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Obama’s Nixonian Dilemma with Iraq

by Brian R. Robertson


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.

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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.

Brian R. Robertson

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.

Republished with permission from the History News Network.