Monday, June 27, 2011

"Imitate Nixon" is So Rarely a Good Idea

I strongly recommend Andrew Sprung's epic takedown of a particularly awful column by Gideon Rose in the Sunday NYT.

Sprung hits most of the important points, but there's one more worth making. The Nixon theory was that the danger for the US in leaving Vietnam and allowing the loss of South Vietnam to appear to be US policy would be that future allies and enemies alike wouldn't trust the US to stand by its friends.

But that's a dubious proposition to begin with if, as Nixon expected, South Vietnam was going to fall anyway.

Moreover, it's not the only possible lesson that enemies could draw from Nixon's strategy, which after all, as Sprung points out, was extremely costly to the US. The other lesson is what apparently bin Laden believed: that the US could easily be enticed into fighting long, drawn-out stalemates -- and that once in, it was fairly easy to keep bleeding it indefinitely. As long as you (that is, bin Laden or North Vietnam and it's allies) are willing to absorb the damage, too.

Generally, "we're easily duped into doing something stupid and self-damaging" isn't nearly as wise a message to send as Nixon, and Rose, seem to believe it is.


  1. That's a misleading way of phrasing the message; a more fair way would be "we're willing to cut off our nose to spite our face." Bin Laden and North Vietnam were made to pay significant prices for fighting the US and that's obviously a part of the message being sent. Whether or not the price they paid was higher than what the US paid might be open to debate, but that the price was significant to them is clearly true.

  2. Assuming I read it correctly, Sprung's argument is that Nixon callously murdered millions of innocents based on a mere "hope" that things would work out (c. 1972), a hope that was apparently contradicted by private comments he made in 1966. I'll play along with the assumption that the Vietnam War circa 1966 was essentially the same dynamic as the War in 1972.

    The much more enlightened President Obama is handling his quagmire more effectively than the evil Nixon did, as evidenced by the fact that Obama's timetable will "likely" not lead to a Taliban takeover. Couldn't tell from Sprung's piece why the Taliban wouldn't reassert if we left today, tomorrow, next year, or a hundred years from now, but here again I'll consider another giant leap of faith. (Oddly, Sprung reminds us that lo these many years later, the Karzai regime remains hideously corrupt and unpopular; if the Taliban would not fill a post-Karzai, post US troops void, who would? Or does he feel that there would be no void? Cause Obama wants it that way?)

    So let us assume that, per the scheduled drawdown timetable, Obama's Afghanistan surge will finally be depleted - 2014? - just in fortuitous time for a decade-plus of Karzai corruption to magically transform into liberal democracy, with the Taliban relegated to the dustbin of Afghan history. What will be happening between now and then?

    Koran readings in the Kabul Starbucks? Afternoon tea with the Taliban? Or lots more murder, mayhem and tragedy, albeit on a scale much smaller than Vietnam...but mainly because of circumstance, moreso than morals.

    Its funny, but the description of Kissinger and Nixon expressing "hope" that the South Vietnamese could hang in against the stronger North, with the American military-industrial complex pulling the strings, could just as easily be HRC and Obama expressing "hope" that Karzai's hideous regime could hang in against the Taliban. Seems eerily similar, to me.

    But then, I guess if you hate one of the two Presidents and love the other, perhaps the two scenarios would look more different. Perhaps also if you base your morality on body counts, in which measure Nixon objectively loses as well.

  3. 10 years before Nixon and Kissinger were hoping for the best (but fearing the "domino theory" worst) in South Vietnam, the world came as near to the brink of global incineration as at any point in the nuclear age. Some historians estimate that the probability of global nuclear war was as high as 1 in 3 before Khruschev finally turned his ships around, thus ending the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    There was a much safer way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, safer than the unprecedented risk of global nuclear meltdown. Liberal Icon President Kennedy could have removed the American nuclear presence from Europe, specifically Germany, in exchange for the Soviet ships turning back from Cuba (Kennedy ultimately offered the less attractive, from the Soviet standpoint, removal of American nukes from Turkey).

    So when a couple million innocents in SE Asia die for American fear of the communist domino theory, this is evidence that Nixon was an evil, awful man. But exposing every living thing on the planet to unprecedented risk of nuclear incineration? Where's the scorn for Kennedy?

    Of course, aside from using it as a bludgeon for hating Nixon, we all pretty much realize that the domino theory, though ultimately discredited, was a pretty serious reason for extreme US foreign policy. Why again did Obama dramatically increase the US military presence in Afghanistan? Was it to allow space for Karzai to make progress? To defeat the Taliban? Come on.

    Obama increased US presence in Afghanistan because he had made a bunch of speeches saying Bush lost focus by thinking too much about Iraq. Because there was a liberal talking point that Afghanistan was where the GWOT action was at, whether or not that was actually true. Because the military industrial complex likes this sort of thing. Finally, because people think liberals are, militarily, pussies, and Obama wanted to defy that image.

    Sure, the total casualties from Obama's vanity in Afghanistan will be less than Nixon's in SE Asia. But Obama's disgrace is much worse than Nixon's.

    (Unless you're willing to throw JFK under the same bus as Nixon).

  4. CSH,

    Without getting into it too much, I think you have some very valid points here -- but I think you're framing it around a straw man. A lot of the people who criticize Nixon on Vietnam also are very dubious of Kennedy's foreign policy, especially early on. And I won't presume to speak for Sprung, but I don't think there's a large group who thinks that Nixon was horrible on Vietnam but Obama has been great in Afghanistan.

    At any rate...sticking to Nixon: I think the devastating thing about the tapes and other evidence is that it's pretty clear that Nixon wasn't driven by a domino theory. He (and LBJ) were driven in large part by domestic politics, but Nixon was also driven by an apparently sincere, but IMO fully nutty, idea that losing in the way he did in Vietnam was going to demonstrate toughness to the Soviets that losing rapidly in 1969 wouldn't have shown. I don't think (as I said in the post) that that logic is true in the abstract, but it certainly can't possibly be worth the costs it imposed. That's why I think people are drawn to the "it almost could have sort of worked" argument that Rose floats, but again, it's relevant that Nixon himself, at the time, didn't believe that.

  5. Jonathan,

    Thank you for engaging my arguments, I think I get a bit too fired up about this topic. I've a strong sense that late in an empire's existence, when all credible competitors have been defeated, imaginary ones must be created, which may explain the domino theory, the need to rebuild Afghanistan and other disastrous US misadventures. But I definitely need to read more to argue such things definitively.

    One other thought: when we talk of the domino theory, we often mean it in the cartoonish, "communism will be attractive to unwashed foreign masses and spread like wildfire". There's probably a more mundane version that sees the US empire over here competing with the Soviet empire over there, as empires have competed since time immemorial.

    In this more mundane sense of domino theory, that is, empires competing for influence, you could say that Nixon and Kissinger had a legitimate, if misguided, fear of the domino theory, yes?

  6. I wouldn't call that "domino theory", though. It is worthwhile always to keep in mind (as it is with the McCarthy period) that there really was a real, serious, expansionist enemy. The problem with Vietnam is that even though I do think that Nixon and Kissinger were sincere in their anti-USSR reasons for trying to achieve a relatively dignified loss, I also think they were dead wrong. (I also think that there was a domestic politics motivation, and regular readers will not be shocked to find that I'm mostly OK with that -- but I also think they were basically wrong about that, too).


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