In the fall of 1972, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a North Vietnamese peace delegation led by Lê Đức Thọ reached a preliminary peace agreement in Paris that would eventually lead to the end of the Vietnam War, at the time America’s longest war. Kissinger had deliberately kept South Vietnamese negotiators in the dark and when he arrived in Saigon to deliver the agreement for their approval, South Vietnamese negotiators had not been involved in the process.
Saigon rejected the plan, which was effectively the death warrant for thousands of South Vietnamese in the South, and asked its views be included in the ceasefire agreement. South Vietnamese president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu accosted Kissinger, “Are you trying to win the Peace Prize?”
Conversely, the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi flatly refused to make even minor concessions, setting the stage for the December 1972 bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of Haiphong harbor by the United States. Formally known as Linebacker II, the operation became known as the “Christmas Bombings” by Richard Nixon’s critics.
Kissinger indeed later won the Nobel Peace Prize and, eventually, the North Vietnamese agreed to allow South Vietnamese input and an eventual ceasefire.
President Barack Obama, himself a Nobel Peace Prize winner, drew criticisms from the far left with a recent bombing campaign that coincided with a religious holiday, though the howls of anguish have been far less than those confronting Nixon. While it’s true that a variety of left-wing twitterati and commentators drew the connection, major American newspapers were still running editorials condemning Nixon’s bombing into the last decade.
The parallels between Nixon’s expansion of the war in Vietnam and President Obama’s move to expand counterterrorism operations into Yemen are similar. The Linebacker II bombings and Obama’s Easter Bombings share an effort to target the real opponent in the war. Just as Nixon realized the North Vietnamese were running the Viet Cong and responsible for the civil war in the South, Obama realizes that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the most clear and present terrorist threat to American interests at present. Yemen is the site where the War on Terror began with the 2000 attack on the USS Cole but — unlike in Afghanistan or Iraq — the United States has been reluctant to engage there. Only one drone strike in Yemen was launched by the administration of President George W. Bush. The Easter weekend attacks, including an American supported Yemeni special forces raid, left over forty dead. One of the intended targets was Ibrahim al-Asiri, Al Qaeda’s most skilled bombmaker, a man who has been linked to attacks launched against both the United States and within the Arab world.
Furthermore, it appears that the Easter round of drone strikes was coordinated with special forces raids in Yemen as well as a new Yemeni ground offensive against extremists groups. The United States should be prepared to provide support for these operations, as it did in 2011 by supplying beleaguered Yemeni forces during the siege of Zinjibar.
Nixon and Obama inherited unpopular wars promising to create “peace with honor.” Nixon, however, had little operational control over Linebacker II and, it should be noted, there was in fact a 36 hour pause in the December 1972 bombings during Christmas. Obama, who signs off on drone strikes personally, has not hesitated to launch them on holidays in the past and this year that included strikes in Yemen over Easter weekend.
Sometimes presidential leadership requires unpopular moves and the ability to impose a timeline rather than react to one. At present, drone strikes remain the best of a mix of bad policy options in Yemen. However, the loss of civilian lives also remains horribly tragic.
This story first appeared at America’s Future Foundation’s Doublethink blog.