In the Hall of the Vulcans

In the Hall of the Vulcans

Mini Teaser: We thought the lessons of Vietnam could never be unlearned. But Washington warmongering heeds no warnings, plunging America into the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan. The depths of dysfunction behind these decisions seemingly know no bounds.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb, Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011), 355 pp., $29.95.

Dov S. Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011), 320 pp., $32.95.

[amazon 0815721315 full]FOUR DECADES on, Vietnam remains America’s only major lost war. As prominent journalists Marvin and Deborah Kalb write in their new, quite gripping historical survey, this is a memory that has haunted U.S. policy makers ever since. Indeed, the defeat remains critical to the calculations of the Obama administration as it tries to extricate the United States from Afghanistan while preserving at least the appearance of some success—and the avoidance of obvious failure.

Yet the effects of Vietnam were in fact deeply paradoxical: America’s position in the world changed little and in some ways was better for the war. In Indochina, victorious Vietnam was contained by Beijing. Meanwhile, the memory of the war meant that, very fortunately, Washington did not plunge itself into direct military interventions in developing nations in far-flung lands, which would have brought no gains, only further costs—and more bitter domestic divisions. It is true that the Soviet Union was emboldened and took advantage of the collapse of the Portuguese colonial empire in Africa more aggressively than it might otherwise have done, but this proved utterly irrelevant to the overall balance of power. The USSR collapsed, largely through the colossal military overstretch of its strategic competition with the United States.

The results of Vietnam for American thinking were of course much deeper. The Kalbs show how every subsequent U.S. decision on the use of force has been colored by the Indochina adventure—whether by a desire to avoid further costly entanglements or by a desire to “exorcise the ghosts of Vietnam” through the (vigorous and successful) wielding of hard power. It is true that after every successful U.S. military operation since 1975, parts of the media have raised the cry that “Vietnam is finally behind us.” So far, they have always been wrong.

Ironically, while thinking about the lost war all the time, Americans also did not think about it nearly enough. This was most glaringly true of the U.S. armed forces. Rather than seriously considering how to do counterinsurgency better, the military essentially decided that it would never do it again. Never mind that America’s enemies also have a role in deciding where and when Washington fights—and that the constitutional decision to wage war lies with the president and Congress of the United States, not the chiefs of staff. If they really object to a policy, senior officers have no recourse but to resign. In 2002–03, despite deep misgivings, many senior officers signally failed to let go of their posts in opposition to the Iraq War. (Six years later, Admiral William Fallon did resign in opposition to Bush administration policy toward Iran—thereby helping to block a possible attack.)

Yet because the armed forces held fast to the belief that they could avoid future counterinsurgency, the practical lessons of Vietnam were almost entirely forgotten. The result was the horribly unprepared U.S. military that found itself engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All that said, the most significant resemblances between Vietnam on the one hand and the first years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the other lie not with the insurgents, who for better and worse have been very different indeed from the Vietcong. Instead, the similarities have been on the U.S. side: the nationalist sense of America’s mission, which led even many liberal Americans to believe in the United States’ right, duty and ability to build democracy through military means in other countries; the disastrous combination of this with an almost incredible ignorance of those countries in U.S. policy-making circles; and the clash between these megalomaniac “nation-building” aspirations and a U.S. military approach which for the first crucial years relied overwhelmingly on firepower. In Iraq, wise military leadership adopted a different strategy just in time by once again amassing experience and ideas, which helped it to achieve a qualified victory. In Afghanistan—as in Vietnam in the early 1970s—it may however be too late both on the ground and in the minds of the American public for this to make much of a difference.

[amazon 0815721226 full]FOR SOME of the explanation as to why the United States stumbled so badly, readers can turn to a truly fascinating, deeply depressing memoir by Dov Zakheim, under secretary and comptroller at the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004. Zakheim also blames the U.S. military in part for failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, remarking acidly that prior to these wars they had managed to forget everything that they had ever learned about counterinsurgency.

The bulk of Zakheim’s criticism, however, is reserved for the present U.S. system of national government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. Indeed, coming as it does from one of the “Vulcans” (the circle of people who served as President Bush’s closest foreign-policy advisers), an insider who defends aspects of the Bush administration and likes and respects some of its members, this book must be one of the most devastating indictments of that administration’s conduct of external policy that has yet been written. Particularly ferocious are his portraits of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer, and Office of Management and Budget associate director Robin Cleveland. These portraits do, it must be said, have a certain air of score settling, and their accuracy might be doubted—were it not borne out both by abundant outside evidence and by the actual results of their behavior.

The core of the problem as far as the lack of planning for Iraq was concerned is summed up by Zakheim in the following passage:

The State Department undertook a broader effort to plan, but, as is widely known, the Defense Department rejected State’s nuts-and-bolts approach. One reason was, again, the administration’s reigning assumption that the United States would not be in Iraq long enough to require detailed plans. But an almost magical corollary to this assumption also was at play: if one did not plan for a contingency that one did not wish to happen, it thereby could not happen. (Zakheim’s italics)

Sound a little like Vietnam, anyone?

And even after it was apparent that both Afghanistan and Iraq would require prolonged exercises in nation building, the confusion within the administration remained staggering. As Zakheim writes of his attempts to coordinate Afghan reconstruction policy with the State Department after he was appointed coordinator of that policy,

There was one other fact that Rich [Armitage] never mentioned to me: there already was a government-wide coordinator for Afghanistan—Richard Haass, the director of the Policy Planning Office at State, whose formal title was Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. I suspect that Rich never mentioned this fact because he assumed I knew it. And I certainly should have known. In government service one should never assume anything, however. . . . Indeed, I did not learn about Haass’ role until quite some time after he left the State Department in mid-2003 to become president of the Council on Foreign Relations. And to this day I do not know who appointed him, or when exactly he was appointed. (Zakheim’s italics)

The only appropriate response would seem to be: what a way to run a railroad. As Zakheim writes, however, this sort of chaos was not only due to the Bush administration but to the entire American system of government. A strong sense emerges of an apparatus that has simply grown far too big and too complicated to be managed effectively, especially when one adds in the impact of oversight and interference by the U.S. Congress—each of whose members acts like an independent prince who has to be negotiated with, conciliated and rewarded. As a result, the system described by Zakheim often seems so entangled in its own internal processes and battles that events in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere become almost peripheral. Thus, while Islamabad has often behaved appallingly in Afghanistan, Zakheim also describes his intense difficulty in extracting even a portion of the aid promised to Pakistan in the fall of 2001, a time when the country’s help was absolutely vital to the United States. Not surprisingly, this undermined the Pakistani government and left Pakistanis feeling deeply resentful.

Zakheim excoriates Paul Bremer for his decisions to dissolve the existing Baathist state institutions in Iraq, arguing that “as long as Iraq’s long-standing institutions—notably the army and the bureaucracy—were not tampered with, there was no compelling reason to think the country would fractionate.” This, however, smells of special pleading. Numerous experts before the invasion warned of precisely this eventuality, and on page thirty-nine Zakheim himself writes of his previous fears concerning an invasion set to topple Saddam Hussein: “I worried about the impact of any military attack on the integrity of that largely artificial country. I could not see how the breakup of Iraq could be in the national interest of the United States.”

Pullquote: In Afghanistan—as in Vietnam in the early 1970s—it may however be too late both on the ground and in the minds of the American public for this to make much of a difference.Image: Essay Types: Book Review