Since January 16, the New York Times has had on its site a group blog, “100 Days,” in which five presidential biographers take turns comparing the initial stages of the Obama Administration to five presidencies. Jean Edward Smith does the comparing to the first hundred days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Reeves to John F. Kennedy, Robert Dallek to Lyndon B. Johnson, Lou Cannon to Ronald Reagan….and it falls to former National Security Council staffer Roger Morris, author of a massive book about Richard Nixon’s life and career up to 1952 (which appeared in 1991, seemingly the first of a series of volumes, but never continued), to draw parallels between the forty-fourth President and the thirty-seventh.
In his first post on February 4, “The President Behind The Mask,” Morris offered not much more than the usual liberal boilerplate about the contrast between the “bring us together” rhetoric of the 1968 campaign and what he views as RN’s divisive style of governance. But in the post which went up a few minutes ago, “How Not To End Another President’s War,” Morris draws on his own experience in the NSC in 1969 and 1970. (He quit in April of the latter year because of his objections to the incursion of American forces into Cambodia.)
The overwhelming majority of media coverage of the Obama White House has focused on the stimulus bill, the new budget, and other economic and domestic initiatives, but Morris is among those who keep in mind that Obama has inherited two wars, and that the verdict of history on his presidency will, in large measure, take into account how he handles them. So far there has been a lot of vague discussion about concentrating on the Afghan war, and today CNN reported that the President has told Congressional leaders that all combat troops will be pulled from Iraq by August 2010, with support troops to stay until the end of 2011 under the agreement the Bush Administration reached with the Iraqi government.
But Morris is aware that saying there will be a withdrawal is one thing, and being able to do it within the timetable outlined is another, especially given the unpredictable nature of Persian Gulf realpolitik. He refers to the days of the winter of 1969-1970, when Dr. Henry Kissinger met with North Vietnamese representatives in Paris for the initial series of top-secret talks apart from the official peace negotiations in that city, and says that Kissinger’s conversations “got far nearer a settlement than any account has ever indicated.” Morris states that the promise of these negotiations was shattered by the coup that overthrew Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia and the events that ensued. (I have to admit that I wish Morris would explain just how such a settlement could have been reached in the days before the improvement of American relations with China and the USSR gradually pushed North Vietnam into a situation where it had to become less recalcitrant about a negotiated peace.)
Morris’s post concludes:
Exorcised or not, ghosts of Vietnam hover over the Obama foreign policy, not least in key officials like former National Security Adviser James L. Jones Jr. and the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke — men whose formative career experiences were in Vietnam, and who have not yet told us what they think of the chilling relevance of that history to what they now face.
One comparison that is relevant here is that when America sought to extricate itself from Vietnam, it had to deal with just one opponent at the negotiating table, the Hanoi government – and that was an opponent that, for all its intransigence, was generally willing to talk. In Iraq, the struggle for the last six years has been to not only subdue the savagery of al-Qaida, but to combat the baleful influences of Iran and Syria, which will pose a problem throughout the Obama presidency.
It’s worth mentioning that at one point Morris remarks that the Cambodian invasion of 1970 was “what a later era might call a ‘surge.’” That may be more telling than he knows. The “surge,” widely denounced by Democrats (and some Republicans) at the time, was the key to gaining the degree of peace Iraq enjoys now. The Cambodian incursion, hated though it was by antiwar activists, did neutralize the supply lines and gave a breathing space to American and South Vietnamese forces at a time when it was needed.