What Joe Biden should have learned from Jimmy Carter

What Joe Biden should have learned from Jimmy Carter
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The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has concluded, accompanied by a refrain that the 20-year American troop deployment represented the nation’s “longest war” — a conflict seen by President Biden as far too long and costly for results that, had the commitment continued, might have secured a stalemate at best. 

But as the post mortem over the president’s decision continues, it’s worth remembering that this is not the first time a newly-elected president has bucked the consensus of the national security establishment in an effort to end an extended troop commitment. In 1977, in the wake of U.S. disengagement and defeat in Vietnam, President Carter attempted such a move in a different locale, with a very different result.

When Carter took office, 42,000 American troops were stationed in South Korea, including one combat division, and 26 years had elapsed since the Panmunjom truce that ended the Korean War. That U.S. force served as a “tripwire” in the face of North Korean aggression, assuring North Korean leader Kim Il-sung that any attack on the South would be deemed an attack on the United States.

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As early as January 1975, a month after declaring his candidacy, Carter told the Washington Post he would withdraw troops from Korea. In a June 1976 speech, he promised to “withdraw our forces from South Korea on a phased basis over a time span to be determined after consultation with both South Korea and Japan.” At the same time, he called out that nation’s “repugnant” record on human rights.

It didn’t help that South Korea in the mid-1970s was viewed the way an ally like Saudi Arabia is today. In power for 15 years, strongman Park Chung-hee was ruling under martial law while executing and imprisoning opposition politicians. In the person of businessman Tongsun Park, the regime had attempted to buy favor among members of Congress, resulting in a scandal dubbed “Koreagate.” Seoul had few friends in Washington. 

Carter believed the South had sufficient military resources to defend itself from the North. The Nixon administration had withdrawn 20,000 soldiers earlier in the decade, in line with the Nixon Doctrine of building self-sufficiency among America’s Asian allies. After the Vietnam debacle, and the contrasting hopes for detente with both the Soviet Union and China, Carter saw keeping the Korean “tripwire” in place as compromising American strategic flexibility. Air support and logistical aid – “over the horizon capability,” in today’s parlance – would provide the deterrent. 

In March 1977, after briefing the Japanese government but without consulting Seoul, Carter announced that all American ground forces and tactical nuclear weapons would be withdrawn in four to five years. Subsequent South Korean objections were nothing compared with the reaction of Congress and the Washington defense establishment.

In May the chief of staff for U.S. forces in South Korea asserted in an interview that the proposed drawdown of forces “would lead to war.” He was promptly re-assigned by Carter. When members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were asked by Congress what military rationale the administration had given them as the basis for withdrawal, they responded “none.”

A Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee report accused the administration of underestimating North Korean military capability. A report authored by Sens. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) and John Glenn (D-Ohio) demanded that “legislation should be submitted requiring a detailed Presidential report prior to each withdrawal phase” and that the U.S. “should continue through word and deed to make clear its continuing commitment to South Korea.” 

By early 1978, even National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski conceded that key players at the Departments of State and Defense and the CIA were united in the belief that the proposed withdrawals were unwise on political or military grounds, or both. Finally, it was the study, conducted by a defense intelligence analyst named John Armstrong, that assured the ultimate demise of the proposed policy.

While it had its critics at the time, Armstrong’s survey concluded that North Korea’s army was up to one-third larger than previously estimated; that its tank and artillery fleets were up to 35 percent bigger; and that the North’s forces were deployed much closer to the DMZ, in a potentially offensive posture, than had been previously thought.

With the strategic rationale for his policy upended, politically isolated and facing serious opposition from his own party, Carter in the summer of 1979 suspended the limited troop withdrawals that had already begun. 

It was a bumpy and often bloody struggle, but in the decade following Carter’s retreat, South Korea took the steps necessary to emerge as a functioning democracy and one of the economic miracles of the 20th century. 

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Those successes notwithstanding, 28,000 U.S. troops remain in South Korea today, at a cost of $3.5 billion annually. Given that, just this week a report indicates that Pyongyang has resumed operations at a nuclear reactor designed to produce weapons grade plutonium, it does not appear a reduction in U.S. forces is likely anytime soon. While Korea may not have been one of America’s longest wars, it remains, at 70 years, one of the longest theaters of U.S. deployment.

The strategic threat from the Taliban was unable to spark the kind of bipartisan opposition to Carter’s proposal North Korea ignited in Washington 45 years ago. And it’s hard to argue that over the next half-century Afghanistan will evolve into another South Korea. Nonetheless, it is clear from Carter’s Korean denouement that an administration cannot always call for a withdrawal of forces, even a potentially popular one, at a time of its own choosing.

Time will tell if Biden’s refusal to compromise on his Afghan pullout will be proved correct. But with a potential confrontation looming with China over the fate of Taiwan, the question of America’s patience with decades-old commitments is definitely on the table. 

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at The Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.