JFK Episode Suggests Obama's Iraq Plan at Risk
The decision by President-elect Barack Obama to keep Robert M. Gates on as defence 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 for withdrawal.
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 defence 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 Middle East.
Kennedy had a secretary of defence and a Joint Chiefs chairman who were prepared to cooperate fully with his strategy for withdrawal from Vietnam. Kennedy's defence 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 the plan.
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 defence 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.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.