The decision by President-elect Barack Obama to
keep Robert M. Gates on as defense secretary has touched off a debate over whether
Obama can pursue his commitment to rapid withdrawal from Iraq even though Gates
has defended George W. Bush's surge policy and opposed Obama's 16-month timetable
Obama did not explicitly address Iraq at a press conference Wednesday, saying
only that he would 'provide a vision' on foreign policy and 'make sure that
my team is implementing' it. The appointments, which will be formally announced
Monday, are expected to include Gates and Gen. James Jones as national security
advisor, who has also been critical of Obama's withdrawal timetable.
But the one historical precedent of a president seeking to get an unwilling
military to go along with a presidential troop withdrawal plan suggests that
Obama will be unable to implement his plan for Iraq without the defense secretary
and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff fully on board.
That is the lesson of President John F. Kennedy's effort in 1962 and 1963 to
get the U.S. military commanders in Vietnam to adopt a plan for withdrawal of
U.S. troops from South Vietnam by the end of 1965 the only other historical
case of a president who tried to pursue a timetable for rapid withdrawal of
combat troops from a war against the wishes of field commanders.
Obama, like Kennedy, is an extraordinarily self-confident leader, and he may
well believe that he can impose his Iraq policy on a national security team
that is not sympathetic to it. He reportedly made it clear to CENTCOM commander
Gen. David Petraeus in a face-to-face meeting in Baghdad last July that he would
not bow to military pressures to alter his plan, based on Iraq-centred concerns.
But the little-known story of Kennedy's timetable for U.S. withdrawal from
South Vietnam underlines the critical importance to a president of having his
two top national security officials on board in order to have any chance of
prevailing over the resistance of commanders in the field.
Kennedy was trying to present himself to the national security community as
centrist by striking a strong anti-Communist posture in public. But behind the
scenes, he was trying to push through a timetable for withdrawal from Vietnam.
Obama also has political interests that will inevitably conflict with putting
the full weight of his office behind his withdrawal plan mainly demonstrating
to the national security bureaucracy and the political elite that he is really
within the post-Cold War consensus on the use of U.S. military power in the
Kennedy had a secretary of defense and a Joint Chiefs chairman who were prepared
to cooperate fully with his strategy for withdrawal from Vietnam. Kennedy's
defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, was fiercely loyal to the president and
Maxwell Taylor, then chairman of the JCS, was a close personal friend of both
McNamara and Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy used McNamara and Taylor to press the
military to go along with his timetable rather than confronting them directly.
Even though the two top officials in his national security team committed to
the 1965 deadline for complete withdrawal, however, military commanders in Vietnam
and at the Pacific command in Honolulu refused for many months to adopt the
withdrawal plan being urged on them. As early as May 1962, McNamara asked field
commanders to come up with a plan for complete withdrawal from Vietnam by late
1965, and suggested the end of 1965 as the conclusion of the process.
McNamara insisted on such a plan in July 1962. But the military's plan for
withdrawal would have left thousands of the troops in the country even in 1967.
McNamara said that was too slow and told them to go back to the drawing board.
Nevertheless the Pacific Command and the commander in Saigon continued to drag
their feet on the 1965 deadline. Like Petraeus and the top commander in Iraq,
Gen. Ray Odierno, in relation to Obama's plan in 2008, they argued that the
proposed rapid timetable for complete withdrawal from Vietnam was too risky.
Kennedy made a strategic political decision in October 1962 to bring in Maxwell
Taylor as JCS chairman, in a move decried by the military leadership at the
time as White House interference in the normal rotation among the services in
that post. As Kennedy expected, Taylor was willing to help McNamara and Kennedy
to turn the Joint Chiefs of Staff into an asset on the Vietnam withdrawal timetable.
Kennedy's next step was to try to get the Joint Chiefs to endorse a plan to
withdraw 1,000 troops from Vietnam before the end of 1963. But after months
of maneuvering, and despite Taylor's support for the plan, the Joint Chiefs
agreed in August 1963 only to accept an initial withdrawal for planning purposes
subject to final JCS approval by Oct. 31, 1963. They were insisting on a 'conditions-based'
withdrawal, just like the U.S. command in Iraq in 2008.
Frustrated by the military's resistance, Kennedy sent McNamara and Taylor to
Vietnam with the understanding that they would return with a recommendation
for the plan for withdrawal by the end of 1965 as well as an initial withdrawal
of 1,000 troops. Kennedy then maneuvered to have his entire National Security
Council endorse their recommendation on Oct. 3, 1963, despite the fact that
key NSC officials, including National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, opposed
Taylor then directed the military command to bring its planning into line with
the previous McNamara proposal for withdrawal of all but 680 advisers. But six
weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and within weeks the military
began to reverse the commitment to Kennedy's plan.
Iraq, of course, is not Vietnam. The "Withdrawal Agreement" already
signed by the Iraqi government and the Bush administration, and approved by
Iraq's parliament Thursday, has put military leaders opposed to Obama's timetable
on the defensive. Obama's decisive electoral victory based in part on his sharp
differentiation between the Bush administration and his own position on withdrawal
also strengthens his position.
Kennedy had relied heavily on his defense secretary and the JCS chairman in
large part because he was not ready to campaign publicly for his timetable.
If Obama is ready to go to Iraq to confront field commanders on the issue, he
could still prevail.
But unless Obama acts to replace Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff with a more supportive senior military officer after his first
term ends next September, he will not have support from either of his top two
national security officials on his Iraq withdrawal plan. If his national security
choices are any indication, Obama, unlike Kennedy in 1962, is reluctant to risk
good relations with the military leadership by making such a change.
And if he becomes too distracted by his primary concern -- the U.S. economy
-- or is reluctant to have a confrontation with his national security team over
the issue, Odierno and Petraeus are likely to drag their heels just as U.S.
commanders stonewalled Kennedy over Vietnam.
Then the cost of allowing opponents of his policy to exercise day-to-day control
over this pivotal foreign policy issue will soon become apparent.
(Inter Press Service)