Saturday, July 5, 2008

To Be President: Obama And The War

This post was originally published at The New Nixon on July 5, 2008:

Joe Conason may be right that Sen. McCain learned the wrong lessons from the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. In his speeches and comments, he’s talked about Johnson-era limits placed on commanders’ use of air power against communist North Vietnam. His analysis echoes anguished laments heard in the mid-1960s from Americans who were frustrated that the mighty military conglomeration that had obliterated Hitler was bogged down with Ho Chi Minh in southeast Asia. As quoted by Conason, here’s what he said to the Council on Foreign Relations:
We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the tools at our disposal.
But what about the long months of the Vietnam war when it no longer fell to brave Americans to fight at all? Rarely does McCain or anyone else talk about the period beginning in 1973, when South Vietnamese had taken over the war, relying on U.S. promises of continued non-personnel aid and air strikes when the communists violated the Paris Peace Accords.

Creating this completely new, Vietnamized theater was the work of Gen. Creighton Abrams, performed under political cover provided by Commander-in-Chief Nixon. South Vietnamese forces fought well all those months, notwithstanding their being a “joke” (according to Rick Perlstein) commanded by a “corrupt dictatorship” (Joe Conason). Mired in Watergate, we matched their mettle with mush. Neither Presidents Nixon or Ford felt they had the political capital to bomb as North Vietnam tested them with violations of the accords, and Congress slashed the aid budget. In the spring of 1975, Hanoi, which had trouble believing its good fortune, mounted a massive conventional invasion, greatly aided by their friends in Moscow, and squashed an ally we’d permitted to run out of bullets.

Historians, journalists, and bloggers rightly argue about how long Saigon could have held out with or without adequate levels of U.S. aid. But if she lasted 15 months after U.S. forces left, why not 20? 30? 100? In any event, since most Americans want out of Iraq, since Iraqification is almost everyone’s preference, the latter phase of the Vietnam war — the Nixon phase — is the one McCain and the Republicans might want to investigate as they ponder the politics and tactical realities of the situation they hope to inherit next January. Yet President Nixon has even disappeared from the McCain campaign’s version of his homecoming as a POW.

Instead, it’s Sen. Obama who’s displaying Nixonian subtlety in the calibration of his war policy. Like RN with Vietnam in the 1966 and 1968 elections, Obama has enjoyed the benefit of being able to say that the war was started by the other guys. After riding antiwar sentiment to victory in the primaries, he is beginning to give himself some wiggle room. Like Nixon, he would inherit a war that he wouldn’t have started. He would be wise to study how Nixon ended it.

Granted, Obama’s lurch to the center on Iraq and a variety of other issues has been ham-handed. The New York Times denounced his opportunism in an almost-blistering editorial, which no one will remember in November (unless Obama chooses to reproduce it in his swing-state advertising for the sake of right-leaning independents). But at least on Iraq, Obama’s is precisely the move his critics warned he’d make and pragmatic friends such as Andrew Sullivan insisted that he’d have to make.

If he seems changeable, perhaps that resonates with Americans who were opposed to the war in 2003 or ambivalent but now understand that a too-hasty withdrawal, no matter how much his Bush-hating base may wish it, would be bad for America’s position in the region, for the Iraqi people, and for those who volunteered to fight, bleed, and die. On Iraq, Obama’s doing what he must to do be elected President. It’s also what he should do if he’s going to be President.