As congress debates the war in Iraq, it’s becoming clear that many lawmakers want to bring the troops home while avoiding the likely consequences — a ruinous civil war and a calamitous victory for Iran and Al Qaeda. This has led to much pining for some kind of negotiated solution — what the Iraq Study Group called a “new diplomatic offensive” — that might allow us a graceful exit.
Enter Henry Kissinger, the octogenarian “wise man” who is an advisor to President Bush. While rightly stressing that a “precipitate withdrawal” of U.S. forces would result in a “geopolitical calamity,” he suggested in a recent syndicated column that “a sustainable political end to the conflict” can be achieved not through military action but through “wise and determined American diplomacy” that engages everyone from internal Iraqi players to Iran and Indonesia.
He didn’t mention it in the column, but there is little doubt that Kissinger had in mind his own actions in negotiating the 1973 Paris peace accords that ended direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. Indeed, some of his previous essays — including one that ran in this paper in May — have been explicit in citing his own experience as a model to learn from.
How seriously should we take him? Is it really possible that a super-skilled secretary of State — someone like, umm, Henry Kissinger — could deliver “peace with honor” today? It didn’t work the last time around. Why should it work now?
Only in Kissinger’s own telling was his Vietnam diplomacy a great triumph. As he described it in The Times, “a breakthrough occurred in 1972” because of the defeat of North Vietnam’s Easter offensive and the U.S. mining of Haiphong’s harbor — and because of his own efforts to cut a deal with North Vietnam’s sponsors. “When the U.S. mined North Vietnam’s harbors, Hanoi found itself isolated because, as a result of the opening to China in 1971 and the summit in 1972, Beijing and the Soviet Union stood aside.”
The result, Kissinger claims, was that North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho had to accept America’s terms: “an unconditional cease-fire and release of prisoners; continuation of the existing South Vietnamese government; continued U.S. economic and military help for it; no further infiltration of North Vietnamese forces; withdrawal of the remaining U.S. forces; and withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces from Laos and Cambodia.”
But this account conveniently overlooks some facts that have come to light as documents from the period have been declassified. In recent books such as “The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy” (2004) by the historian Jussi Hanhimaki, a very different picture emerges from the one painted in the former secretary of State’s self-serving memoirs and articles.
Although it is true that Kissinger used the “opening to China” to pressure North Vietnam, he also gave private assurances to Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in June 1972 that all he really wanted was a “reasonable interval between the military outcome and the political outcome.” What kind of political outcome did he have in mind? According to Hanhimaki, Kissinger told Chou: “While we cannot bring a communist government to power, if, as a result of historical evolution it should happen over a period of time, we ought to be able to accept it.”
In other words, Kissinger informed Chou that the communists could have Saigon as long as they didn’t humiliate the Americans on the way out.
He made that dismal outcome even more likely by agreeing to one of North Vietnam’s key demands, which he now fails to mention. Even as the U.S. withdrew all its troops, the Paris peace accords left at least 150,000 North Vietnamese soldiers occupying 25% of South Vietnam. This gave the North an invaluable beachhead from which to complete its campaign of conquest. No wonder the president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, had to be bullied by Kissinger and Nixon into signing off on a document that, he knew, meant “we will commit suicide.”
Kissinger later blamed impeachment proceedings against Nixon and the subsequent debilitation of the presidency for the fall of South Vietnam. But the communist violations of the peace accords began immediately after they were signed, and Nixon and Kissinger scarcely protested to Hanoi, much less to Moscow or Beijing, for fear of jeopardizing other treasured initiatives, such as the SALT II nuclear arms reduction talks.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung didn’t lift a finger to restrain their Southeast Asian allies, because it would not have served their interests to do so. In fact, even as the U.S. was cutting off aid to South Vietnam, the Soviet Union was increasing the flow of supplies to the forces of North Vietnam, and China was doing the same with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Both groups seized power within weeks of each other in April 1975, with horrific consequences.
Kissinger can plausibly argue that the fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia was inevitable, given the turn of public opinion against the war. But he cannot at the same time claim, as he does in his memoirs, that his diplomacy was a “dazzling success.” His machinations, however brilliant, made little difference in the end. All they did was provide the Nixon administration a “reasonable interval” and Kissinger a Nobel Peace Prize. If anything, the peace accords accelerated the fall of South Vietnam by giving Congress the illusion that the war was over and that it was safe to cut off aid.
There is a lesson here for the present day: Skilled diplomacy can consolidate the results of military success but can seldom make up for its lack. In Iraq, there is scant chance that any American legerdemain can convince internal factions like the Jaish al Mahdi or Al Qaeda in Iraq, or outside actors such as Iran and Syria, that their interests are congruent with ours. While the U.S. pursues stability and democracy, our enemies are merrily capitalizing on mayhem to carve out spheres of influence and bleed us dry.
The only thing that could conceivably alter their calculations is a change in the balance of power on the ground. That is what Army Gen. David Petraeus is trying to achieve. But he is being undermined by incessant withdrawal demands from home, which are convincing our enemies that they can wait us out. Only if the other side faces the probability of defeat — or at least stalemate — can negotiations produce a durable accord.
Even then, negotiations will be exponentially more difficult in Iraq than in previous conflicts, because we do not face a single enemy like the Vietnamese communists with a clear chain of command. The Shiite and especially the Sunni communities are split among numerous tribes and political factions, which in turn are split into feuding subgroups. Finding responsible interlocutors who can reach decisions and make them stick has been one of the biggest difficulties confronting our diplomats in Baghdad. Kissinger didn’t have that problem. He knew that in a one-party state like North Vietnam, the leaders’ decisions were binding, even if their assurances could not necessarily be trusted.
If any previous model of peacemaking applies to Iraq (and that’s a big if), the one we should look at is Korea. President Eisenhower concluded a lasting armistice in 1953 because he made clear that U.S. troops would stay in South Korea until kingdom come — and even threatened to escalate the conflict with atomic weapons if necessary. (It didn’t hurt that Josef Stalin, North Korea’s sponsor, died that year, but that alone was not pivotal.)
That resolve gave us the kind of leverage we lacked in the early 1970s, when the Nixon administration had already made clear its determination to bring our troops home, regardless of the consequences. If we repeat the same mistake in Iraq (which Kissinger, in fairness, now counsels against), no amount of diplomatic wizardry will avert a costly defeat.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.