Foreign policy wisdom
President Obama has often been compared to John F. Kennedy, and with good reason. Both are young, striking in appearance, and accompanied by beautiful wives and captivating children. Both are keenly appreciate being the first Presidents of their generation. Both put together consensus cabinets--Kennedy's, in a more non-partisan era, included Republicans as Secretaries of Defense and Treasury and as National Security Adviser--and both favor calm, relatively unemotional rhetoric that takes care to say no more than what they mean. And having written most thorough account of Kennedy's Vietnam policies ten years ago in American Tragedy, I am struck by the similarities between the situation that Kennedy faced in Southeast Asia in 1961 and the one President Obama faces in Southwest Asia today--and I ardently wish Obama could get some of the same kind of advice.
Kennedy, as I discovered, did not quite inherit a full-blown war in Southeast Asia, although the Eisenhower Administration seemed on the point of intervening in a civil war in Laos when he came into office. In Laos the Eisenhower Administration had used its favorite weapons, covert action and military aid, to maneuver a weak pro-western government into power in 1957, but it was now under attack from neutralist forces and the much smaller Communist Pathet Lao. In Vietnam the Diem government--another Eisenhower legacy--had raised questions about its inability to govern, and now faced a growing Viet Cong insurgency. More importantly, the Eisenhower Administration had laid the bureaucratic foundation for war by laying down policies, approved by the President, that committed the US to fight, alone and with nuclear weapons if necessary, if Communist aggression threatened either Laos or Cambodia. Kennedy's Cabinet officers and NSC staffers unanimously accepted those recommendations and in the first half of the 1961 he was deluged with recommendations for intervention in Laos, and, shortly thereafter, for combat troops in South Vietnam. He was not interested--and in June 1961, when he stopped in Paris on his way to meet with President Charles de Gaulle, he received some very interesting advice.
De Gaulle was the only figure in the great Atlantic crisis of the twentieth century to play the role of Bismarck in Germany in the crisis of the nineteenth, that is, not only to lead his nation through the crisis itself, but to preside over the High that followed and supervise the creation of new institutions. Roosevelt, of course, died before the war was over--although he had created critical domestic institutions in the 1930s, before the war began--and although Churchill returned to power in the early 1950s he had little domestic impact. De Gaulle began literally by creating a new French government out of nothing in 1940 when, as a junior cabinet minister and major general, he flew to London and declared himself the government of France. By dint of rallying parts of the French Army in the colonies, opening up contacts with the Resistance, and sheer stubbornness, he eventually convinced both Churchill and Roosevelt to recognize him as the new French President. The war, however, in which France had initially been defeated and emerged victorious only with allied help, could not give him the prestige necessary to remake France. The new Fourth Republic was a carbon copy of the weak Third, and de Gaulle, disgusted, resigned the Presidency in 1946. His party in Parliament became a nationalist opposition, dedicated to the failed attempts to hold onto the French Empire. The loss of Indochina in 1954, however, did not bring him into power. Four years later, the government's hesitation over Algeria, where a new rebellion was raging, led to a military coup in the colony and de Gaulle's return to power. He immediately created a new Fifth Republic--and by 1959 he was reversing his policies.
No one was ever more dedicated to French greatness than de Gaulle, but his genius lay in the recognition that the idea of greatness had to be adapted to new historical circumstances. France, he recognized, simply could not retain its formal empire--even in Algeria, where the population included one million Europeans--in the twentieth century. By 1961, when Kennedy arrived in Paris, he was well on his way to a negotiated settlement and withdrawal. Early in that year he had faced down another attempted coup by the Algerian generals, this one designed to overthrow him in France. Several generals had gone into hiding and were fighting a terrorist rear guard action in Algeria as they met--their leader, Raoul Salan, was arrested just a few weeks later. Kennedy always sought, and took very seriously, the opinion of foreign leaders--a trait Obama would do well to emulate. Here is the key part of their conversation.
"The President [Kennedy] raised the question of Laos. In his opinion, the United States has made mistakes in the past. As a result, it is now in a difficult situation. There exists a commitment on the part of the United States and on the basis of the Geneva Protocols and of SEATO. This commitment must be taken into account. The U.S. Government has been seeking a cease-fire and neutralization of Laos. This, however, may no longer be possible. It would have been possible three years ago, but the situation is different now. The immediate question is what to do at the conference in Geneva.
"General de Gaulle said that the situation is "compromised." He does not wish to harp on the past; when it seems the U.S. had the unfortunate illusion that Laos could be made into something strong. In fact. Laos is an unhappy country with no unity, either political or national; it is, in fact, a nonentity which cannot be built up into anything at all. The presence of the U.S. in Laos brings with it Soviet intervention; in any struggle in Laos, the Soviets have the advantage because of their propaganda and because they have devoted efficient agents while we do not. Therefore, the situation is very bad indeed. The question is what to do. The best solution seems to be to encourage the King to form a government which would not be fully and exclusively Communist. It is clear that the Pathet Lao would be in the government as it is too late to prevent them from entering into one, but they might not be in such government alone. Souvanna Phouma should be encouraged. The French know him well. He is not a Communist. He is trying to use the Communists and the Communists are trying to use him but he is not a Communist himself and he has friends. He might be able to establish a government which would make Laos "more or less" neutral. It would be better if the West did not appear to apply any pressure, as by doing so, it would lose the last cards it has to play. Without doing it openly, it would be good to encourage Souvanna Phouma and to encourage the King to take Souvanna Phouma as prime minister. The Government will include Communists but will not be fully Communist. Moreover, the French are authorized by the Geneva Agreements to maintain some influence in Laos. They can have a small military advisory group and also teachers and technicians. No Laotian wants such French advisors to leave, and these can constitute a sort of listening post for the West in Laos. . . .
"More generally speaking, Southeast Asia, and that applies to Laos, Viet-Nam, Cambodia, and even Thailand, is not a good terrain for the West to fight on. The best thing to do is to encourage neutralism in that area, the more so that the Soviets themselves do not have any strong desire to move in. They will, however, tend to follow every time the West moves in.
"The President said that the U.S. is faced with two problems, one of them being the commitment under the SEATO Protocols. Mr. Dulles and President Eisenhower entered into such commitments. President Kennedy has reaffirmed them in the hope of arriving at a cease-fire. At the present moment, the prestige of the United States is engaged and if the solution to the Laotian problem is a Communist one, there can be grave repercussions not only in Thailand, in Viet-Nam, and in Malaya, but also in India, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey--all the countries along the southern flank of the Soviet Union. It may have been unwise on the part of the United States in the past to have committed itself to this part of the world but the fact is that those commitments exist at the present moment and the question is how to disengage in the best possible way. Secondly, there are commitments also in regard to Thailand and southern Viet-Nam and, there again, it is difficult to avoid the consequences of such commitments. The President agreed that the Soviets may not seek a penetration in south Viet-Nam but the Viet Minh does and it is probable that it would have sought to penetrate into Viet-Nam regardless of whether the U.S. would or would not have been present there. The question is what to do in regard to Viet-Nam and to Thailand. The U.S. is seeking to help those countries, in particular through military training, and the question is not especially in regard to Viet-Nam whether such aid will be successful. It must, nevertheless, be tried as an abandonment of those countries by the U.S. would have repercussions elsewhere in the countries which were mentioned before and also in the Philippines, South Korea, and even Japan.
"General de Gaulle said that he understood the difficulties with which the United States is faced. France was deeply engaged in Indo-China and had to leave that country under circumstances which the President undoubtedly remembers. Yet France has kept some influence in those countries, but she can keep that influence only because she does not undertake any military action, or any action in the military field, in either Laos, Cambodia, or Viet-Nam. It seems that to have an influence in those countries and to exercise a military action in them are mutually contradictory. In the minds of the people of that area, any military action is equivalent to a desire to rule them.
"Of course, it is not easy to change policies. Yet, it is not so difficult either, especially if it can be done in coordination with Nehru and with the Japanese. There exists a genuine Western influence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans but in some areas the best way to further that influence is to seek neutrality even if that neutrality is only more or less genuine. In the countries of Southeast Asia the West can keep its influence only without military commitments, by extending its influence on a cultural plane and also by avoiding to give too much money to those countries. Money makes them corrupt and the governmental corruption makes government unpopular. This is what is happening at the present moment in South Viet-Nam.
"The President said that the problem for the U.S. is that it has treaty commitments and has been identified with those commitments. If the United States withdraws, Viet-Nam and possibly Thailand might even collapse. It is true that these countries and especially Viet-Nam might collapse even without the U.S. backing out. We must, however, think of the consequences. The part played by those countries in regard to Asia is perhaps identical with the part played by Berlin with regard to Europe. Already the fact that the U.S. has not intervened in Laos has created great difficulties for us in the Philippines. If now we were to withdraw from Viet-Nam and Viet-Nam were to collapse, that could be taken as a precedent, especially if it were done voluntarily.
"General de Gaulle said that he agreed with the President as to the difficulty of the situation. This difficult situation is due to past mistakes in policy. At the time when France withdrew from Indo-China, the ties of the countries concerned with the West were ties with France. After a military withdrawal of the French, those ties were little by little strengthened in the economic and the cultural areas. The U.S. unfortunately felt obligated to more or less replace France in Indo-China. This was not good and now we are suffering the consequences. France does not intend to repeat the mistakes of the past and feels that it will not intervene, at least not militarily and not at present. . .
"President de Gaulle recalled the war France waged in Indo-China. He stated his feeling that a new war could not lead anywhere even if waged by the U.S. If the U.S. feels that its security or its honor compelled it to intervene, the French will not oppose such an intervention but will not participate in it, except of course if it were to lead to a world-wide war, in which case France would be always at the side of the U.S.
"The President said that in the immediate future, the only thing to do is to try to coordinate in the best possible way the positions of the delegations in Geneva. He himself is extremely reluctant to think of an intervention in Laos, a country with only two air strips and no access to the sea. . .
"General de Gaulle said that he was not certain that the situation was all that bad. The West still has many possibilities, as long as it refrains from military action. It still has influence. French influence had never been as strong as since the French armies had left the area. There is a constant demand for French teachers and specialists, and a constant increase in the number of students in French schools not only in South Viet-Nam but even in North Viet-Nam including Hanoi.
"President Kennedy said that this might be because hostility towards the U.S. has replaced hostility towards its friends. If the U.S. is forced out, France may no longer appear as the lesser evil. The President further stated that he had visited both Saigon and Hanoi in 1951 and he saw the scope of the French effort. France had a lot of troops and good troops in Indo-China. He understands as a consequence that any intervention in that part of the free world have to be a major operation.
"General de Gaulle said that such indeed would not be the case, and the worst thing that could happen to the West would be a military defeat. To sum up, General de Gaulle said that what should be used is careful diplomacy and to seek a return to the Geneva Agreements of 1954."
President Obama, sadly, has inherited a more difficult situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan (not to speak of Iraq) than President Kennedy inherited in Southeast Asia. Had a de Gaulle--or even a George H. W. Bush--been able to talk to the second President Bush, he might easily have made the point that limited American military intervention in the Middle East had done much to create Al Queda and make Osama bin Laden a significant figure, and more military intervention would only make the situation worse. So it has, and not only in those countries. Since 2001 Hezbollah has become far stronger in Lebanon, Hamas has taken over the political leadership of the Palestinian people (in fact if not in name), a new Israeli government is set to repudiate the peace process, and Iraq is fragmented and vulnerable to American influence. Worst of all, the long-term presence of American troops and American firepower in Afghanistan has not only allowed the Taliban to make a comeback there, but the attempt to enlist Pakistan as an ally--despite the longstanding alliance between the Pakistani government and the Afghan Taliban--has led to a Taliban insurgency that has gained control of large parts of Pakistan, while the Pakistani government gets weaker and weaker.
President Obama's Southwest Asia policies are in the hands of Secretary of State Clinton and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke. The former seems to have become a very conventional foreign policy thinker, while the latter is nearing the half-century mark in his diplomatic career, during which he has consistently shown frightening self-confidence. There is no sign that either one of them has grasped what I and many others regard as the critical element of the situation: the poisonous effect both of American firepower and an excessively close American embrace on regimes in the Muslim world. As de Gaulle told Kennedy, military intervention inevitably carries with it the impression of a desire to rule, and too much money increases corruption. These, in my opinion, are the reason that we are faced with a crisis of historic proportions. It is also rather fascinating to note--and no one who knows Asia disputes this--that the United States is now far more popular in Vietnam, where we eventually abandoned our military intervention, than in either North or South Korea, where our intervention continues.
Faced with the threatened disintegration of nuclear-armed Pakistan, the Administartion--including the President--are, I regret to say, reverting to some of the worst habits of American diplomacy. Here is the President's response last Wednesday to a question about Pakistan:
"I'm confident that we can make sure that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is secure -- primarily, initially, because the Pakistani army I think recognizes the hazards of those weapons falling into the wrong hands. We've got strong military to military consultation and cooperation. I am gravely concerned about the situation in Pakistan not because I think that they're immediately going to be overrun and the Taliban would take over in Pakistan; more concerned that the civilian government there right now is very fragile and don't seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services -- schools, health care, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of people. And so as a consequence it is very difficult for them to gain the support and the loyalty of their people.
"So we need to help Pakistan help Pakistanis. And I think that there's a recognition increasingly on the part of both the civilian government there and the army that that is their biggest weakness.
"On the military side you're starting to see some recognition just in the last few days, that the obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan has been misguided, and that their biggest threat right now comes internally. And you're starting to see the Pakistan military take much more seriously the armed threat from militant extremists.
"We want to continue to encourage Pakistan to move in that direction. And we will provide them all the cooperation that we can. We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don't end up having a nuclear armed militant state."
No matter how great the truth of what the President said, we should all have learned long ago that publicly lecturing foreign governments--especially Muslim governments in the Third World--about their responsibilities and trying to redefine their priorities simply does not work, partly because following their advice turns us into American puppets. Instead of talking publicly about the need for Pakistan to pay more attention to the Taliban and less to India, we should be privately encouraging those two states to resume the attempt to settle the Kashmir question which was apparently pursued by Pervez Musharraf before he left office. And meanwhile, we need to abandon the fantasy that even if the Taliban did take power, we could attempt to repeat the experiments of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, this time in a country with well over one hundred million people.
Our goals in Afghanistan look fairly hopeless today as well. Kennedy had the wisdom to avoid intervening in landlocked Laos; we are encountering huge problems supplying our forces in landlocked Afghanistan, since convoys have been vulnerable to Taliban attacks going through Pakistan and other central Asian states are reluctant to allow us to establish bases. Kennedy in the early 1960s had one advantage over Obama in facing possible third world intervention: he had many far more important things to worry about. Most Americans knew that Western Europe, Berlin, and Japan were our vital interests, and Cuba was our biggest problem closer to home. Now, thanks to the relative calm (at least for the moment) in the richer parts of the world, we are obsessed with areas lacking any intrinsic value. The only solution to the Pakistani nuclear weapons problem is the one the President has proposed: the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Let us hope that this will be a real priority, not a gesture--and that perhaps, within eight years, American opinion will see Afghanistan returning, to quote a great American about Vietnam, to the obscurity which it so richly deserves.