Pinkerton: What Trump Might Have Learned from Nixon’s Handling of Vietnam

US President Donald Trump speaks to people from Hawaii, Alaska, and California during an event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus October 23, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The Republican president, running for re-election, orders airstrikes against a foreign foe. Back home, street protests erupt, and TV pundits and newspaper editorialists rage; there are even new calls for impeachment. And it’s later learned that the president told his top diplomat, in regard to the aerial bombardment, “The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time.” These words then provoke critics to call the president, among other epithets, crazy.

Yet, in fact, the president’s show of strength — the enemy had, after all, killed many Americans — is proven popular. And by contrast, the protests, and the protestors, are not popular. So the president’s polling numbers improve, and he is re-elected in a landslide.

Is this some sort of prophetic scenario for Donald Trump in 2020? Maybe, although only time will tell. In the meantime, we do know this much: The scenario above is simply a recounting of the history of the year 1972 when President Richard Nixon sought re-election, even as he conducted his kinetic — sometimes extremely kinetic — Vietnam policy.

In his effort to prod the enemy North Vietnamese government to the negotiating table, Nixon was willing to launch levels of bombing that were unprecedented in the previous decade of fighting. In response, critics called Nixon a “madman,” but it was an insult that Nixon was willing to own because, he figured, it kept his opponents off balance.

In point of fact, Nixon was anything but a madman. He was, to be sure, naturally a tough-minded guy; he had fought in World War II and had been fighting liberals and leftists ever since. And yet at the same time, he was smart and wily — that’s how he got to be president.

And yet, as president, Nixon was shrewd enough to use his toughness to further advantage. As a matter of international strategizing, he played “bad cop,” while his top diplomat, Henry Kissinger, played “good cop.” This good-cop/bad-cop routine enabled Kissinger to negotiate effectively because, while sitting down with his interlocutors, he could say, “I’m a nice guy,” even as he pointed back over his shoulder and said, “But you don’t want to get him mad at you.”

This sweet-and-sour tactic succeeded; after all of Nixon’s bombings in 1972, in the following year, 1973, Kissinger was able to work out a peace agreement with North Vietnam. He was, in fact, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In other words, paradoxical as it may seem, Nixon was bombing for the sake of peace.

(Yes, South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese communists in 1975 after the peace agreement fell apart, but that was only after Nixon had been forced to resign in 1974; had he survived in office — ready, willing, and able to bomb as needed — it’s possible that South Vietnam would have survived.)

So now to today, a half-century later, as Trump battles with Iran: As we shall see, Trump’s ultimate goal seems to be peace, not war. Yes, he wants Iran to behave better, but no, he doesn’t want to repeat George W. Bush’s mistake of trying to conquer and occupy a large Muslim country.

Yet in the meantime, here at home, anti-Trump protests have erupted in the streets — in 70 different cities, according to CNN. Prominent experts don’t like what Trump has done, pundit-Twitter is aflame, and, of course, the Democrats still want to impeach him.

To this Baby Boomer, who remembers the Nixon era well, it’s all so familiar. And surely Trump, another Baby Boomer, remembers it all, too.

Indeed, even the Nixon-as-Madman theory is being updated for Trump. On January 3 of this year, radio host Hugh Hewitt usefully recalled that in 2015, Trump articulated his own softened version of the “madman” theory, which he called “a certain unpredictability.” Speaking of himself in the third person, Trump continued, “There’s a certain unpredictability about Trump … You don’t want to let people know what you’re going to do … You don’t want the other side to know.”

Yes, Trump always finds a way to keep ‘em guessing. Last year, he chose not to react to various Iranian provocations, and yet this year, he chose to react strongly — as Iranian general Qasem Soleimani found out, the hard way. For years, Soleimani seemed to think that his high position in the Iranian regime made him immune. He thought wrong.

As Trump said after Soleimani was killed, “We will find you, we will eliminate you, we will always protect our diplomats, service members, all Americans, and our allies.” As the State Department noted, Soleimani had much American blood on his hands — and so finally, after two decades spent killing Americans, some rough justice was dealt to him.

Indeed, Trump supporters, recalling their man’s efforts to assure the safety of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, are gleefully drawing the comparison to the Obama administration’s fecklessness, back in 2012, about the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. In American politics, there’s a lot of gains to be found in actually protecting Americans.

On January 3, Senator Marco Rubio, a member of both the intelligence and foreign relations committees, tweeted in support of Trump’s policy: “Preventing imminent attacks on Americans isn’t ‘hawkish’ it’s self defense.” He added that the U.S. “must & will respond to & if possible prevent attacks against Americans.”

Meanwhile, Alabama Republican Party chair Terry Lathan laid in more of a gut-punch:

The question is this — why did it take all of these years with 608 American lives taken by #Soleimani until @realDonaldTrump had to step up and deal with this now?

And yet having just played the hardest of hardball with Iran, Trump then delivered a changeup pitch. As he also said on January 3, “We took action last night to stop a war, we did not take action to start a war.” And he added, dovishly, “We do not seek regime change,” even as he injected a note of warning: “The Iranian regime’s aggression in the region, including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors, must end and it must end now.”

Indeed, at the same time, a “senior State Department official” told reporters, “We are ready to talk with the Iranians.” That’s the old Nixon playbook, updated: Be “crazy” enough to bomb the other guys, but once you have their attention, be smart enough to talk.

A Closer Look at Parallels, 1972 and 2020: McGovernism

Richard Nixon inherited, if that’s the right word, the Vietnam War. President John Kennedy had first committed U.S. troops to Vietnam in 1961, and President Lyndon Johnson had dramatically escalated U.S. involvement in 1965; Nixon was first sworn into office in 1969.

And by 1969, the Vietnam War was deeply unpopular, and yet at the same time, the American people, most of them, did not want simply to “cut and run.” So Nixon’s plan was a slow withdrawal, leading to, as he put it, “peace with honor.”

Yes, as we have seen, Nixon was willing to do a lot of bombing for the sake of peace, and yet at the same time, by 1972, the number of American troops in Vietnam had been reduced by 95 percent.

Yet in 1972, a presidential election year, the left-wing opposition to Nixon intensified. Anti-war protestors had been active for years, and the intensity of their activism failed to wind down as the war itself wound down. Indeed, this anti-war fervor was so intense that it often veered into obvious anti-Americanism — and that played poorly with the American people.

For instance, in July 1972, actress Jane Fonda traveled to North Vietnam to show her solidarity with the communists who were killing Americans; in fact, she cheerfully sat for a photo-op inside a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun.

Moreover, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, George McGovern, said that he would “crawl on my hands and knees to Hanoi” for the sake of peace. And that too played poorly; indeed, McGovern lost in a landslide to Nixon in November ‘72, carrying just one of the 50 states.

Yet despite that drubbing, “McGovernism” became a permanent movement within the Democratic Party; it’s defined as a desire for “peace” at any price, as well as more than a little hostility to American power and American institutions. In other words, it’s the far left.

Now today, many Democrats are flaunting their New McGovernism. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted of Trump’s actions, “This is a war crime,” adding, Trump is a “monster. And for his part, Colin Kaepernick accused Trump of “terrorist attacks.”

Such jabs at Trump play well in Manhattan and Hollywood, but not with the nation as a whole. On January 4, pollster Frank Luntz took note of a protestor in Los Angeles eulogizing Soleimani and tweeted:

This probably seemed like a good idea to her Facebook friends and/or Twitter followers, but not to anyone outside her echo chamber. This is how you help your side lose elections.

Indeed, a headline in The Washington Examiner tells the tale: “2020 Democrats on defensive as Trump capitalizes on Soleimani killing.”

The Democrats are, in fact, tying themselves in knots; on the one hand, they can’t be supportive of Trump, and yet at the same time, it’s risky to look supportive of Iran. Yet when Elizabeth Warren tried to say that Soleimani was a bad guy, even as she opposed Trump, she was clobbered by modern-day McGovernites.

As National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar tweeted on January 3:

Stunning that the simple mention of noting Soleimani was a terrorist is sparking blowback with the Left. Warren already walking back her statement last night.

This fracas on the left inspired a sharp headline from Madeline Osburn at The Federalist: “Dems Hate Trump More Than They Hate Terrorists Who Kill Americans.” She added, “Reactions from Democrats were more than predictable, given how Trump Derangement Syndrome has plagued their minds since 2016.”

We can observe that Trump Derangement Syndrome might be a winner with the Democratic base, but it’s a loser with the general public.

Of course, the November election is still 11 months away. And at the rate things are going, the roulette ball of international politics could land on many different numbers between now and November 3, Election Day.

For instance, just on January 5, the Iraqi parliament voted to expel the U.S. military from Iraq. In the words of Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi, “It’s time for American troops to leave.”

This might not be the final word from Iraq, of course, although in an ironic way, it could be exactly what Trump and his supporters have been looking for since the 2016 campaign — a way out of Iraq. As Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said on Fox News:

As the President made very clear, this was an effort to protect our troops and to stop a war, not to start one … The Trump Doctrine is at it’s best when we strike the terrorists and then bring our troops home.

Amen.

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