In Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama Should Remember Paris

The peace we seek in the world is not the flimsy peace which is merely an interlude between wars, but a peace which can endure for generations to come.

It is important that we understand both the necessity and the limitations of America’s role in maintaining that peace.

Unless we in America work to preserve the peace, there will be no peace.

Unless we in America work to preserve freedom, there will be no freedom.

But let us clearly understand the new nature of America’s role, as a result of the new policies we have adopted over these past four years.

We shall respect our treaty commitments.

We shall support vigorously the principle that no country has the right to impose its will or rule on another by force.

We shall continue, in this era of negotiation, to work for the limitation of nuclear arms, and to reduce the danger of confrontation between the great powers.

We shall do our share in defending peace and freedom in the world. But we shall expect others to do their share.

The time has passed when America will make every other nation’s conflict our own, or make every other nation’s future our responsibility, or presume to tell the people of other nations how to manage their own affairs.

Just as we respect the right of each nation to determine its own future, we also recognize the responsibility of each nation to secure its own future.

Just as America’s role is indispensable in preserving the world’s peace, so is each nation’s role indispensable in preserving its own peace.

Together with the rest of the world, let us resolve to move forward from the beginnings we have made. Let us continue to bring down the walls of hostility which have divided the world for too long, and to build in their place bridges of understanding–so that despite profound differences between systems of government, the people of the world can be friends.

Kissinger & Le Duc ThoThose were the words of Richard Nixon’s Second Inaugural Address on January 20, 1973. Two days later, on January 22, the first business day of the new term, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. And the following day, on January 23 – 36 years ago today – a second event of that week we should memorialize: the Nixon Administration and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending the war in Vietnam (the South signed the agreement on January 27, the date of the cease fire). The Paris peace holds a perilous lesson for the Obama Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To make a very long story short, peace between the U.S. and North Vietnam was the inevitable result, by early 1973, of mutual exhaustion: the U.S. had already withdrawn the bulk of its troops to mollify a war-weary public and Congress (contributing significantly to Nixon’s landslide re-election in November 1972), while the war had gone gradually worse for the North since the 1968 Tet offensive. Aggressive bombing campaigns in 1972, combined with U.S. rapprochment with the North’s Chinese and Soviet sponsors and efforts to cut off the North’s use of neighboring nations to resupply its forces had impressed on the North the need to reach an accomodation with the Americans. The Paris Peace Accords didn’t guarantee South Vietnam’s territorial integrity or even recognize it as an independent state, but if the agreement had been honored, it would have accomplished the principal goal of the war: end North Vietnam’s efforts to militarily conquer the South.

Of course, the North, being a Stalinist tyranny, never intended to honor the agreement; Le Duc Tho even went so far as to refuse to accept the Nobel Peace Prize jointly awarded to him and to Henry Kissinger. Nixon and Kissinger can be accused of many things, but a lack of cynical realpolitik is not one of them; they of course recognized that their adversaries were not dealing in good faith. But they promised the South Vietnamese continuing support if the North resumed hostilities. The South’s very existence was left to depend on the word, and the constancy and commitment, of the United States. Nixon’s speech pledged to the world:

[T]he terms of the agreement must be scrupulously adhered to. We shall do everything the agreement requires of us and we shall expect the other parties to do everything it requires of them. We shall also expect other interested nations to help insure that the agreement is carried out and peace is maintained.

As night follows day, the North violated the agreement and eventually escalated to a full invasion designed to conquer and enslave the South. By this time, Nixon was crippled and ultimately driven from office by Watergate, and liberal Democrats were in full command of Congress. Liberals who had spent years arguing that peace could be negotiated with the North didn’t react by angrily demanding that the United States hold the North to the treaty it negotiated with us, nor did they honor our own treaty commitments; instead, they cut off funding for the U.S. to support the South, condemning it to the darkness of a brutal tyranny and the entire Indochina region to another half a decade of war and genocide.

Part of the legacy of Paris is that other countries have learned the hard way the lesson taught by those Democrats: America may not keep its word when it promises support, and it may not impose any consequences when you break your word to America. That dynamic, in turn, was a major factor in how we got into Iraq: Saddam didn’t believe we’d protect Kuwait in 1990, and after we abandoned Iraqis who rose against Saddam in 1991, nobody in Iraq thought there would be consequences if Saddam violated the cease-fire agreements that ended the first Gulf War. So Saddam violated them, repeatedly and in multiple ways, with minimal consequence for 12 years. And so, when the second President Bush finally decided that the violations of the cease fire (among other things) justified resuming hostilities, it took years of perseverance before Americans won the trust of ordinary Iraqis that we would, in fact, not do to them as we did to our South Vietnamese allies who relied on the false peace of Paris. This, from August 2008, sums up the trust that has finally been won even among our adversaries in Iraq:

Last month, in the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, once the nexus of the Sunni insurgency, the newest political player emerged. Leaders of al-Nassir Salah al-Din Army, a Sunni militant group, declared they would renounce violence and form a political party called the National Front of Iraq’s Liberals to compete in elections. “We found out that armed action will not get the United States out of Iraq,” said Majid Ali Enad, the group’s leader. “After five years of directing painful blows to them, they did not budge from a single meter in the country.”

That last, by the way, should go on George W. Bush’s tombstone.

The lesson of Paris for Iraq and Afghanistan today is not that the United States needs to commit to perpetual war in Iraq, or even to a perpetual troop presence, although as Defense Secretary Gates notes, we will be escalating our presence in Afghanistan in the near term and will have a substantial number of boots on the ground in both places for “years to come,” and would have regardless of the outcome of the 2008 election:

To be blunt, to fail — or to be seen to fail — in either Iraq or Afghanistan would be a disastrous blow to U.S. credibility, both among friends and allies and among potential adversaries…there will continue to be some kind of U.S. advisory and counterterrorism effort in Iraq for years to come…

The new Obama Administration will undoubtedly be tempted by the sentiments in Nixon’s Second Inaugural: focus on America’s limitations and the role of our allies in stepping up to take their own share of the burden. All of which is fine in and of itself, but it doesn’t remove the essential lesson of Paris: our friends and our enemies alike need to know at all times that America’s promises are honored, and that broken promises to America are punished. Every decision made about the extent of continuing U.S. commitment to these nations must reflect the danger of eroding the respect for American credibility in keeping its word that the Bush Administration has worked so hard, and American troops have sacrificed so much, to restore.