Why the Iraq War Really Was Different From the Vietnam War
The Iraq War, as Heather Marie Stur tells us, should not be lumped together with the Vietnam War as blindly and repeatedly as many seem wont to do. Although the two military expeditions both rank among the costliest blunders in American history, there are indeed many differences between the two. Stur is correct to emphasize differences over similarities, but she completely misses the most significant differences—significant partly because of their implications for avoiding similar blunders in the future.
Difference number one sets the invasion of Iraq in 2003 apart not only from the intervention in Vietnam but from almost every other substantial use of U.S. military force. There was no policy process leading to the decision to launch the war. Whether invading Iraq was a good idea was never on the agenda of any meeting of policymakers, and never the subject of any options paper. Thus no part of the national security bureaucracy had any opportunity to weigh in on that decision (as distinct from being called on to help sell that decision to the public). Sources of relevant expertise both inside and outside the government were pointedly shunned. The absence of a policy process leading to the decision to launch the war is the single most extraordinary aspect of the war.
The U.S. intervention in Vietnam was entirely different. Although as the war went on the decision-making of Lyndon Johnson and his Tuesday lunch group became increasingly closed, the original decisions in 1964 and 1965 to initiate the U.S. air and ground wars in Vietnam were the result of an extensive policy process. The bureaucracy was fully engaged, and the policy alternatives exhaustively discussed and examined. However mistaken the decisions may have turned out to be, they could not be attributed to any short-cuts in the decision-making process.
A second distinctive aspect of the Iraq War is that it was a war of aggression. It was the first major offensive war that the United States had initiated in over a century. Every overseas use of U.S. military force in the twentieth century was either a minor expedition such as ones in the Caribbean or, in the case of major wars, a response to the use of force by someone else. The U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia was a case of the latter: a direct response to the use by North Vietnam of armed insurgency to take over South Vietnam.
This is another respect that sets the Iraq War apart not only from Vietnam but from many other U.S. wars, including a couple of relatively recent ones that Stur incorrectly likens to the Iraq War. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 was a direct response to a terrorist attack by a group that was resident in Afghanistan and allied with its regime. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 was a direct response to blatant aggression by Iraq in invading and swallowing Kuwait. When that aggression was reversed by expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait, the U.S. mission really was accomplished.
Sometimes earlier wars have a lot to do with explaining much later events—and the centenary of World War I has stimulated some interesting analysis of how that war set in train events that still bedevil us today—but Stur's attempt to say something similar about the war in 1991 is mistaken. Some neoconservatives grumbled about Saddam Hussein being left in power, but the grumbling did not have to do with any problems created by Operation Desert Storm; it instead reflected the neocons' desire for other reasons to have a larger regime-changing war in Iraq.
This gets us to a third major difference, which is related to the first one. The Iraq War of 2003 was the project of a small,willful band of war-seekers—what Lawrence Wilkerson has called a “cabal”—who managed to get a weak and inexperienced president to go along with their project for his own political and psychological reasons. An assiduous selling campaign lasting more than a year, which exploited the post-9/11 political mood by conjuring up chimerical alliances with terrorists, mustered enough national support to launch the war. But the base for starting the project was always quite narrow.
By contrast, the United States sucked itself into the Vietnam quagmire on the basis of a very broadly held conventional wisdom about a global advance of monolithic communism, falling dominoes, and the need to uphold U.S. credibility. At the time of the intervention, opposition to the intervention was exceedingly narrow. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the use of military force in Vietnam passed against only the lonely nay votes of Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening in the Senate and no opposition at all in the House. The conventional wisdom pervaded the public and the media, including prominent journalists such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan who only later would become identified with publicizing the war's faults and fallacies.
Looking back on the mistakes involved in Vietnam War became a national exercise in painful retrospection. It included soul-searching by some of those most directly involved in launching the U.S. expedition; some of the most candid and insightful came from former secretary of defense Robert McNamara. The difference with the post-war posture of the people who brought us the Iraq War has been stark. Despite the much narrower original responsibility for that war, mea culpas from those who promoted it have been hard to find. The promoters have instead tried to find creative ways to blame the damage they caused on those who later had to clean it up.
All of this has implications for avoiding comparable blunders in the future. The Cold War is over, and the parts of the Vietnam-era conventional wisdom involving the nature of international communism are gone as well. We still see similar thought patterns, however, applied in other ways, especially with notions of upholding credibility and domino-like scenarios of geographically expanding threats. There still is Cold War-type thinking that treats Russia as if it were the Soviet Union, and that treats radical Islam as if it were a monolithic foe that is our enemy in a new world war.
Avoiding another blunder like the Iraq War means being wary not only of these sorts of thought patterns but also of a more direct hazard. The neocons who brought us that war are not only unrepentant but also very much around and still selling their wares. We most need to remember what they sold as the last time, and not to buy anything from them again.
Image: U.S. Army Flickr.
Japan's Collective Self-Defense Play: A Game Changer?
As anticipated, Japan’s Cabinet has reinterpreted the constitution to permit Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense. After some initial histrionics – Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, opined that Prime Minister Shinzo “Abe is manipulating a dangerous coup to overturn the country's post-war pacifism and democratic ideals, as he hones in on releasing the shackles of the nation's legally tethered military and war will from its war-renouncing Constitution” – the decision was met by neighbors with resignation and the grinding of teeth. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson urged Japan “to earnestly respect legitimate security concerns of its Asian neighbors, deal with relevant issues with discretion, not to harm the national sovereignty and security interests of China and not to undermine regional peace and stability.” His counterpart in Seoul insisted that any Japanese exercise of collective self-defense affecting security and national interests on the Korean Peninsula “cannot be accepted unless we request it or agree to it.”
If the reaction seems anticlimactic, it is because there is much less going on than meets the eye. The legal and constitutional constraints on Japanese security policy are less restrictive than many admit. As Adam Liff noted recently, Japanese prime ministers have reinterpreted the constitution throughout the postwar era when they felt compelled to do so. Bureaucrats and politicians have been masterful practitioners of the “fudge” when addressing hard national security and alliance issues: recall the secret agreements regarding US nuclear weapons on Japanese territory. And Japan’s Supreme Court has traditionally deferred to politicians on such matters.
The real constraints on Japan’s security policy have been and will continue to be social and political. Recall that Abe took office with a desire to rewrite the entire constitution. That became an intent to change just Article 9. He has settled, after a much longer process than anticipated, for a change in the interpretation of the exercise of the right of collective self-defense – and now must wait for legislation to turn this week’s Cabinet decision into law. When that happens – it could take as long as two years – the use of Japan’s military will be subject to three conditions:
1: Japan can come to the aid of an ally with which it has a “very close relationship” if there is a threat to constitutional rights to life, liberty, and happiness of Japanese citizens. [Taken literally, Japan has only one ally, the United States, which considerably limits application of this change in interpretation];
2: There is no other diplomatic or negotiated means to protect both that nation and its citizens but through the use of military force; and
3: The use of military force is kept to a “bare minimum.”
That scaling back of ambitions reflects powerful opposition. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party isn’t united on the issue and its alliance partner, New Komeito, demanded the introduction of the three conditions as the price of its support for the measure. Opinion polls consistently show more than 50 percent of the public opposes the reinterpretation of the exercise of the right of collective self-defense.
The rhetoric that has been used throughout the reinterpretation discussion – and by the prime minister himself when he announced the change Tuesday evening in Tokyo – underscores the power of those constraints. Abe framed the move as consistent with Japan’s status as a “peace state” and emphasized that any and all changes will be part of its strategy of “proactive pacifism.” Cynics may dismiss that as another empty slogan, but the fact remains that such language is needed to legitimate action to the public.
Those same cynics point out that the three conditions designed to limit Japanese action are undefined and potentially quite expansive. What is the “bare minimum” use of force necessary? Subsequent legislation will define that phrase, but its application will invariably be influenced by political considerations at the time of a crisis.
Any “adventurism” will encounter powerful headwinds in Japan. My study of Japan after the March 11, 2011 “triple catastrophe” suggests that there is no stomach among the Japanese for a high-profile “hard” security policy; there remains profound skepticism about the value of a military except in the defense of the homeland. Combine the Japanese ambivalence about engagement generally with a shrinking population that is aging and a military that would have to be significantly (and expensively) retooled to project power, and those headwinds reach gale force.
There is a temptation to see the return to power of Abe Shinzo as heralding a rightward shift in Japan. Resist it. Remember that Abe wasn’t the first choice to lead the LDP in the party election before the 2012 general election. The structure of the electoral system rewards large parties: in the absence of a unified opposition, the LDP took a disproportionate share of the seats in that ballot. (The LDP claimed more seats in 2012 than the DPJ did in its landslide win in 2009, even though the DPJ won more votes in the 2009 election.) Abe and the LDP won a mandate, first and foremost, to fix the economy, not lead a revanchist movement.
While Abe’s conservative views on security issues were well known, his first task remains an economic recovery. Failure to get the economy back on track will empower opposition to him within the LDP – and it is substantial. Foes within the party will likely use public protests against his security policy to help make the case for a change in the Prime Minister’s Office. If that is the case, change in Japan’s security policy may prove to have far greater impact than Abe and his supporters ever anticipated – and not in the way that they anticipated.
Brad Glosserman is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, Hawaii, which has provided policy-oriented analysis and promoted dialogue on regional security, political, economic, and environmental issues in the Asia-Pacific region for over 25 years. This article first appeared in the CSIS:PACNET newsletter here.
Civil Rights, Fifty Years On: Partisan Realignment and U.S. Foreign Policy
Fifty years ago today Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into federal law. The Voting Rights Act followed just one year later. Both pieces of legislation were important nails in the coffin of Jim Crow, the oppressive system of laws that had segregated the American South along racial lines since the end of Reconstruction. A corollary was to reshape U.S. party politics and, by extension, foreign policy for generations to come.
As well as keeping African-Americans subjugated and disenfranchised, Jim Crow had been the political foundation of the Democratic Party’s century-long lock on the so-called Solid South. In approving the Civil Rights Act, Johnson is said to have confided that he had signed away the South “for a generation.” The president knew that white segregationists would not forgive the national Democratic Party for supporting civil rights. Although he hoped (misguidedly) that newly enfranchised blacks would be enough to buoy the Democratic vote share, Johnson was mostly clear-eyed that embracing civil rights would mean losing the South.
Johnson’s concerns were well founded. Beginning with Nixon and his so-called “Southern Strategy,” the Republican Party in the late 1960s began a long march towards absorbing disaffected Southern Democrats and establishing political control over the South. The process was slow, only to be more-or-less completed by the 2000s, by which time most of the old Confederacy was reliably GOP territory.
The reconfiguration of America’s political landscape translated into new partisan differences over policy, many of which last until this day, particularly when it comes to the military. By the mid-1960s, the American South was home to some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Cold War military-industrial complex. Although the “gun belt” is not strictly coterminous with the South, there is considerable overlap: military bases were disproportionately located below the Mason-Dixon while arms manufacturing and related industries brought much needed jobs to a region with historically low income levels compared to the rest of the United States.
As part of the Democratic fold during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the South had thus been a linchpin of the party’s support for containment of the Soviet Union and the massive investment in military hardware that containment entailed. As southern votes migrated towards the GOP, however, so too did these preferences for privileging the defense industry. Crudely put, a switch in partisan preferences took place: the Republicans becoming hawks and the Democrats doves.
Consider the differences between the Truman, Kennedy and Johnson administrations—each of which oversaw over massive increases in defense spending—and the post-Civil Rights Act administrations of Carter, Clinton and Obama—none of which are known for having lent robust support for investment in the military. On the Republican side, the contrast is equally striking: Eisenhower and even Nixon sought to curb defense expenditure while their firmly post-Civil Rights Act successors (particularly Reagan and George W. Bush) were emphatic supporters of expanding the size of the military.
The history of civil rights is intimately connected with America’s history as a global power. Law professor Mary L. Dudziak once argued that the Civil Rights Act was, as much as anything, a foreign policy scheme concocted to improve America’s international image in the context of the Cold War. From Dudziak’s perspective, U.S. foreign policy objectives drove political decision-making on the home front. Yet the causal arrow also points in the other direction—that is, the domestic realignments of the civil rights era had a significant impact upon the nation’s external posture, much of which has carried through to the present day.
The Worth of a Leader
With a change of leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs, we will have a test of how much difference a top leader makes in how well a large organization functions. Will Robert McDonald get the department to have better reviews than it did under Eric Shinseki? Maybe, but my guess is that if this happens, it will have more to do with the natural ebb and flow of recriminations in Washington than with anything having to do with the leadership skills or acumen of the person at the top. There is ample reason to believe that the principal fundamental cause of problems in the department is under-funding related to insufficient recognition of the total, long-term costs of overseas wars. Those costs include, thanks partly to modern body armor, the long-term care of warriors who in earlier wars would have been killed but in recent ones have survived and are maimed. Shinseki's departure, moreover, bore all the markings of the Washington habit of head-rolling as a supposed solution to stubborn problems, when it really is more a sort of political catharsis.
McDonald's appointment provides an opportunity for a related test. Any mention of the worth of a leader raises the question of the sky-high compensation that has become the norm among corporate CEOs, and of whether most of them could possibly be worth that much to an organization. McDonald's annual compensation as CEO of Procter & Gamble was about $16 million. The salary of a cabinet secretary is about $200,000. If there were a correspondence between compensation and worth, then we taxpayers ought to be gleeful about the steal of a deal we are getting. We're hiring a leader who is 80 times as good as those who have never risen to fill anything more than the sort of U.S. cabinet position that McDonald is about to fill. Talk about someone being overqualified...
Before we get too excited about this deal, we might note the questions that have been raised about McDonald's performance at Procter & Gamble. It's not a good sign when the chief he replaced has been brought back to replace him. We might also note, if the size of an organization has anything to do with value of experience, that the Department of Veterans Affairs with its 300,000 employees is over twice as large as P&G with its 120,000.
Maybe taxpayers should be grateful to Mr. McDonald for taking a job that entails a 98.75 percent pay cut from his last position. That's almost like doing the job pro bono. But I don't think we're really getting a $16 million dollar man to do a $200,000 job. The numbers reflect the absurdly different cultures involved in self-referential corporate boardrooms, on one hand, and political attitudes toward public service, on the other.
There's still that matter of underfunding the care of wounded warriors. There is a lot to be said for the idea of requiring that funding be provided for the future medical care of veterans as part of any decision to go to war. That not only might help the maimed veterans we already have but will encourage long, hard thinking before creating more of them.