Thursday, April 2, 2009

Nixon, Too, Might Have Junked "War On Terror"

Is Peter Baker making fun of the Obama administration?:
They may be sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, much as Mr. Bush did to Iraq, but it is not a “surge.” They may still be holding people captured on the battlefield at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but they are no longer “enemy combatants.” They may be carrying the fight to Al Qaeda as their predecessors did, but they are no longer waging a “war on terror.”
Not necessarily. His analysis continues:
“You have to tell the American public and the world that there’s a new sheriff in town without opening up the jail and letting all the prisoners out,” said Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a moderate Democratic advocacy group. “The changing of the way they talk is a low-risk way of purging some of the Bush-era stuff without doing any damage.”
Not to overstretch the metaphor, but if the new sheriff has the power of commutation but doesn't use it, isn't he or she tacitly affirming the old sheriff for putting the prisoners in jail? Not necessarily. While Richard Nixon wouldn't have made the same mistakes in Vietnam that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson did, when in January 1969 he inherited the raging, foundering war that was the consequence of their policy choices, he decided it was in our interests (it certainly wasn't in his) to Nixonize rather than immediately end the conflict.

That's not to say that he didn't fundamentally alter our approach in Vietnam. Obama is doing the same thing when it comes to the three wars he has inherited. In Iraq, of course, it was George W. Bush's surge, which Obama opposed, that enabled the endgame tactics that the President is now fruitfully pursuing. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it's fair to say that Obama is escalating the war, as Nixon was accused of doing on several occasions in Vietnam.

Obama's word games have more to do with his third war: The global struggle against violent jihadists, which he's decided not to call a war at all. And if I may, Richard Nixon might well approve of his decision.

By 1969, RN had stopped talking about the threat of global communism. That was rhetoric from an earlier time. Instead, he hung tough against Hanoi while making overtures to Moscow and Beijing. Today, Obama is hanging tough against Islamists in Afghanistan while talking respectfully about the Islamic Republic of Iran. It has the makings of a supple, flexible policy. It puts the U.S. in the position of exploiting and even encouraging divisions within a movement his predecessor tended to see in monolithic terms, just as Nixon had done as he studied the Sino-Soviet breach.

At the time, Mr. Nixon was criticized by some for believing that communists could ever be induced to give up their ideological or strategic ambitions -- in other words, that they would behave rationally. Obama is making the same assumption about those who trouble our interests today. While I'm inclined to think he's right, a lot depends on what Iran does.

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