How to Reverse Failed Policy

How to Reverse Failed Policy

Mini Teaser: U.S. policy makers have all too often clung to orthodoxies even as they fail. Yet a select few have managed to turn the ship of state around, to a better course.

by Author(s): Ray Takeyh

To be sure, Nixon was the inadvertent beneficiary of the cracking of the Communist monolith. Since the mid-1960s many Western officials had acknowledged the fissures in the Soviet bloc and the essential breakdown of the Sino-Soviet alliance. But by 1969, those tensions manifested themselves in large-scale military clashes. It appeared to many that the first use of the Soviet nuclear arsenal might actually be against a fellow Communist power. Nixon’s triangular diplomacy sought to exploit this situation by further luring China away from its erstwhile ally while simultaneously negotiating arms-control and trade agreements with the Soviet Union. Nixon perceived no contradiction between his outreach to Beijing and his quest to harmonize relations with Moscow. Indeed, he sensed—far more than Kissinger—that a diplomatic opening to China could induce Russian accommodation.

There was still one more twist to the triangular diplomacy that directly affected America’s Vietnam struggle. The White House quickly settled on the notion of linkage—tying issues of mutual concern with the Soviet Union and China to Vietnam. This stood in stark contrast to a bureaucracy that viewed arms control as too critical to be disturbed by other issues of contention. Meanwhile, the State Department remained skeptical of any opening to China given the ideologically rash nature of Mao’s regime and the obstacles this could create for détente with the Soviet Union.

The psychological impact on North Vietnam of Nixon being toasted in both Beijing and Moscow has often been underestimated. As with most ideological regimes, the North had invested much in the notion of socialist solidarity and strongly objected to the Communist giants’ embrace of Nixon. Ironically, Chinese and Russian attempts to reassure Hanoi only inflamed its anxieties. The fear of betrayal was one of the critical factors that led the North toward a more serious diplomacy. Confronted with Vietnamization’s continued progress and the devastation of a more intensified air war, Hanoi abandoned some of its revolutionary shibboleths.

Beijing’s defection to détente policy was even more unsettling for Hanoi than Soviet diplomatic practices. After all, Moscow had long engaged in summit diplomacy with Washington and had even agreed to various nuclear agreements. China, on the other hand, had been a strident critic of the United States and made supporting national-liberation movements the defining tenet of its foreign relations. It was inconceivable to Hanoi that Mao could abandon his long-standing aversion to dealing with the Americans or move away from his support for Third World liberation struggles. It was only a matter of time before Chinese pragmatism and self-interest overwhelmed the country’s revolutionary commitments. Geography and history had long bound the North Vietnamese and Chinese Communist parties together. Now Hanoi was isolated.

Once the United States agreed that the North did not have to withdraw its forces in exchange for an American departure, China began to view the arguments for persisting with the conflict as increasingly hollow. For Beijing, Hanoi’s insistence that South Vietnam’s president Nguyen Van Thieu resign before a peace compact could be concluded seemed shortsighted. As Mao warned a visiting Pham Van Dong in 1971, “Where the broom cannot reach, the dust is not swept away.” This was significant, as China previously had persistently advised the North not even to enter negotiations. As a succession of American emissaries passed through Beijing, Hanoi grew concerned that Vietnam and Taiwan would be conjoined after the United States had tied the withdrawal of its forces from Taiwan to a favorable Vietnam accord. Although China’s leadership pointedly rejected Kissinger’s attempt to craft such a linkage, the North Vietnamese began to fear that time was not on their side.

In 1972, North Vietnam gambled its fortunes on a major military offensive that it hoped would end the conflict decisively and compel the United States to accept its terms. Hanoi’s leadership seemed also to have perceived that its military invasion would complicate the great powers’ détente policy, as it would be difficult to persist with summits and diplomatic conclaves while the war intensified in Vietnam. This was a grave miscalculation. The bombing campaign unleashed by Nixon crippled the invasion, while the South Vietnamese army proved surprisingly effective, even launching counteroffensives of its own. The offensive’s failure disabused the North of its perception that it could garner a quick victory on the battlefield.

The Communist giants’ reaction to the offensive demonstrated the complexity of North Vietnam’s war strategy in the midst of an unfolding détente. The U.S. bombing was greeted with perfunctory criticism from China and the Soviet Union. Contrary to Hanoi’s wishes, Leonid Brezhnev refused to cancel a forthcoming summit meeting with Nixon, while the Soviet leadership once more urged the Vietnamese to come to terms with the Americans. For his part, Mao now declared, “If I were North Vietnam, I would not refuse to speak to Thieu.” Both Beijing and Moscow registered their displeasure with Hanoi by reducing their aid. The Communist powers’ behavior confirmed Hanoi’s fear that its sources of support might yet prove unreliable. The seeming success of Vietnamization and the pressures of détente finally compelled the North to seek a settlement on less than its maximalist terms.

Among North Vietnam’s concessions was acknowledgement of the integrity of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Vietnams. In essence, the accords implied that the line partitioning Vietnam was a potential boundary denoting two sovereign entities. For a regime that had denied the legitimacy of South Vietnam, this was a bitter pill. If the DMZ agreement were to be enforced, the North would have difficulty supplying and rotating its remaining troops in the South. The United States retained the right to provide South Vietnam’s army with advisers, and the Thieu government could remain in power in advance of an armistice. Nixon had succeeded in imposing terms on Hanoi that it had long abjured.

The Paris peace accords have been perceived widely as a prelude to the collapse of South Vietnam—a decent interval at best. Hanoi’s determination to violate the agreement seemingly affirms this notion. However, the key issue was whether the United States had the appetite to reengage in the conflict when the North launched its inevitable invasion. In 1972, American airpower fortified South Vietnamese morale while its punishing blows curtailed Hanoi’s advance. But, with its troops withdrawn and prisoners home, would a Washington mired in Watergate and the economic recession muster the same resolve? For the agreement to hold, the United States had to continue providing aid to Saigon and keep its airpower at the ready. Ultimately, Congress was not prepared for such a prolonged commitment. If the Nixon-Kissinger team missed anything, it was not Hanoi’s propensity to violate its treaty obligations but the willingness of the American people to rebuff those violations.

Given the collapse of South Vietnam, it may seem strange to proclaim Nixon’s policy a success. However, the relevant factors suggesting a switch from failure to success are actually present here. The collapse of South Vietnam was seen as endangering America’s national security. A new set of policy makers inherited a failed strategy and proceeded to draft an imaginative alternative. The issue was of sufficient importance that it engaged not just the top policy makers but the president himself. Continuity had ceased to be a viable option.

A treaty is a living organism: it must be implemented and enforced every day. The failure of the Nixon administration was not the content of its Vietnam policy, which turned the tide of battle, isolated North Vietnam internationally and buttressed the power of America’s South Vietnamese ally. Its failure was its inability to hold the domestic front together and craft a national consensus behind enforcement of the treaty. And that failure stemmed from factors beyond Nixon’s actual Vietnam policy.

BY 2006, the Iraq War had turned into a divisive conflict that polarized the public and estranged some of America’s most important allies. An emerging civil war threatened to envelop Iraq, while in America the rosy optimism of the initial invasion gave way to a severe decline in the Bush administration’s political standing and a Democratic Party resurgence. The Republican Party, whose political fortunes were vanishing in the sands of Iraq, was growing uneasy amid calls for withdrawal from America’s political class as well as its rank and file. George W. Bush, who had staked his presidency and legacy on the Iraq War, found himself confronting prospects of defeat.

In invading Iraq, Washington made certain assumptions about how the war and the occupation would unfold. The U.S. strategy was predicated on the notion that a cumbersome and intrusive American military presence would stir Iraqi nationalism. So U.S. forces were housed in large bases and would undertake sporadic raids against Al Qaeda cells and insurgent strongholds and then return to their command centers. In a strange way, the American military brass seemed to accept the arguments of war critics who warned that the U.S. presence would fuel and not extinguish the insurgency.

As Iraq continued to disintegrate, the United States sought to train Iraqi forces and transfer security obligations to them as quickly as possible. In the meantime, it was hoped that elections and plebiscites would create opportunities for political participation for all but the most recalcitrant elements. The received wisdom was that stability was possible only through a democratically constituted Iraqi government determined to reconcile sectarian tensions. Thus, a stable and secure Iraq would follow a genuine attempt at reconciliation—not the other way around. And then came the 2006 attack that destroyed the golden dome of Al Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the most important Shia shrines. The attack was accompanied by a killing spree that claimed the lives of a hundred Iraqis within a day and more than a thousand in the next few days. Iraq quickly became immersed in a sectarian civil war.

Image: Pullquote: The future of Iraq remains uncertain. However, there is no doubt that a change in strategy salvaged the American enterprise and saved Iraq from collapsing further into a horrific civil conflict.Essay Types: Essay