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What Would Nixon Do?

Author: Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs, and Peter G. Peterson Chair, Foreign Affairs
June 26, 2011
New York Times

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President Obama has made good on his pledge to begin drawing down American forces in Afghanistan, but his stated strategy is unlikely to lead to a successful withdrawal.

Mr. Obama announced last week that 10,000 troops would come home by December and another 23,000 by next summer. By 2014, he confidently proclaimed, “the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”

Administration hawks, largely in the military, are uneasy; they had wanted to go slower, so as to safeguard recent gains made against the Taliban. Administration doves, largely in the White House, are disappointed; they had wanted to pull back faster, seeing the killing of Osama bin Laden as an ideal opportunity to get out.

The president split the difference, suggesting that he was charting a “centered course.” But he has actually once again evaded the fundamental choice between accepting the costs of staying and the risks of leaving.

What he needs is a strategy for getting out without turning a retreat into a rout — and he would be wise to borrow one from the last American administration to extricate itself from a thankless, seemingly endless counterinsurgency in a remote and strategically marginal region. Mr. Obama should ask himself, in short: What would Nixon do?

Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, tried to manage the risks of exiting the Vietnam War by masking their withdrawal with deliberate deception and aggressive covering fire. They almost succeeded — and if tried again in today's more favorable environment, their strategy would most likely work.

The Nixonian approach has its costs: it would generate charges of lying, escalation and betrayal. And embracing it would require the president to display a deftness and a tough-mindedness he has rarely shown. But it could also provide the ticket home. Indeed, Mr. Obama's best option is to repeat Mr. Nixon's Vietnam endgame and hope for a different outcome — to get 1973, one might say, without having it followed by 1975.

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