Consider this scenario. The president's national security advisor has flown off to a distant capital to meet with the supreme leader of an enemy state. After reassuring his host that the U.S. does not seek permanent bases, the U.S. envoy says:
"So that the mere fact that we are sitting in this room changes the objective basis of the original intervention.... For us who inherited the war our problem has been how to liquidate it in a way that does not affect our entire international position..."
"We have attempted to separate the military outcome from the political outcome so that we can disengage from the area and permit the local forces to shape their future."
No, those are not the words of James Jones, President Obama's national security advisor, meeting with President Ahmadinejad of Iran. Rather, equally improbably, those are the words of Henry Kissinger meeting with Zhou Enlai in June of 1972 (transcript at the National Security Archive - http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB193/HAK%206-20-72.pdf )
Although the term "rogue state" had not yet been invented in 1972, "Red China" had been the object of fear-mongering in the American press since the Korean War and was, if anything, more of a pariah nation than Iran is thirty-seven years later. Few Americans at the time could quite imagine the President's chief national security advisor sitting down for a heart to heart talk with the leadership of such a state.
But in 1972 Kissinger was making his second trip for secret talks with the Red Chinese leadership. Thirty-seven years later, when the U.S. once again has its troops seemingly stuck in an unending conflict in a distance land, the transcripts of that meeting with Zhou Enlai make for fascinating and instructive reading.
Kissinger's visit to Beijing shows us the wide and daring scope of diplomacy that may be pursued in service of ending an unfortunate war.
What is remarkable is how much Henry Kissinger, representing the most powerful nation on earth, concedes to the Chinese in an effort to gain their help in getting the North Vietnamese to be more responsive negotiators. He distances himself from the harsh statements directed at the Chinese by the Johnson administration. He states directly that the U.S. can live with a communist Vietnam, insisting only that the U.S. can not be expected to overthrow its sponsored allies in the south. He clarifies for Zhou that the U.S. expects to withdraw all of its troops from Vietnam and leave no bases behind. Rather directly he is asking the Chinese to persuade the North Vietnamese to allow the U.S. to leave Vietnam with modicum of dignity and plausible denial that they are abandoning an ally.
The US exit from Iraq can be less demanding. The Iranians look rather favorably on the current Iraqi government and probably would object to our abandoning it. What we need from the Iranians is their help in persuading the Shia-dominated Iraqi government to make peace and share proportionate power with the Sunni minority which will only happen in the context of regional rapprochement of Iraq's neighbors including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Iranian cooperation is essential to making this possible.
What will the Iranians want? Much like the Chinese they will insist on an end to sanctions and a commitment for diplomatic recognition and normalization. What about their nuclear program? Much like the arrangement made thirty-seven years ago regarding the status of Taiwan, the US will need to "agree to disagree" and accept the ambiguous meaning of Iranian nuclear development with a silent understanding that Iran will not weaponize its knowledge and materials.
Many in the US will argue that the Iranian government does not deserve such treatment, but it is likely that such is the price of Middle East stability and peace after Bush's strategic blunder with the Iraq war.
This commentary is not an exercise in drawing analogies between the particularities of Iraq and Vietnam. Nor is it principally about similarities in the strategic context. Rather it invites us to imagine President Obama's Assistant for National Security Affairs or Secretary of State sitting down for serious talks of extraordinary scope with one or more of the leaders of present day 'enemy' nations in the Middle East.
I am reminded that there was extraordinary suffering in store for the people of Vietnam and Cambodia (and, for that matter, U.S. soldiers and their families) for years after the Kissinger-Zhou talks took place. I hope we have the will and imagination for talks in Iran and the surrounding region that will yield better outcomes for the people of the region.
Charles Knight is co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives. He also serves as the President of the Commonwealth Institute which he helped found in 1987. In 1989 he founded the Ground Force Alternatives Project at the Institute for Defense (more...