Decent Intervals

By Michael Krepon

During his first term, President Obama set about to extricate the United States from the wars he inherited from George W. Bush. Not surprisingly, getting out has proved to be harder than getting in. His second term’s agenda has been spent seizing opportunities while seeking to avoid making new messes for his own successor to clean up. Having negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, Obama is now pushing hard on trade and climate agreements. He has tried his best to resist the undertow of Afghanistan and Iraq, and keep on the periphery of the hellhole that is Syria.

Obama’s stubborn “fidelity to international order” – the term he used in his address before the UN General Assembly – and commitment to progressive idealism in U.S. foreign and national security policy have not ebbed, despite the woes of the world. At the UN, Obama told the assembled dignitaries,

Our nations are more secure when we uphold basic laws and basic norms, and pursue a path of cooperation over conflict. And strong nations, above all, have a responsibility to uphold this international order.

This message, while noble, has a dissonant ring given Russia’s actions in Ukraine and China’s in the South China Sea. International order has also given way to chaos and predation in the Middle East, where Obama is deeply reluctant to deploy more U.S. troops to counter violent Islamic extremism.

The specter of quagmires has haunted the United States ever since the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In April 1971, a young, disillusioned veteran of the Vietnam War named John Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two devastating rhetorical questions: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” To which I might add, “What do you say to the loved ones and families of the deceased and the wounded warriors?” The assembled Senators who supported the continued prosecution of the Vietnam War were stumped by these questions; those who opposed it answered by calling for a quick exit.

President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger’s answer during the crucible of Vietnam was a “decent interval.” They inherited over 200,000 troops on the ground in South Vietnam, and were bombing the hell out of the North, as well as Cambodia and Laos. They mined the North’s harbors and tried other ways to leverage a negotiated outcome that would allow U.S. troops to leave and the South Vietnamese government to hang on for about two years. After this decent interval, the fall of the South could be blamed on its inability to defend itself with the means that the U.S. Government had so generously provided.

The goal of a decent interval could not, of course, be conveyed to U.S. troops engaged in the fight, those who fought alongside them, and to the people they were fighting for.  The settlement Kissinger negotiated wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, but it was probably the best the Nixon Administration could do. The American public had lost hope for a heroic ending to this war and, while public opinion was divided, it was trending towards ending the war on whatever terms were available. Troop withdrawals were a political necessity. Massive street demonstrations conveyed this message with a powerful mix of determination and creativity. The Congress used the power of the purse to push for an exit. With troop withdrawals accompanied by escalating bombing campaigns, nuclear feints (more on this later) and diplomatic gymnastics, Nixon and Kissinger couldn’t engineer leverage.

One side in this fight was more cohesive and committed, could operate from sanctuaries, and had the unswerving support of Moscow. The other side had the most powerful military in the world, and lost. I revisited this painful history when reading William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball’s detailed and judicious new book, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War.

This history haunts America again, as the Obama Administration struggles to close the books on an ill-executed war in Afghanistan and an ill-conceived war in Iraq. Governments in both countries preside weakly over shrunken domains. For these wars, Secretary of State John Kerry cannot answer the questions he raised as a young Vietnam vet. The Obama Administration faces a familiar quandary of trying to shore up shaky governments with permeable borders and determined foes. It can again add to troop strength – remember the Bush Administration’s “surge” and Obama’s awkward, unconvincing speech at West Point? – without prospect for lasting gains as long as these governments remain dysfunctional and their militaries are hard-pressed to turn the tide, even after extraordinary U.S. sacrifices.

If only, critics say, the Obama Administration had “stayed the course” in Iraq, or had “done more” in Afghanistan. But fighting wars alongside nation-building in poorly governed lands with fractious divides can never be America’s strong suit. The situation in Syria is different: This mess has been created almost entirely by others, and, in my view, less U.S. passivity is called for. At issue here is how to raise the costs to those responsible for this maelstrom without sinking into it.  Into this fray now comes Vladimir Putin, who is running out of foreign reserves as he runs into quagmires.

Obama and his team are fond of telling others to “do more,” while being wary of doing more in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The range of possible outcomes in these countries does not include victory.