August 26, 2007

No One Is So Sure as the Man Who Knows Too Little

Andrew Bacevich writes about "Vietnam's Real Lessons":
Finding the debacle of the Vietnam War a rationale for sustaining the U.S. military presence in Iraq requires considerable imagination. If nothing else, President Bush’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier this week revealed a hitherto unsuspected capacity for creativity. Yet as an exercise in historical analysis, his remarks proved to be self-serving and selective.

For years, the Bush administration has rejected all comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. Now the president cites Vietnam to bolster his insistence on "seeing the Iraqis through as they build their democracy." To do otherwise, he says, will invite a recurrence of the events that followed the fall of Saigon, when "millions of innocent citizens" were murdered, imprisoned or forced to flee.


As the balance of the president’s VFW address makes clear, Bush remains oblivious to the history that actually matters.

Here are a few of the lessons that he overlooks.

In unconventional wars, body counts don’t really count. ...

[Bush's] speech had him sounding like President Lyndon Johnson, bragging that, in each month since January, U.S. troops in Iraq have "killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 Al Qaeda terrorists and other extremists." If Bush thinks that by racking up big body counts the so-called surge will reverse the course of the war, he is deceiving himself. The real question is not how many bad guys we are killing, but how many our continued presence in Iraq is creating.

There’s no substitute for legitimacy. ...

As a lens for strategic analysis, ideology distorts rather than clarifies. From Dwight D. Eisenhower through Richard M. Nixon, a parade of presidents convinced themselves that defending South Vietnam qualified as a vital U.S. interest. For the free world, a communist takeover of that country would imply an unacceptable defeat.

Yet when South Vietnam did fall, the strategic effect proved to be limited. The falling dominoes never did pose a threat to our shores for one simple reason: The communists of North Vietnam were less interested in promoting world revolution than in unifying their country under socialist rule. We deluded ourselves into thinking that we were defending freedom against totalitarianism. In fact, we had blundered into a civil war. [That last sentence contains a notably dangerous error; see the P.S. below.]

With regard to Iraq, Bush persists in making an analogous error. In his remarks to the VFW, the president described Iraq as an "ideological struggle." Our adversary there aims to crush "freedom, tolerance and dissent," he said, thereby "imposing this ideology across a vital region of the world." If we don’t fight them "there," we will surely have to fight them "here."


[T]o imagine that Bin Laden and others of his ilk have the capability to control the Middle East, restoring the so-called Caliphate, is absurd, as silly as the vaunted domino theory of the 1950s and 1960s.


Sometimes people can manage their own affairs.
In an essay I wrote in February of last year, "Folly Marches On -- and Seeking a New Direction," I offered the following excerpt from Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly. Bush's invocation of the Vietnam debacle, which is perfect only in the sense that he made the comparison for all those reasons that are supremely wrong, compels me to offer Tuchman's observations once more:
Like Kennedy, Johnson believed that to lose South Vietnam would be to lose the White House. It would mean a destructive debate, he was later to say, that would "shatter my Presidency, kill my Administration, and damage our democracy." The loss of China, he said, which had led to the rise of Joe McCarthy, was "chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam." Robert Kennedy would be out in front telling everyone that "I was a coward, an unmanly man, a man without a spine." Worse, as soon as United States weakness was perceived by Moscow and Peking, they would move to "expand their control over the vacuum of power we would leave behind us ... and so would begin World War III." He was as sure of this "as nearly as anyone can be certain of anything." No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.

The purpose of the war was not gain or national defense. It would have been a simpler matter had it been either, for it is easier to finish a war by conquest of territory or by destruction of the enemy's forces and resources than it is to establish a principle by superior force and call it victory. America's purpose was to demonstrate her intent and her capacity to stop Communism in a framework of preserving an artificially created, inadequately motivated and not very viable state. The nature of the society we were upholding was an inherent flaw in the case, and despite all efforts at "nation-building," it did not essentially change.

In the illusion of omnipotence, American policy-makers took it for granted that on a given aim, especially in Asia, American will could be made to prevail. This assumption came from the can-do character of a self-created nation and from the sense of competence and superpower derived from World War II. If this was "arrogance of power," in Senator Fulbright's phrase, it was not so much the fatal hubris and over-extension that defeated Athens and Napoleon, and in the 20th century Germany and Japan, as it was failure to understand that problems and conflicts exist among other peoples that are not soluble by the application of American force or American techniques or even American goodwill. "Nation-building" was the most presumptuous of the illusions. Settlers of the North American continent had built a nation from Plymouth Rock to Valley Forge to the fulfilled frontier, yet failed to learn from their success that elsewhere, too, only the inhabitants can make the process work.

Wooden-headedness, the "Don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts" habit, is a universal folly never more conspicuous than at upper levels of Washington with respect to Vietnam. Its grossest fault was underestimation of North Vietnam's commitment to its goal. Enemy motivation was a missing element in American calculations, and Washington could therefore ignore all the evidence of nationalist fervor and of the passion for independence which as early as 1945 Hanoi had declared "no human force can any longer restrain." Washington could ignore General Leclerc's prediction that conquest would take half a million men and "Even then it could not be done." It could ignore the demonstration of elan and capacity that won victory over a French army with modern weapons at Dien Bien Phu, and all the continuing evidence thereafter.

American refusal to take the enemy's grim will and capacity into account has been explained by those responsible on the ground of ignorance of Vietnam's history, traditions and national character: there were "no experts available," in the words of one high-ranking official. But the longevity of Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule could have been learned from any history book on Indochina. Attentive consultation with French administrators whose official lives had been spent in Vietnam would have made up for the lack of American expertise. Even superficial American acquaintance with the area, when it began to supply reports, provided creditable information. Not ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a "fourth-rate" Asiatic country were the determining factors, much as in the case of the British attitude toward the American colonies. The irony of history is inexorable.


Mental standstill or stagnation--the maintenance intact by rulers and policy-makers of the ideas they started with--is fertile ground for folly. ...

In its first stage, mental standstill fixes the principles and boundaries governing a political problem. In the second stage, when dissonances and failing function begin to appear, the initial principles rigidify. This is the period when, if wisdom were operative, re-examination and re-thinking and a change of course are possible, but they are rare as rubies in a backyard. Rigidifying leads to increase of investment and the need to protect egos; policy founded upon error multiplies, never retreats. The greater the investment and the more involved in it the sponsor's ego, the more unacceptable is disengagement. In the third stage, pursuit of failure enlarges the damages until it causes the fall of Troy, the defection from the Papacy, the loss of a trans-Atlantic empire, the classic humiliation in Vietnam.

Persistence in error is the problem. Practitioners of government continue down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps. There are Merlins in early literature to explain human aberration, but freedom of choice does exist--unless we accept the Freudian unconscious as the new Merlin. Rulers will justify a bad or wrong decision on the ground, as a historian and partisan wrote of John F. Kennedy, that "He had no choice," but no matter how equal two alternatives may appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.

For a chief of state, admitting error is almost out of the question. The American misfortune in the Vietnam period was to have had Presidents who lacked the self-confidence for the grand withdrawal. We come back again to Burke: "Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great Empire and little minds go ill together." The test comes in recognizing when persistence in error has become self-damaging. A prince, says Machiavelli, ought always to be a great asker and a patient hearer of truth about those things of which he has inquired, and he should be angry if he finds that anyone has scruples about telling him the truth. What government needs is great askers.

Refusal to draw inference from negative signs, which under the rubric "wooden-headedness" has played so large a part in these pages, was recognized in the most pessimistic work of modern times, George Orwell's 1984, as what the author called "Crimestop." "Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments...and of being bored and repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity."
In the earlier essay, I went on to write:
This makes clear beyond dispute the nature and persistence of the problem -- and the repeated refusal of political leaders to learn the obvious lesson. And today, it is literally as if none of this had ever happened, and as if no one with the ability to influence our nation's direction has benefitted in the smallest degree from our tragic past errors -- and so we do it all again.

For our political leaders, in terms of the methodology they bring to bear on questions of foreign policy, it is as if the United States is a country without a history. In this respect, they are like the most dangerous of nihilist revolutionaries: they believe they can make the entire world anew, writing on a blank slate. But when you completely disregard the realities of history and culture, when you set aside facts and the complexities of men and the societies they create, you will achieve only what such revolutionaries have always achieved: destruction. Tragically for all of us, and for the world, they have failed to learn that lesson as well.
As I am documenting in "Dominion Over the World," and as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have made absolutely clear in their recent statements about foreign policy, the bipartisan consensus in favor of the United States' global hegemonic role remains in full force and effect. Our governing class is still fully convinced that the United States is and should be the sole "indispensable" nation, that the entire world is properly our domain, and that it is our "right" to intervene wherever and whenever we choose after intoning the magical phrase, magical because it is purposely meaningless and can be twisted to suit any and every circumstance, "a vital U.S. interest." (I made this same argument from a somewhat different vantage point in, "Battling the Ghosts of Vietnam.")

In terms of the lessons the members of our governing class ought to have learned from the neverending series of wars that has continued since the end of the charnel house of World War II, it is as if Vietnam and all the other interventions never happened. It is still as if Iraq itself hasn't happened, and every critical fact about Iraq remains invisible to them. Our ignorance is, indeed, sacred to those who direct our nation's course. Nothing -- and no pile of rotting corpses, no matter how high -- will be allowed to threaten it.

All the death and all the destruction...for nothing. Absolutely nothing. It is not that our governing class knows merely too little. With regard to the most basic lessons they ought to have grasped after all the carnage they unleashed, they know nothing. Thus, we are guaranteed to do it yet again -- against Iran, or Syria, or North Korea, or China, or some nation yet to be designated as the enemy of the moment, an enemy that threatens a "vital national interest" in a way that supposedly cannot be tolerated.

It is tragic beyond measure. It is absurd in a manner that cannot be described. It is eternally unforgivable.

P.S. I greatly respect Bacevich's work in general, but I must offer a corrective to his statement that, "we had blundered into a civil war." The United States "blundered" into precisely nothing, not in Vietnam and not anywhere else.

Although Bacevich comes at these issues from a very different perspective, and despite the fact that the totality of Bacevich's writing commands admiration and praise, while Irving Kristol deserves only severe condemnation, Bacevich's error comes far too close for comfort to that committed by Kristol for the worst of motives. Almost exactly four years ago, in August 2003, I discussed Kristol's "neoconservative manifesto," in an essay titled, "In Service of the New Fascism." In analyzing what is probably Kristol's very worst lie among many hideous lies, I wrote:
The lie contained at the heart of this paragraph is probably the worst and most shameful in the entire article (and the article contains a number of stupendous lies, so this is no mean achievement). To term our involvement in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War "bad luck" is an intellectual crime for which capital punishment would be too good, and too swift. In this context, "bad luck" has only one possible meaning: that we had no choice but to become involved in these conflicts, that the conflicts were "forced" on us against our will, and that we were merely passive observers in world affairs who became embroiled in one conflict after another, in an unceasing train of war, altogether against our better judgment.

This is a vicious and reprehensible rewriting of history. If I thought Kristol were capable of experiencing the emotion, I would say he ought to be ashamed of himself. Every single one of those wars was one that the United States deliberately and intentionally chose to become involved in after a long period of deliberation. I will be offering some excerpts from Barbara Tuchman's masterful history of the Vietnam War (in her book, The March of Folly) in the near future -- but I would have thought everyone knew that our involvement in Vietnam was the result of an intentional and very deliberate process of decision-making over a very long period of time. It was utterly mistaken and based on what ought to have been obviously dubious premises at almost every single step, but it was hardly a course of action foisted on us when we were simply minding our own business. And the same is true with regard to every other war in Kristol's list.
When we come upon a murderer covered with the blood of victims who never threatened him, we do not defend him by appealing to his "good intentions" or by claiming that "he meant well" -- at least, we do not if we seek to remain civilized.

In terms of its foreign policy of aggressive, ceaseless, violent interventionism, the United States has been a murderer of this kind on the world stage for over a century. And our ruling class continues to state repeatedly, in a manner demanding that we credit the assertions, that their infernal and bloody work is far from done.