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Vietnam's lessons

May 31, 2007|Henry A. Kissinger | HENRY A. KISSINGER was secretary of State from 1973 to 1977.

Faced with a military setback and diplomatic isolation, Le Duc Tho, Hanoi's principal negotiator, abandoned Hanoi's 1969 terms in October 1972. He accepted conditions publicly put forward by Nixon in January 1972 -- and decried as unachievable in the U.S. domestic debate. The terms of the resulting Paris peace agreement were 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. None of these terms were available in 1969.

The Nixon administration was convinced that it had achieved a decent opportunity for the people of South Vietnam to determine their own fate; that the Saigon government would be able to overcome ordinary violations of the agreement with its own forces; that the U.S. would assist against an all-out attack; and that, over time, the South Vietnamese government would be able to build a functioning society.

American disunity was a major element in dashing these hopes. Watergate fatally weakened the Nixon administration through its own mistakes, and the 1974 midterm congressional elections brought to power the most unforgiving of Nixon's opponents, who cut off aid so the agreement couldn't work as planned. The imperatives of domestic debate took precedence over geopolitical necessities.

Two lessons emerge from this account. A strategic design cannot be achieved on a fixed, arbitrary deadline; it must reflect conditions on the ground. But it also must not test the endurance of the American public to a point where the outcome can no longer be sustained by our political process. In Iraq, rapid, unilateral withdrawal would be disastrous. At the same time, a political solution remains imperative.

A political settlement has to be distilled from the partly conflicting, partly overlapping views of the Iraqi parties, Iraq's neighbors and other affected states, based on a conviction that the caldron of Iraq would otherwise overflow and engulf everybody. The essential prerequisite is staying power in the near term. President Bush owes it to his successor to make as much progress toward this goal as possible; not to hand the problem over but to reduce it to more manageable proportions. What we need most is a rebuilding of bipartisanship in both this presidency and in the next.

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