

In order to save himself from repeating Nixon's Vietnam misadventure, Obama needs to decide if continuation of the Iraq war will produce a truly democratic government in Iraq and if the United States can economically and politically support the new government indefinitely. In a recent issue of the Sunday New York Times, Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial chairman of Iraqi National Congress, declared the Iraq war over and came out in support of the withdrawal of American troops. If U.S. efforts cannot sustain or support the regime after disengagement, Obama may choose the path that merely continues the violence and produces another decent interval.

Because the price of a loss in Iraq would be high, Obama will feel pressure to continue Bush’s Iraq policy of “Iraqifying" the war. Just as Kissinger believed he needed the illusion of peace in Vietnam to build a new international system to replace the dated policy of containment and secure a second term for Nixon, Obama knows that the prospect of progress in Iraq strengthens his diplomatic leverage with Iran, allows his administration to commit more resources to Afghanistan, maintains American influence in the region, checks the growth of China’s economic power in Asia and the Middle East, and helps secure his reelection in 2012.

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/26/2008

I'm ready to serve as an assistant to chief prosecutor in those trials.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/19/2008

Okay, let's try Kennedy for war crimes because he started the war in Vietnam, and also Truman, for starting the war in Korea. And let's nail Clinton for his war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Robert Lee Gaston - 12/10/2008

Yes, they will remain in effect unless they are specifically repudiated. In the same sense, Jimmy Carter’s policy (doctrine) that the United States will go to war to keep vital materials (Oil) flowing through the Persian (Arabian) Gulf is still in effect until it is formally changed.

Carter’s words were: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

These were written by one Zbigniew Brzezinski who, by the way, is one of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy advisors. I would not look for too much change. The Carter Doctrine remains the official policy of the United States.

In the instance of Iraq the new President would have to specifcally repudiate the existing policy, and risk the subsequent political heat.

omar ibrahim baker - 12/10/2008

"…and the vast majority of those were victims of murdering communist regimes, not war combat as you allege."

Except for "communist regimes” does NOT this phrase above amply describe the situation in Iraq?
The USA seems to have developed a new approach to the ruination and destruction of non friendly societies/nations in that it goes in , arms and disarms, lets in or bars out sufficient elements of intelligence services and their paramilitaries to wreck havoc in the targeted society by unleashing the most ruinous forces in and around it.

An entirely new development in the Iraqi conquest, the like of which, to the best of my knowledge, did NOT exist in Viet Nam, is the official and openly declared use of hired guns and legally incorporated , by and in the USA , of mercenaries such as Black Water officially contracted by the government of the USA.

However that last development should have been anticipated being the inevitable, optimal, symbiotic alliance of the goals and dictates of political imperialism and the demands, and opportunities, of the doctrine of a Free Market!

Arnold Shcherban - 12/9/2008

Some apparently highly educated and
allegedly people-loving folks still cannot realize that the very practice of massive military intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign countries is wrong, anti-humane, and in the discussed case of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iraq was nothing more or less than outright aggression with consequent war crimes.
Crimes committed by the opposite side, regardless how horrible they were, cannot abolish or justify the former ones.
That should have been the main lesson
of the US military itervention around
the world. Alas, what we hear more and more lately is the reevaluation of history of the US/UK imperialism in favorable to the latter manner:
distortion of the very essence of humanity.

Brian Robertson - 12/9/2008

Thanks again for the comment. I agree that congress is culpable in the decent interval. That is why I used the word "produced." At the same time, however, the American public grew weary of the war and Kissinger and Nixon both recognized this.

As for the boat people comment, I am no apologist for the DRV's/SRV's postwar policies. Without getting into the debate over whether the Vietnam War is a just cause or not, my point is that without popular support from the people and Congress, how can the executive branch effectively carry out a war? Especially in a democracy?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/9/2008

The Congress of the U.S. was highly culpable in the demise of the government of South Vietnam by their summary cut-off of support for the Arvan. I don't see any mention of that in your synopsis.

You try to hold Nixon partially to blame for the murder of two million Cambodians, which I think is absurd, but if we put that bloodbath aside, how about the additional 1.5 million South Vietnamese "boatpepole?" Who who do we blame for their destruction, the Pacific Ocean?

Maarja Krusten - 12/9/2008

An interesting and thoughtful essay, Mr. Robertson. A few observations on sustainability and public support.

As you point out, Nixon inherited and Obama will inherit a war not supported by a majority of the people polled. The reasons differed, of course.

As a young college student during the early 1970s, I wore "Tell it to Hanoi" and "Silent Majority" buttons. I bought in to the domino theory and believed then that fighting to support the government of South Vietnam was the right thing to do.

Most of my fellow students at GWU, which I entered as a freshman in 1969, appeared to oppose the war. Why were people such as I in the minority on my campus? The military draft was a big factor, of course, as was the high rate of deaths and casualties among those serving in Vietnam. The war had an incredibly polarizing effect on people. There seemed to be little middle ground on which to meet. The rhetoric on both sides was heated.

Tabitha Warters's thesis on Presidential children illustrates how different things were back then in contrast to what the Bush administration faces and Obama will face. Warters wrote of Nixon's daughter and son-in-law that "Retreating from Smith and Amherst for Julie and David would prove yet another challenge in their young marriage. Neither Julie nor David was able to attend their graduation ceremonies in June of 1970 for safety reasons. As Julie recounts. . . . College officials at Smith and Amherst had made it clear to both the Eisenhower family and my Secret Service detail that they could not guarantee our safety at graduation ceremonies. Emotions were running high. The demonstrators’ usual chants were ‘Hell, no, we won’t go,’ ‘Peace now,’ ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your [expletive deleted] war.’

But recently the Northhampton Hampshire Gazette had reported that at an antiwar rally the crowd had screamed a new chant, ‘[Expletive deleted] Julie, [Expletive deleted] David’”

The draft is not a factor in the Iraq war and the rhetoric is much less heated. Yet the Bush administration has struggled to make a case that would stick with the public. Members of the public vary much more than they did during the Vietnam war on their levels of engagement with the issue.

There may be parts of the U.S. where some Americans personally do not know a single person who has served in Iraq. (The sons of two of my colleagues at work have done tours; one presently is on his third.) Some people view the war in more abstract terms than did many of those polled during the Vietnam War. However, even without people reacting viscerally due to a draft, the administration has struggled to sell the war to the public.

Whether members of the public view the issues abstractly or feel them viscerally, Presidents need to convince a majority that the risks of placing troops in harm's way are worth it.

By the time Nixon became President, fewer and fewer people believed commitment of troops in Vietnam was warranted. We'll never know whether he would have been able to support the government of South Vietnam with air power after the signing of the peace accords, had he not had to resign because of Watergate. The abuses of power, which Nixon seemed to believe reflected how other Presidents had operated, ultimately did him in.

I don't know what effect the recent comments by President Bush and his former advisor, Karl Rove, will have on polling number regarding the war. Both implied that had the intelligence been different, the administration might not have gone to war in Iraq. In his recent interview with Charlie Gibson, GWB said he wished the intelligence had been different.

When it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, some supporters of the war in the blogosphere shot back at critics of the war, "So I take it you would rather Saddam Hussein still were in power?" But the world has many suffering people who are undergoing all sorts of terrible abuses and hardships because of tribal conflicts or dictatorial leaders. Obviously, even a nation which says it has a freedom agenda cannot help, much less liberate, them all.

The polls I've seen suggest that people have some ambivalence over when and how troops should be withdrawn. How the President-elect threads the needle remains to be seen. When Vietnam fell, most Americans turned their attention elsewhere. Some became more isolationist or wary of foreign adventures. Others fumed about stab-in-the-back theories (some still do to this day). As Bush said of Iraq, President's do not get do-overs. For better or worse, Obama faces a much more dangerous world and greater challenges, in many ways, than did those who succeeded Lyndon Johnson and Nixon in the White House.

Raymond Schultz - 12/8/2008

Before the fall of Saigon in 1975 and President Nixon's resignation in 1974, letters were exchanged between the President of the United States and the President of South Vietnam. President Nixon promised air support (after the Paris Peace Accords of 1973) in the event that North Vietnam attacked South Vietnam in violation of signed treaties. President Ford, in 1975, had not signed an agreement with South Vietnam or it's President and no direct US air support was provided.

President George W. Bush must have some privileged executive correspondence with the present government of Iraq. Will these agreements be in force after President-Elect Barack Obama takes office in 2009?

I hope that you find time to write a book soon.

Brian Robertson - 12/8/2008

Hi and thanks for the comment, and your disagreement on the stability of Iraq. I thought I would clear up that I never "alleged" that all of the casualties were combat casualties and I specifically used the word "contributed." Most scholars agree that the U.S. escalation of the air war contributed to the destabilization of the Sihanouk government and contributed to the conditions that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (for example, see Shawcross and Kimball). Nixon, of course, did his best to support General Lon Nol. In the end, the United States failed (for a variety of reasons)to support the new Cambodian government and this "contributed" to the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/8/2008

Lyndon Johnson left Richard Nixon with a raging war going on in Vietnam. George W. Bush is leaving Barack Obama with an Iraq nation not only at peace, but also building the foundations of a friendly-to-U.S. democracy in the heart of the Middle East... How many men did we lose in Iraq in the past month, three? How will it look in Iraq after another five weeks of this, before Obama comes in? If Chalabi says it's over, a man who knows all the players and speaks the language, who are you to doubt him?

I would point out, also, that Nixon got what he wanted, i.e., a sweeping re-election in 1972, and all the Americans brought home. It was the Indo-Chinese people who were the big losers. You say we lost 20,000 there while Nixon was president, and I don't doubt that, and it's sad. But the Indo-Chinese were to lose about 4,000,000 after Nixon became president, and the vast majority of those were victims of murdering communist regimes, not war combat as you allege.