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How ‘real estate lies’ seal the deal, but also the fate of our friends

Two big ones — nearly 50 years apart — marked the biggest US foreign policy disasters in recent memory.

Analysis | Washington Politics

A “Real Estate Lie” is when someone wants to buy your house and tells you that it is absolutely perfect, and that if he buys it he won’t change a thing. You love your house and have lavished great attention and money on it over the years, and it makes you feel better about selling it if the new buyer appreciates it as you do. So you overcome your reluctance and sell. 

Of course when the new owner moves in the first thing he does is tear the house down to build the house he wanted all along.

Was he a scoundrel and a liar? In one sense, yes, but the object was to make it easier for you to move out and sell the house. You may not have entirely believed him when he said he wasn’t going to change a thing, but if you wanted to believe the real estate lie, if it helped you move out, then the buyer was only making it easier for you to do so.   

An example of the real estate lie in American diplomacy came in October of 1972 when North Viertnam’s Le Duc Tho told Henry Kissinger in Paris that the peace treaty that they had been discussing would no longer require a coalition government in Saigon, and “conceded that the South Vietnamese government need not be overthrown as the price of a cease fire,” as Kissinger was to write in his memoir, White House Years.

“For nearly four years we had longed for this day… At once I and most of my colleagues understood the significance of what we had heard…(Winston) Lord and I shook hands and said to each other: ‘We have done it.’” The communist position had collapsed, Kissinger thought. The house, meaning the South Vietnamese government, and indeed the South Vietnamese state itself, wouldn’t be torn down, or so Le Duc Tho had promised. “We stood on the threshold of what we had long sought,” Kissinger was to write, “a peace compatible with our honor and our international responsibilities…” The real estate lie had done its job, and the United States was now ready to leave South Vietnam to its fate.  

Le Duc Tho had travelled to Beijing before his meeting with Kissinger, where China’s Chou En Lai had sanctioned the real estate lie. Chou advised Tho to “adhere to principles but show the necessary flexibility” to reach an agreement. “Let the Americans leave as quickly as possible. In half a year or one year the situation will change,” Chou advised

Of course it was not really Henry Kissinger’s house to sell, if I may stretch the analogy. The United States was, in effect, renting it. But the real owner, the South Vietnamese government under the leadership of Nguyen van Thieu, was only peripherally involved with the sale. 

Kissinger thought Thieu would be delighted with the deal, an end to the war with Thieu still in power. But Thieu never bought the real estate lie. He knew better what was in store for himself and his country. The frustrated Kissinger wired President Nixon from Saigon saying: “We face the paradoxical situation that the North, which has effectively lost, is acting as if it has won; while the South, which has effectively won, is acting as if it has lost.” 

“The issue is the life and death of South Vietnam and its 17 million people…” Thieu told the American ambassador, Elsworth Bunker. “We have been very faithful to the Americans, and now we feel as if we are being sacrificed…If we accept the document as it now sands we will commit suicide.” 

But neither Kissinger nor President Nixon were going to let Thieu get in the way of the deal Kissinger and Le Duc Tho had made over Thieu’s head.  

“Brutality is nothing,” Nixon said to Kissinger. “You have never seen it if this son-of-a-bitch doesn’t go along, believe me.” 

  The document that Nixon sent to President Thieu was brutal in the extreme:

 “I have therefore irrevocably decided to proceed to initial the Agreement on January 23, 1973 and to sign it on January 27th, 1973 in Paris. I will do so, if necessary, alone. In that case I shall have to explain publicly that your government obstructs peace. The result will be an inevitable and immediate termination of U.S, economic and military assistance which cannot be forestalled by a change in personnel in your government. I hope, however that after all our two countries have shared and suffered together in conflict, we will stay together to preserve peace and rep it’s benefit.” 

To be fair, Kissinger had every expectation that the peace treaty he had negotiated to end the war could, and would, be enforced by American power. But support in Congress and among the American people for the war was already running out like water in the bathtub, and when, two years later in 1975, the North Vietnamese finally moved into Saigon in violation of the treaty they never meant to honor, the political will to stop them had vanished. The real estate lie that made it easier for America to move out had done its job.

When Kissinger announced to the world in Washington on October 27,1972, that peace was at hand, those of us in the audience were as stunned as Kissinger intended us to be.

There was another tenant of diplomacy at work in the negotiations to end America’s participation in the Vietnam war, and that is: Don’t let the other side see how badly you want to close the deal. “The slightest hint of eagerness could prove suicidal,” Kissinger had written to Nixon from Paris on Jan. 9, 1973. But Kissinger could not hide from the North Vietnamese that Nixon “now wanted the war over on almost any terms,” as Kissinger put it. That gave the North Vietnamese confidence that a real estate lie would be believed because the Americans so much wanted to believe. 

A similar dynamic was at work four decades later when President Trump wanted to pull out of Afghanistan and sent the veteran Afghan-American diplomat and former ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to work out a deal with the Taliban. By then, as Steve Coll and Adam Entous wrote in the New Yorker in December: “the alliance between Washington and Kabul — once bathed in the aspirational language of democracy, women’s rights and nation building — had become embittered by recriminations and mutual exhaustion.” Like Nixon before him, Trump was ready for a deal at almost any price.

Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani, like Thieu before him, was kept in the dark about what was being discussed in Doha, where Khalilzad was meeting with the Taliban. Although lacking Kissinger’s stature as a negotiator, Khaliilzad also spoke in measured, accented phrases, without verbal tics, that suggested gravitas. 

The Taliban, like the North Vietnamese, wanted to talk only to the Americans and not Ashraf Ghani, whom they considered — not without reason — an American puppet. In interviews, Ghani always struck me as highly intelligent with a good grasp of what was going on in and with his country, but he always seemed to me more the intellectual technocrat than a national  leader. 

It soon became apparent that President Ghani was as reluctant to make a deal that would be fatal to his country as Thieu had been. And President Trump could be as brutal with Ghani as Nixon had been with Thieu. “Why are you wasting your time going to talk with Ghani?” Trump asked Khalilzad. “He’s a crook.” In a country awash with corruption, I doubt that Ghani was ever a crook. But as it had been with Thieu, the Americans found it easier to belittle him as they prepared to dump him.  

If anything the Taliban were more honest in their negotiations with Khalilzad than the North Vietnamese had been with Kissinger. The Taliban made noises about realizing they couldn’t rule Afghanistan by themselves and needed help, but they never actually promised to enter into a power sharing arrangement with the Kabul government that the Americans so wanted. They allowed Khalilzad to imagine they might be open to power sharing. According to Coll and Entous, Khalilzad told his colleagues in Doha not to worry. “I’ve cornered them. There will be a political settlement.” The bugbear of wishful thinking that had so bedeviled the Vietnam conflict was alive and well all during the Afghan War. 

The Doha Accords of February 2020 arranged for the withdrawal of foreign troops by May 2021, and the release of prisoners, which was as important to the Taliban as the return of prisoners to the Americans in the Vietnam War. But it left a political settlement up to the Taliban and the Kabul government to decide, with talks between them to begin in March. But the meetings between the Taliban and the Kabul government, which began six months late, went nowhere. There was no way to hide that the Americans wanted out at almost any price. 

When President Biden came to power, the Taliban were asked to extend the May deadline so  that the hoped-for power sharing agreement could be worked out. It never could, so Biden decided to leave anyway, hoping that the Kabul government could hang on as Thieu’s government had done after the American troop withdrawal in 1973. 

But the carpenter ants of corruption and mismanagement had so hollowed-out the Kabul house that it collapsed even before the Americans could leave. The Taliban took possession of the ruins with hardly a shot being fired, and with minimal use of the real estate lie. 

Analysis | Washington Politics
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