Fourth in a series.
In the first part of this series, we observed that greatness is tangible; you know it when you see it. In the second part, we saw that military greatness was really intangible, insofar as we whipped the other guy—even Hitler’s mighty Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. In the third part, we saw that greatness also meant doing big things on the home front, such as making the desert bloom, thereby providing jobs, wealth, and hope.
Now, in this fourth part, let’s talk about another kind of greatness, peace with honor. As we shall see, peace with honor often comes from crafty diplomacy. Or, as Donald Trump might put it, peace through deal-making.
- How Deal-Making Brought Peace with Honor
No doubt at least some pointers about grand-strategy deal-making were covered in Trump’s May 18 meeting with Henry Kissinger, the 92-year-old former national security adviser, secretary of state, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. After all, Kissinger still stands as the beau ideal of a US diplomat.
To illustrate, let’s look back at an era of US history, in which, in the latter stages, Kissinger was a key player.
Beginning in the 1960s, first under President John Kennedy, then under President Lyndon Johnson, the US became increasingly engaged in the fighting in Vietnam. The American effort to thwart communism might have been, as Ronald Reagan later said in 1980, a “noble cause,” but at the time, it was a deeply unpopular cause. By the November 1968 US presidential elections, after the death of more than 35,000 Americans in the fighting, the American people had turned against the war. And so a new man, Richard Nixon, was elected that year. His pledge was peace, but also, he declared, it would be “peace with honor.”
Taking office in early 1969, Nixon and his top diplomat, Kissinger, had the challenge of sorting through their options. In the short run, the options weren’t good—we were losing up to 500 KIAs a week in the jungle fighting.
One major factor was immediately evident to Nixon and Kissinger: There could be no victory, or even honorable peace, in South Vietnam, so long as the enemy invaders in the South could be resupplied from the North, and so long as the North could be resupplied by two fellow communist states, the People’s Republic China and the Soviet Union.
That is, so long as the Hanoi government had the physical, diplomatic, and moral support of those two superpowers—China, an adjoining country, and the USSR, just beyond China—it could not lose, and so it would not stop fighting.
Indeed, it was the presence of many Russian and Chinese technicians in certain areas, such as the capital city of Hanoi and the major port of Haiphong, that made those targets off-limits to US airstrikes: We didn’t want to kill a lot of Russians or Chinese.
In addition, of course, the idea of going to the root of the problem—that is, a ground invasion of North Vietnam—was never seriously considered. The argument to US war planners was simple: We don’t want to kill Chinese or Russians, because we don’t want to let the fighting escalate into World War Three.
Only later did we receive confirmation of what many had suspected, that Chinese and Russian personnel were more than technicians, but were, in fact, serving as combatants in the fighting—that is, actively killing Americans. Yet even if we had known that at the time, it’s unlikely that the limits on US power would have changed; Vietnam was intended as a limited war with limited objectives. Yes, unfortunately, the war became really expensive, in terms of blood and treasure, but that’s often the case in war—one or more of the warring parties miscalculates.
Meanwhile, in South Vietnam, the US could, and did, win every fight on the battlefield, but that didn’t matter—the North Vietnamese were not going to stop fighting. 10:1 kill ratio? 100:1 kill ratio? The North Vietnamese weren’t deterred, because they wanted to win—and they were willing to pay that price, whatever it was.
And so even though a “peace process” had begun in Paris in May 1968, the North Vietnamese weren’t sincerely interested in any negotiation, for one simple reason: Despite their heavy casualties, they thought they were winning.
So Nixon and Kissinger developed a new strategy to achieve “peace with honor.” They maintained a US military presence in South Vietnam, even as they slowly de-escalated the number of American combat troops.
Yet at the same time, they resolved to do something new—something that had never occurred to their predecessors. They sought to go over the head of North Vietnam and strike a deal with Hanoi’s patrons in Beijing and Moscow. Any dealing with China was, of course, deeply controversial, because the US had cut off diplomatic relations with China in 1949 after Mao Zedong’s communists took over. And Nixon, of course, was famous as an anti-communist. Yet he was also a foreign-policy realist, as well as a smart deal-maker. And so after Kissinger paved the way, Nixon visited Beijing in February 1972; then, in May 1972, the 37th president visited Moscow.
During those trips, which lasted seven and eight days, respectively, Nixon reached an understanding with North Vietnam’s bosses. The full details have never been revealed, but the subsequent record is crystal clear.
And we know this, too, as context: At the time, in the early 70s, China and the Soviet Union were veering apart. Sharing a 2700-mile border, heaving with unresolved boundary disputes, the two communist countries, in 1969, had even collided in a brief armed conflict. In other words, in diplomatic terms, Nixon had plenty of leverage on both states. That is, he could bargain to make the US the superior “two out of three”—that is, siding with one against the other—in the three-way game of high-stakes geopolitics.
In retrospect, it might seem that this Nixon-Kissinger diplomatic initiative was rather obvious, but, in fact, as we have seen, it had eluded both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Later that year, 1972, after the peace negotiations had stalled yet again, the US resolved to nudge the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table. America launched Operation Linebacker II, the so-called “Christmas Bombing,” from December 18 to December 29, 1972. It was the largest aerial bombardment since World War Two, and crucially, it included many previously off-limits targets in Hanoi and Haiphong. So finally, after more than a decade of fighting, the North Vietnamese felt such military pressure that they had to reach a deal. Yes, they had, in effect, been bombed into submission, and it must have been galling to the North Vietnamese that their “friends” in China and the USSR were standing by and watching, doing nothing.
Thus did North Vietnamese come back to the peace talks, hungry for a deal. The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973. It was far from a perfect deal, but it might have lasted—if Nixon had lasted.
Yet as we all know, the Nixon-Kissinger settlement was soon undone—although for reasons that had nothing to do with Vietnam. Nixon was driven from office by the Watergate scandal in August 1974, and the Democrats went on to win a huge victory in the November 1974 midterm elections. Whereupon the Democrats, enjoying nearly 2:1 margins in both houses of Congress—and determined to root out anything that had Nixon’s fingerprints—sought, out of sheer spite, to undo the peace deal and cut off any more US aid to South Vietnam. And so they did. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975.
Thus the Vietnam War had a particularly painful end. After all that military sacrifice, the American effort was undone, mostly by politicians in Washington, D.C.
Yet looking back at those years, we can see the positive power of deal-making: That is, the Nixon-Kissinger deal worked for a while, and it could have worked for a long time.
To sum up: “The art of the deal,” to borrow a phrase, was, in this instance, to go over the head of the enemy and make a deal with his sponsors. That’s an honorable way to end a war. Smart!
Okay, so that’s a history lesson, and already, we can start to see how its lessons might apply to America’s continuing conflict with jihadi terror. So let’s take a closer look at how one actually wins a war against insurgents.
- Cutting the Enemy Off from Supply: The Key to Victory
As we have seen, the US could not win the Vietnam War so long as our foe, North Vietnam, could be reliably resupplied by China and the Soviet Union. In geopolitical terms, the North Vietnamese had the advantage of what’s called “strategic depth.”
Moreover, as we think about all the counter-insurgencies and brushfire wars that the US has fought since World War Two, we can see that the failures and frustrations came when we could not cut off the enemy from his supply lines.
This was the case in the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953: The North Koreans could be steadily resupplied, once again, by China and Russia. And so, even after more than 33,000 American combat deaths, the fighting ended in essentially a tie; to this day, communist North Korea counts itself as an arch enemy of the US.
By contrast, twice in the 90s, we confronted an enemy whom we were able to isolate and, therefore, decisively defeat. The first was Saddam Hussein, and the second was Slobodan Milosevic. In each case, Iraq and Serbia, we used diplomacy to surround the country with enemies—or at least non-helpful neutrals—and so it was easy to win, and win quickly. In the 1991 Gulf War, we might recall, George H.W. Bush persuaded all the other Arab countries—including neighbors Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—to join in a grand coalition against Iraq. So the Iraqis had no chance: They folded within weeks. And so, too, a few years later, surrounded as they were, the Serbs surrendered without a single American KIA.
Unfortunately, that basic lesson—Surround Them To Defeat Them—was lost on president George W. Bush. As we all remember, 43 went into both Afghanistan, in 2001, and Iraq, in 2003, without securing the surrounding countries as allies, or at least as non-participants. That’s why the rebels in both countries could be so effective; as in Vietnam, they were steadily resupplied by countries that were outright enemies (such as Syria and Iran) or “frenemies” that were happy enough to see us bleed (such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan).
As a result, as earlier in Vietnam, the bravery of US troops on the ground, and the effectiveness of US airpower, was mostly for naught. The enemy, drawing its forces from the general population, plus outside Islamist freelancers, could keep being replenished and, as a result, keep coming.
In addition, Russia and China were involved—once again, against us. So far as we know, Russia and China did not directly help either Al Qaeda in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan, but it’s undeniable that those two superpowers provided diplomatic “cover” to the lesser countries that were helping the insurgents—mostly, Iran and Pakistan.
What was missing from these recent wars, we can readily see, was a shrewd Nixon-Kissinger-like diplomatic strategy—the strategy of isolating the enemy. As a result, absent such a larger smart vision, US forces could still be fighting the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan a full century from now.
Yes, it is a bit strange that none of the presidents and diplomats of the last 15 years have seen the situation as clearly as Nixon and Kissinger did nearly half-a-century ago: Namely, the road to victory in Kabul and Baghdad runs through Moscow and Beijing. Or, as Trump has said in his own inimitable way, “We are led by very, very, stupid people.”
And because our leaders are—how do we put this diplomatically?—not as up to par as they could be, we have not only floundered in Afghanistan and Iraq, but are also up against a potentially calamitous crisis of overcommitment around the world. So let’s take a look at that overcommitment, because then we can see the beginning of a new and better plan.
- The Quintuple Containment—Not Sustainable!
Today, it is currently US policy to undertake the following missions of corralling our foes; the diplomatic term of art is “containment” In fact, we have undertaken to contain five different forces; we can call this the Quintuple Containment–more precisely, the attempted Quintuple Containment. Let’s take a look at each in turn:
First, we seek to contain China, even if that means risking an armed confrontation in the South China Sea—or worse. We can note the red-letter headline atop The Drudge Report on May 19: “CHINA WARNS USA: MILITARY READY ‘IF PROVOKED.’” America should never back down from a necessary fight over vital interests, but we might step back and ask ourselves: Do really want to risk World War Three over the Spratly Islands? Yet today, that’s exactly what we’re doing.
And yes, it’s all the more strange that even as we rattle our saber at China, we are, at the same time, running a $365 billion trade deficit with China. So we’re running the risk of going to war with a country from which we import large quantities of goods, including vital war materiel; the Pentagon, for example, uses Apple iPhones and iPads, made in China.
Second, we seek to contain Russia, even if that means risking an armed confrontation with the Russian military. In a series of aggressive actions, the Russians have been buzzing our Navy ships repeatedly, which is a reminder that we could find ourselves embroiled in a conflict with them, too.
Third, we seek to contain Iran. Okay, maybe we’re not doing such a good job of crimping. As we have seen, they don’t hesitate to grab our Navy ships and humiliate our sailors, even as they continue to sponsor terror and probably, the recent treaty notwithstanding, continue to develop their nuclear arsenal. Yes, it would seem that Secretary of State John Kerry’s treasured nuclear deal with Iran is worse than worthless.
Fourth, we seek to contain terrorism, be it Al Qaeda, ISIS, etc. On that front, terrorism might seem to be contained—unless we count the recent terrorist attacks in California, Paris, Brussels, and, quite possibly, the May 19 crash of the EgyptAir passenger jet. We can observe, incidentally, that it would be easier to contain terrorism if we weren’t actively liberating terrorists, as we did in 2011, when we overthrew Qaddafi in Libya.
Fifth, we seek to contain carbon dioxide—that is, fight “climate change.” Yes, it’s the long twilight struggle against the CO2 molecule that seems most to engage the Obama administration. Indeed, amidst all the dangers of the world, Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2014 that “climate change” is “the greatest challenge of our generation.”
Indeed, as Breitbart’s Jerome Hudson pointed out in 2015, the Obama administration has made that absurd claim no less than 22 times. And so if fighting “climate change” means shutting down the US economy, well, that seems to the Greens who have taken over the Democratic Party to be a small price to pay.
We can quickly see that the US, strong as it is, can’t succeed at all five of these attempted containments—plus, of course, the other hundred or so major goals that the State Department has set for itself, from human rights to refugee resettlement to cultural exchange to foreign aid. We can further see the obvious point: Seeking to do everything is really a plan for accomplishing nothing.
Of course, while most Republicans would quickly dispense with goal #5, climate change, that still leaves four containment goals—China, Russia, Iran, and terrorism—which might be one or two too many.
After all, America is powerful, but not that powerful. With four percent of the world’s population and about 21 percent of the world’s GDP, we find ourselves in a situation in which America’s credibility, including our nuclear deterrent, is on the line in a half-dozen flashpoints, from Europe to the Middle East to Asia—and this at a time when President Obama has been cutting the defense budget.
Yet even if we increase our defense budget, as Trump has said we must, it’s still plain to see that we don’t have the resources to be the world’s policeman. So we need a different approach, one that enables us to decide what our most urgent priorities are—and to focus on them.
Yes, the essence of a genuine strategy—as opposed to simply random, promiscuous overcommitment—is to decide what’s genuinely important and to focus on that. As Trump wrote in his 2011 book, The Midas Touch, “Focus is essential to success, and successful people are people who can focus.” True words.
So let’s get specific: What, precisely, might we be doing differently? And what, exactly, should we be focusing on?
We might start by thinking about who our real enemies are—that is, entities and countries that have sworn to kill us. And by that reckoning, the list of four serious “containees” shrinks down to just two: Iran and the terrorists. That is, if the official policy of Iran is “Death to America,” well, that’s a pretty clear signal—the Iranians are not our friends. That could change, of course, but it hasn’t yet: The Iranians have been consistent in their hostility since 1979.
Meanwhile, as for ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, etc., well, they, too, are clear enough: They hate us, and they want us dead.
So that should clarify US thinking: If someone wants to fight us, well, one way or another, we have to fight them.
By contrast, China and Russia are in a different category. They are hardly friend, but they have never expressed killer-hostility. They are strategic rivals, to be sure, but they are not, at least as of yet, mortal threats. And let’s hope that they never become mortal threats, because they both possess massive nuclear arsenals.
Yet in the meantime, as we shall see, there’s much common ground between the three countries that could be productively furrowed for the benefit of each.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, for example, says all the time that he wants to cooperate with the US, starting with counter-terrorism. In January, for example, Putin said:
We are faced with common threats, and we still want all countries… to join their efforts to combat these threats, and we are still striving for this.
Now, of course, some will say that Putin is not sincere. Yet it’s been well documented that the Russians were perfectly sincere when they warned us about the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston Marathon bombers—but we chose not to listen.
The Russians, in fact, have a serious security threat from restive Muslim populations, both within their borders and nearby—and they know it. So maybe we can help each other—just as in World War Two, when the US and USSR teamed up to beat Hitler. A lot of American GIs survived the “Good War,” of course, because we had Russian help.
Trump gets this potential for a US-Russian deal. As he said in his foreign policy speech to the Center for the National Interest in April, “Russia, for instance, has also seen the horror of Islamic terrorism,” and so there’s the opportunity, he suggested, for an understanding that would both cool tensions and kill terrorists. As Trump also said, “Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility, must end and ideally will end soon.” If it did, he added, it would be “good for both countries.” And that, of course, is how deals are made—through mutual advantage.
Of course, Trump still has his guard up:
Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a deal under my administration, a deal that’s great — not good, great — for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to find out.
As the wise Ronald Reagan said of the Soviets in the 80s, “Trust, but verify.”
And the same holds true for China. The PRC also has a Muslim problem. It is home to more than 50 million Muslims, most of them ethnic Uighurs, who are a Turkic people, highly attuned to the jihadi currents rippling through the Middle East. And so China, too, has been the victim of repeated Muslim terrorist attacks. Moreover, as with the Russians, the Chinese have said, explicitly, that they would like to work with the US. Here’s a March 15 headline in China Daily: “China seeks US cooperation to counter terror.”
Once again, to make a statement is not the same as making it true, but the obvious reality, that terrorism is a major threat to all the major powers, is enough to inspire some confidence that a deal is possible.
As Trump also said in his speech last month:
We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China. We have serious differences with these two nations, and must regard them with open eyes, but we are not bound to be adversaries. We should seek common ground based on shared interests.
- A Vision for Victory
So thus we see the outlines of a deal that would let the US concentrate on its urgent enemies: The next US president would reach an accord with Russia and China on counter-terrorism. Such an accord would open up the prospect that the US could actually succeed in containing Iran and ISIS, and also, in addition, open up the prospect of paving the way to additional “confidence-building measures” between the major nuclear powers. The point here is not necessarily that the US, Russia, and China are ever going to be best friends; instead, the goal here is to deal with the greater crises first, and the lesser crises, later. As Trump says, focus means just that: you focus on what you really have to get done. That’s strong management, and it’s also strong leadership.
As we have seen, in 1972, President Richard Nixon was a strong leader. Ignoring the advice of the lesser minds that preceded him, he went over the head of the North Vietnamese enemy to reach a deal with China and Russia, thus ending the Vietnam War.
And so, beginning in 2017, a President Trump might have the opportunity to meet with, once again, to China and Russia, this time to cut off the supply, aid, and comfort to the terrorist state of Iran, as well as to all the major terrorists of the world.
That’s peace, and peace with honor. That’s greatness.