President Obama was a grade school-er during the height of the Vietnam War. So he has at least that excuse for seeming oblivious to the uncanny resemblance between his latest justification for limited U.S. military involvement in Iraq and his predecessors’ justifications for limited involvement in Vietnam decades ago.
But what’s with multiple New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman? Like me, he’s plenty old enough to remember, like they were made yesterday, those now infamous statements and the needless, multi-dimensional disaster they triggered for America. Yet he just spent an hour interviewing the President in the Oval Office and simply let Mr. Obama repeat these dangerously incoherent nostrums almost verbatim.
Especially eerie and troubling is the resemblance between President Obama’s remarks to Friedman and the doctrine articulated by his predecessor Richard Nixon aimed at governing American involvement in the East Asia/Pacific region. First in remarks at a press conference in Guam in July, 1969 in the middle of an overseas trip and then in a televised speech that November, Mr. Nixon emphasized that American “defeat and humiliation” in Vietnam would trigger disastrous consequences for the United State and the entire world. So he held that preventing this disaster was a vital American interest – which by definition is worth the maximum possible national blood and treasure.
But President Nixon also emphasized that the United States would not act as if all of its declared Asian interests were vital. Although he promised to “keep the treaty commitments that we have,” he also specified that “we must avoid that kind of policy that will make countries in Asia so dependent upon us that we are dragged into conflicts such as the one that we have in Vietnam.”
Mr. Nixon elaborated on the point by explaining, “as far as the problems of internal security are concerned, as far as the problems of military defense, except for the threat of a major power involving nuclear weapons…the United States is going to encourage and has a right to expect that this problem will be increasingly handled by, and the responsibility for it taken by, the Asian nations themselves.”
The President professed to understand that “This is going to be a difficult line to follow.” But the flaws in his Doctrine were nothing less than fatal. Most obvious, at the least, if a region or country was vital, how could any American leader in good conscience treat certain types or degrees of response as being off the table? From a purely tactical standpoint, wasn’t it pure folly to advertise these limits publicly? Additionally, if a region or country was vital, why did it matter whether the threat was mainly external or internal, or posed by a nuclear or non-nuclear power?
Even the most defensible Nixon proposition – that his Doctrine was more a blueprint for the future than a strategy for the present, and that it assumed “proper planning” by the United States as well adequate progress and will on the part of Asians themselves – raised at least as many questions as it answered. In particular, what if local countries were simply incapable of defending themselves with only limited U.S. assistance? Or what if they decided to gamble on free-riding whether capable of self-defense or not? Would Washington ever simply give up in the former situation? Or call the free rider’s bluff in the latter?
Perhaps most important, President Nixon never even addressed the question of why and how much U.S. involvement is justified to begin with in a region or country of less than vital concern. In fact, the Nixon Doctrine evidently even confused Mr. Nixon. By continually describing the consequences of U.S. defeat in Vietnam – or a certain kind of defeat – in nothing less than apocalyptic terms while insisting that America’s involvement would be strictly circumscribed, he inevitably sent utterly mixed signals to foreign and domestic audiences. Therefore, his policies left not only many U.S. allies but his own country with the worst of most possible worlds.
For nearly six years after his Doctrine was enunciated, the United States suffered heavy casualties and inflicted many more on its enemies and local populations. It spent tens of billions of dollars on the war, and in the process wrecked its own national finances and the international monetary system. It corrupted its political system and tore apart its society. And the war still ended in exactly the kind of defeat Mr. Nixon so feared.
President Obama seems determined to follow this recipe for failure. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson promised the voters “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” Mr. Obama’s version in the Friedman interview: “We cannot do for [the Iraqis] what they are unwilling to do for themselves” and “I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force. I don’t want to get in the business for that matter of being the Kurdish air force, in the absence of a commitment of the people on the ground to get their act together and do what’s necessary politically to start protecting themselves and to push back against ISIL.”
President Nixon worried that “if the United States just continues down the road of responding to requests for assistance, of assuming the primary responsibility for defending these countries when they have internal problems or external problems, they are never going to take care of themselves.” According to President Obama, “taking a bunch of airstrikes all across Iraq as soon as ISIL came in…would have taken the pressure off of [Prime Minister Nuri Kamal] al-Maliki.” He and other Shiites would be confident that “‘We don’t actually have to make compromises. We don’t have to make any decisions. We don’t have to go through the difficult process of figuring out what we’ve done wrong in the past. All we have to do is let the Americans bail us out again. And we can go about business as usual.’ ”
Last but hardly least, like Presidents Johnson and Nixon, President Obama has vowed to achieve an end essential to America’s security with means that can easily and quickly fail. “We do have a strategic interest in pushing back ISIL. We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq,” he told Friedman (without explaining why). But he then immediately added a qualifier to this seeming red line declaration that appears impossible to meet in the foreseeable future: “[W]e can only do that if we know that we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.”
There is one crucial difference between the Johnson-Nixon Vietnam policies and the Obama Iraq policies. Mr. Johnson and, for all his supposed geopolitical mastery, Mr. Nixon, were wrong about Vietnam. Its fate had no intrinsic potential to influence America’s significantly. Mr. Obama is right about ISIS and Iraq. The terrorists’ consolidation of power threatens to create another version of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and produce 9-11 repeats. Still, what unites the approaches of the 1960s and 1970s, and the strategies of today, is far more important. Both have failed to think clearly and rigorously about U.S. national interests. As a result, Mr. Obama’s over-caution ironically could turn out even worse for the nation and world than his predecessors’ over-reactions.