The Easy Way Out of the Korean Mess

News Abroad

Ms. Klinghoffer is the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences (Macmillan/St. Martin’s: 1999). The ideas presented here are developed further in that book.

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The Bush administration is at a crossroads. Last January it identified an "axis of evil," three regimes whose existence during the war on terrorism (or less politically correctly, militant Islam) is too dangerous to continue to tolerate. After all, in any war you can expect to lose some battles. The military capabilities of the three members of "the axis of evil" and the close ties these countries have with Islamists, increases dramatically the price of those inevitable losses. Nothing could have made that point better than the specter of North Korean Scuds hidden under concrete en route to Osama Bin Laden's fatherland, Yemen. Reasonably, Washington prefers to take on the members of "the axis of evil" one at a time starting with Iraq and, just as reasonably, the other members of "the axis of evil" refuse to wait their turn patiently. So what is to be done? Appease or, more diplomatically, negotiate is the recommendation of some. Appeasement is merely a costly delay of inevitable war, so others advocate preparation for a two-front war.

Do what you did in 1965-66 is my advice: withdraw and let somebody else handle it. At that time, the honor went to the Soviet Union. This time, I suspect, the honor will go to China. Either way, given Moscow's difficulties with the Islamist Chechens and Beijing's problems with the Islamist Uighurs, these countries (not the Europeans) are America's natural allies in the war on Islamism. Rewarding them in prestige will increase their commitment to a peaceful world. A failure to do so will turn them into active obstructionists. This is the one of the lost lessons of the American war in Vietnam.

In the mid sixties the United States rallied against "national liberation wars" because, as Paul Warnke explained, covert rather than overt "aggression" was the "gravest threat in an era in which the shadow of nuclear strategic weapons inhibited major military action by superpowers." In 1965 Vietnam was chosen as the proving ground of American ability to thwart a "people's war." Indeed, in the Pentagon Papers, protection of America's "reputation as a counter subversion guarantor" is listed as the primary goal in Vietnam. The Chinese were the architects and main advocates of "people's war," and the Soviets along with the Americans opposed it.

Indeed, disagreement on this subject was one of the sources of the Sino-Soviet dispute, especially in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviets concluded that they needed to match the American navy's ability to inject itself into faraway conflicts, while the Chinese argued that the best way to defeat the West in Vietnam and elsewhere was by forcing it to fight "many Vietnams" simultaneously.

"Our forces shelled Quemoy," Mao Zedong told PLO leader, Ahmed Shukayri in March 1965, "to engage the imperialists during the revolution in Iraq and the American landing in Lebanon." He told similar things to Yasser Arafat, who soon embarked on a terror campaign within Israel. American planners were aware of the potential danger of multi-front wars. In 1964 they still permitted themselves to hope that American "nuclear retaliation" would prevent the USSR and the PRC from creating major diversions outside Southeast Asia." However, by March 1965, they included "sympathetic fires over Berlin, Kashmir, Jordan waters" as "major risks" of the planned bombing of North Vietnam. To deal with these risks, Washington tried to enlist British help, offered carrots to the Soviet Union on other fronts, and sold arms to its regional allies so as to improve their ability to take care of themselves. These allies were told that they should do nothing to disrupt American ability to focus on Vietnam.

The first major test of the new strategy came in mid-1965 when China succeeded in convincing an American ally, Pakistan, that it was an opportune time to force the world to deal with the thorny issue of Kashmir. The Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai told Pakistani President Ayub Khan that he was astounded by the way the Indians collapsed in the 1962 Chinese - Indian war. Reportedly Ayub commented that he had always believed one Pakistani division to be worth three Indian divisions but, after hearing Zhou, he was convinced that one Pakistani division was equal to at least five Indian divisions. Pakistan also enjoyed the advantage of being well supplied with American tanks and planes as well as American territorial guarantees as a member of SEATO and CENTO. Pakistan tested the water with border clashes in April and May 1965, but the Indians turned out to be tougher than expected and the Pakistanis agreed to settle the matter at a June Commonwealth Conference.

The Johnson administration was pleased. Britain played the role the U.S. intended for her. But the good times did not last. Increased Pakistani mujahideen infiltration into Kashmir soon revealed that Ayub had merely switched from conventional war to "people's war" in the hope of fermenting a local uprising. Despite the failure of this uprising to materialize, Pakistan escalated by throwing in regulars. When those forces seemed to threaten the single major road to Srinagar, India responded with an offensive in Punjab. Ayub Khan demanded U.S. protection, claiming that the Indian attack on Pakistan proper should activate the "US commitment" to Pakistan. India complained that Pakistan was using American weapons against her despite past assurances to the contrary. Moreover, America's "Muslim friends (Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia especially)" were "eager to show their sympathy" to their religious brethren by indulging in anti-American demonstrations. And, to top it all, the Chinese trumpeted their support for the "just struggle of Kashmir people against tyrannical domination of India" and issued ultimatums threatening to enter the war if India did not withdraw its forces. A Chinese attack on India would have mandated a U.S.S.R. and U.S. response. Secretary of Defense McNamara had ordered his department to produce some contingency plans.

Lyndon Johnson's policy was to "get behind a log and sleep a bit." He had hoped that Britain and the UN would take the lead on a matter affecting two Commonwealth members. Having won the first round of fighting, and wary of Chinese intervention, India was agreeable. But neither Britain nor the Security Council had the necessary levers to convince Pakistan to cooperate. So, Washington was forced to slap an arms embargo on the belligerents. It had such a devastating effect on Pakistan that Ayub soon confided to having sent a message to Beijing: "For God's sake, do not come in. Do not aggravate the situation." He then pleaded for permission "to buy for cash the necessary military supplies from the U.S. to keep its defense machine going if the U.S. adhered to its position that it could not continue the flow on the usual grant basis." Johnson said no, but his people helped fashion a Security Council resolution with a specific reference to Kashmir in the preamble. Pakistan succumbed.

The shooting stopped but Ayub Khan was sure that his political survival depended on having something more to show his people than another UN resolution. After all, the continued presence of Indian troops on Pakistani soil had but a single meaning - Pakistan had lost. The Pakistani president tried to pressure Washington, and placate his people, by cozying up to China, fermenting anti-American rioting and bad-mouthing U.S. failure to live up to its commitments. The American ambassador to Pakistan had assured him that "if it ever seemed that the Kashmir settlement question was treated with a measure of resignation by the friends of Pakistan and India, it could never be so treated again after the fires" through which the world had just passed. But those were only words. As McGeorge Bundy wrote Johnson, Ayub Khan wanted Johnson to mediate Kashmir - and that was something the administration could not do in 1966. But it was something that Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin was most anxious to do. Indeed, he had invited both the Pakistani President and India's Prime Minister Shastri to taste "the pulato and Kababs of Tashkent" and the invitation was still standing. Would the U.S. cooperate by giving the Tashkent conference its blessing? The three leaders wanted to know.

This was a moment of truth for the Johnson administration. A successful Soviet mediation effort was bound to increase significantly Soviet influence not only in the subcontinent but also in the entire Third World. Success would also take a prickly problem off the American plate at a time when the U.S. was trying to focus on Vietnam and arrest the dangerous Pakistani drift towards Beijing. An unsuccessful mediation would prove that the fault was not American insouciance, but the intractability of the problem. Either way, America would get points for putting the welfare of the world ahead of its Cold War interests.

So, after a short period of ambivalence, the Johnson administration gave the green light. Secretary of State Dean Rusk told his Soviet counterpart Alexei Gromyko "that for 17 years U.S. had had one dog chewing on one leg and another dog chewing on the other and if Soviets wanted find out what it was like that was all right with us."

However, as the time for the Tashkent conference drew nearer, so did American support. It reached its peak during Ayub's visit to Washington in which the administration made clear that he should not refuse to accept a deal in the hope of getting a better one in an American sponsored conference. With Johnson leaning on Pakistan before Tashkent, and Kosygin leaning on India during the conference, an interim agreement was reached. It forced India to withdraw from Pakistan in return for Ayub's promise not to resort to try again to solve the problem of Kashmir through force. Walt Rostow writes that he heard Johnson say: "I couldn't be seen; but I was at Tashkent." He was right. Together they inflicted such a blow on China's aggressive foreign policy that Beijing (already disappointed by the cancellation of the second Bandung conference and the overthrow of Sukarno) withdrew the vast majority of its ambassadors and embarked on a self destructive "cultural revolution." Indeed, by the middle of 1966, the administration was considering declaring victory in Vietnam and going home. Unfortunately, it didn't and what began as a successful Chinese-American contest turned into an ultimately unsuccessful Soviet-American one.

This happened in part because while sharing the limelight might have suited Lyndon Johnson, it did not suit his men. So, when Israeli leaders who were subjected to a Palestinian "people's war," began talking about "the spirit of Tashkent" and exploring the possibility of Soviet Arab-Israeli mediation, the Soviets expressed interest but the Johnson administration balked. Washington "suddenly remembered that Tashkent was situated in the Soviet Union." Having concluded that Moscow advocated "a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli quarrel" in the hope of turning both sides against the West, it saw no reason to cooperate. Hence, the cycle of Palestinian terror and Israeli retaliation continued to escalate. Moscow gave up on the idea of a Middle East "Tashkent" and adopted the revolutionary regime of Syria instead. In May 1967, it took a page from the Chinese play book and convinced Egypt to open a second anti-American front by assuring it that it could win a war against Israel.

The 1967 war not only transformed the Middle East as well as American relations with Europe, it also opened itself to increased Soviet penetration and was at least in part responsible for convincing the Johnson administration to sue for peace in Vietnam. "The time had come," Paul Nitze told the 'wise men,' "to wind down the costly sideshow in Vietnam and return to the center stage, facing the Soviets in Europe." After all, in January 1968, the British were evacuating their positions East of Suez, the Soviets replaced Egypt in Yemen and their navy visited the Persian Gulf for the first time since 1903. One can only wonder how would the world would look if the Soviet Union had been encouraged to be a peacemaker rather than a warmonger in the Middle East.

It is interesting to note that Russia has already suggested her good offices to settle the North Korean crisis. The Bush administration has nothing to lose and everything to gain by letting Putin try. Still, I recall a remark one of my Russian hosts made a few years ago. "The British," he said, "tell us that they understand us better than the Americans because they know what it feels like to have lost an empire." Indeed, I suspect that Moscow in 2003, like London in 1965, lacks the clout needed to elicit concessions from reluctant parties. China is in a much better position to knock heads together and Washington should do all it can to urge her to take the lead in this affair. After all, effective coalition leadership does not consist of forcing a general to incorporate unwanted foreign units into his fighting force. It consists of assigning the right front to the right ally.

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Gus Moner - 1/10/2003

In the first paragraph Ms. Klinghoffer starts off with clichéd associations, such as “the specter of North Korean Scuds hidden under concrete en route to Osama Bin Laden's fatherland, Yemen”. Please. Is Austria demonised because it was Hitler's homeland? Or Georgia for being Stalin's?

She tries to have the reader believe that to “Appease or, more diplomatically, negotiate is the recommendation of some” appeasement being inferred as the only result of a negotiation. The dictionary clearly explains the difference between appeasement and negotiate. If the author cannot sort it out, it augurs bad for her scholarship.

Perhaps, instead of justifying the increase in tension due to the Axis of Evil comment, she ought to admit that, as the negative repercussions grow, the entire concept of the Axis of Evil was as erroneous as so many exclaimed when first espoused. An about face with another less threatening policy would go a long way to reducing tensions. That may be the BEST way out of the corner Bush has painted us in. Following the policy, we'll be fighting wars endlessly.

We are indeed on a showdown course with the three, as if we were the bullies of the playground picking fights. Don’t be surprised if they team up to defend themselves in a coordinated manner, as they may well already be doing. It’s natural, as she has said in the article.

That said, the underlying concept she espouses, the cleverer use of allies is a good one, although I doubt Russia is in any position to be one. I am not sure that given their recent behaviour, we'd want them to be involved.

The comparisons to the period she covers seem to me so far fetched as to not be relevant in today’s’ world. However, I do believe the underlying concept of sharing out the work and processes is good and ought to be explored further, and in contexts much more relevant to the realities of the nations in question today, not half a century ago.

Ellen Nore - 1/9/2003

Dear HNN, Book of the month advertising presents reading of the first paragraph of every article you are now transmitting. Best, Ellen Nore