Drawing Lessons from Vietnam

The US engagement policy abroad, for last forty or so years, has always been shaped with the lessons learnt in Vietnam in perspective, as it is being done now. President Obama, as I have noted previously, is supposed to make the decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan. From the media gossip, one gets to understand the decision is likely to be that General McChrystal will get some troops, but not the 40,000 he requested for. This will actually be no decision at all - a few thousand American lives, and a few thousand Afghan lives, will be sacrificed because the President and his advisers will not be able to make up their minds. Common sense dictates that the solution is elsewhere, not in sending additional troops; but there will be this shadow of Vietnam weighing over their head. The civilian administration and democracy lost the war - that's the lesson learnt - and this time, no one would want to take that political risk. No one wants Afghanistan, and Pakistan, go over to the dark side. The consequences, everyone knows, will be severe. The strong visual imagery of planes slamming into World Trade Centre is enough to make a President lose his re-election, and hence, no one will take the risk.

I remember reading 'No More Vietnams' by Richard Nixon long time back. Back in the early nineties, when America has just emerged victorious in the first Gulf War but stopped short of driving into Baghdad. The debate in my university circles were about whether Americans were afraid that Saddam Hussein had dangerous weapons. The other opinion focused on Vietnam, there came Richard Nixon with all his wisdom, and the psychological effect that it must have had on American policy making about occupying territories in Asia. So, we talked about America retreating into a modern Monroe doctrine, keeping their large scale involvements to Western Hemisphere. With the Cold War and the need for containment going away, it was logical for the Americans to let countries in the other parts of the world follow their own course.

But, Richard Nixon, the perennial cold warrior, was advocating otherwise. He was urging Americans to get over Vietnam, because it was not a failure of American military power but one of American polity. He was making the case for strong engagements with intent, and his point was that America must remain engaged, militarily if needed, to run the world according to its wishes. It did seem that George HW Bush took his advice when he went into the Gulf, as did his circle of advisers, including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. They definitely wanted to emerge out of Vietnam's shadows and believed they did, with a comprehensive and convincing victory in the First Gulf War.

This is the exact perspective which made George W to plan his adventures. The media and historians seem to ascribe to him a filial sense of responsibility to complete his father's unfinished task, by going into Baghdad. But, George W was actually taking advantage of what his father achieved - the beyond Vietnam mentality - a strong will to engage in other parts of the world. He had the same set of advisers - Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld - and it did feel Deja Vu over again.

But, the Vietnam experience refused to die. We talked about Vietnam in 2005/6 when Iraq seemed completely out of control. The President took the decisions based on his post-Vietnam, strong engagement mentality: sent more troops. It seemed to have worked, and that reaffirmed Richard Nixon's view of the failure in Vietnam: Not a military failure, but one of polity.

Obama's predicament today is to work under this shadow of Vietnam, when it is ever more real. Iraq was far more manageable than Afghanistan. It was a country with flat deserts, where air power is far more effective than the mountainous Afghanistan. Afghans are notoriously independent, they have been scarcely governed for centuries. The sense of Afghan justice and negotiation is far more swift and immediate than any democratic negotiation will permit. It is indeed one country where the limits of American Military power may become evident.

But more than that, this should focus ourselves on the lessons of Vietnam. Draw the parallels in your mind with what the apologists of troop surge are saying, and you will see Pakistan being portrayed as South Vietnam. A war must be fought in the North to win the peace in the South, to whom we are pledge-bound to protect. Further if we lose the South, it will unleash a domino effect in the region, ultimately threatening the peace and the prosperity, and in essence, the American way of life.

The problem is that America lost in Vietnam not for the lack of troops, but in spite of them. Nixon was indeed right, it was a failure of polity, but the war was not lost in American Congress. The war was lost in Saigon. South Vietnam became a failed state despite American support because it was a false state, poorly governed and without the moral legitimacy. The lessons from the Vietnam war should be about the pointlessness of puppet states, and not one of the size or engagement of the army.

The other lesson that should have been learnt is what armies can not do. If we all agree that we live in the age of information, we must concede that military power can not substitute moral legitimacy. So, in this age, there is no point trying to perfect a strategy which failed before [and adding up the colonial experience, it always failed]. What needs to be done is an all-out effort to win the peace and moral legitimacy in the broken states.

The United States administration is not doing a good job at that, so far. They are going to tolerate a rigged election, while making noises about a similar one in Iran. They are insisting on a pointless defence of Israel when it is increasingly clear that Israel has been taking advantage of this American protection and set out to do whatever they wish. They continue to try to prop up Pakistan and rescue it from failing, while it must acknowledge that Pakistan is a false state in the need of fundamental changes. In summary, the decision that needs to be made is whether the US has the necessary moral strength to win the moral legitimacy that it needs.

The hope is, as Winston Churchill put it, that 'Americans can be relied upon to do the right thing, after all options have been exhausted'.


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