Not too long ago the idea of comparing the American misadventure in Iraq with the Vietnam War was strictly limited to anti-war activists. To mention Iraq and Vietnam in the same breath made neocons roll their eyes, and even pro-war establishment liberals wouldn’t hear of it. How things have changed.
“Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon” is the title of an essay by Stephen Biddle in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, which will be out on newsstands today. “Contentious as the current debate over Iraq is,” he writes, “all sides seem to make the crucial assumption that to succeed there the United States must fight the Vietnam War again — but this time the right way. The Bush administration is relying on an updated playbook from the Nixon administration.”
Biddle notes that “U.S. strategy in Iraq today is remarkably similar” to the plan for withdrawing from Vietnam that Nixon outlined in 1969. “Even the rhetoric surrounding the two plans is strikingly similar,” he reminds us. “Bush’s claim that ‘as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down’ parallels Nixon’s hope that ‘as South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.’ ”
The trouble is there’s a difference between “a people’s war” (Vietnam) and “a communal one” (Iraq), Biddle contends, and “Iraqization” — which is “the main component of the current U.S. military strategy” — will have the opposite of the intended effect:
In a people’s war, handing the fighting off to local forces makes sense because it undermines the nationalist component of insurgent resistance, improves the quality of local intelligence, and boosts troop strength. But in a communal civil war, it throws gasoline on the fire.
Let’s ignore the fact that Vietnamization did NOT make sense in Vietnam, either (when you look at that outcome), which Biddle somehow fails to address in his essay. Presumably, someone will bring that up on Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, where Biddle (a senior fellow in defense policy) will participate in a roundtable to discuss the situation in Iraq three years after the invasion.
More important is whether the roundtable will address what independent historian and national security policy analyst Gareth Porter explains in his recently published revisionist history of the Vietnam War, “Perils of Dominance.” To put it country simple, a superpower facing weak opponents can be too strong for its own good. Porter argues with persuasive lucidity that America’s “decisive military dominance” over the Soviet Union and China — “not Cold War ideology or exaggerated notions of the threat from communism in Southeast Asia,” the commonly accepted reasons — led the United States down the blinkered path to a debacle.
I see a hand going up in the back row. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist today, and communism has been routed. So what’s the relevance now? Let’s see. You remember all those assurances by the White House, and the Defense Department, and the CIA? The invasion would be a cakewalk? The occupation would be flowers of gratitude? The weapons of mass destruction would be a slam dunk? Of course you do. Well, here’s Porter on Vietnam:
The extremely high level of confidence on the part of national security officials that the United States could assert its power in Vietnam without the risk of either a major war or a military confrontation with another major power conditioned the series of decisions that finally led to war. To put it another way, the imbalance of power so constrained the policies of Moscow and Beijing toward Vietnam (and toward the peripheral countries more generally) that it created incentives for ambitious U.S. objectives in that country.
Porter offers chapter and verse, laying out his argument with unassailable facts as “evidence for the critical influence of unequal power relations” on crucial Vietnam policy decisions. He examines the implications of his revisionist history “for understanding the nature of national security policy making in a state with dominant power in the international system.” His account, he argues, “definitively contradicts the comforting view that ‘the system worked’ in making policy on Vietnam.”
Further, he discusses “the emergence of a ‘dysfunctional’ process of national security policy making accompanied by unprecedented political tensions and a pattern of dishonesty and deception within the executive branch in the struggle over Vietnam policy.” And finally, he provides “the lessons to be gleaned, in the present ‘unipolar moment’ in global politics and U.S. foreign policy,” from U.S. involvement in Vietnam “in a Cold War era that was” — contrary to the conventional wisdom — “also effectively unipolar.”
Current events in Iraq have been moving so fast that even day-old commentaries can seem outdated. But Porter, whose analysis is not limited to historical retrospectives or to books with long lead times, cuts to the heart of new developments in commentaries for the global, multilingual Inter Press Service that have lasting value. See, for instance, “US Realignment With Sunnis Is Far Advanced,” which dissects the apparent willingness of the U.S. regime “to make some kind of deal with all the major insurgent groups” in Iraq, a signal “that the United States is no longer wedded to the option of supporting Shiite military and police.” Although already a month old, Porter’s analysis seems as fresh as if it were written yesterday in both its diagnosis and prognosis.
Still earlier, his piece “How to End the Occupation of Iraq: Outmaneuver the War Proponents,” for Foreign Policy in Focus (“a think tank without walls”) in April, 2005, offered antiwar activists advice on strategy and tactics about developing a proposal for the negotiated withdrawal of U.S. troops and, at the same time, anticipated the commentaries of other, better-known pundits — Fareed Zakaria, for example.
Here’s what Zakaria wrote in his column in Newsweek on Aug. 8, 2005, “Talking With the Enemy”:
America’s goal must be to split the insurgency, which can be done only by co-opting some important elements of the Baathist movement. A senior non-U.S. diplomat, who has spoken to all the key figures in Iraq over the past two years, tells me that for months leaders of the insurgency have been putting out feelers that they would like to talk with the United States about a settlement. …
Salih al-Mutlaq, whose National Dialogue Council has links to the insurgents, argues that negotiating with them would cripple the jihadists. “If the Americans reach an agreement with the local [Baathist] resistance, there won’t be any room for foreign fighters,” he says.
And here’s what Porter wrote five months earlier:
A negotiated settlement need not have the participation of every nationalist group to serve the interests of peace. The foreign terrorists in Iraq aligned with al-Qaida are certainly not going to be part of any peace settlement, but relations between the nationalist resistance leaders and their followers, on one hand, and the foreign terrorists who bomb Shiite mosques and behead foreigners, on the other, quickly became very tense last year. It seems likely that most of those in the resistance would be unwilling to tolerate the presence of foreign jihadists in the country once the American troops have departed. Turning those nationalist against their erstwhile foreign allies through a peace settlement, therefore, is the surest way to end the recruitment and training program of the terrorists in Iraq.
Both columns continue to make sense.
No armchair analyst, Porter travels widely in third-world countries and writes for other outlets such as tompaine.org and mediachannel.org. On Friday he arrived in Manila just as Philippine President Gloria Arroyo announced a State of Emergency. His comment? “A kind of Martial Law Lite declaration,” he said in an e-mail.
With his permission and the publisher’s, here’s a special offering:
LESSONS OF VIETNAM FOR THE UNIPOLAR ERA
excerpted from “Perils of Dominance” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005)
© 2005 by The Regents of the University of California
By Gareth Porter
Since the end of the Cold War, it has been universally agreed that the international system is “unipolar,” meaning that no other state or possible combination of states can counterbalance the power of the United States. Beginning in the 1990s and continuing into the new century, students of international relations and international security have carried on a heated debate over whether the new situation of clear-cut U.S. dominance is likely to endure and whether it is desirable in terms of international peace and stability. Defenders of policies aimed at exploiting the “unipolar moment” have argued that the present structure is likely to be enduring, and that it is more likely than a balance of power to preserve peace, because it minimizes uncertainty. They assert that U.S. dominance ensures that weaker states will not be tempted to challenge even an expansive definition of U.S. security interests around the globe.
Opponents of policies based on unipolarity, on the other hand, argue that a policy aimed at preserving and exploiting U.S. dominance is both futile, because of the fundamental tendency of states to balance against a dominant power, and dangerous, because the exploitation of dominance is likely to be seen as provocative by other states. Paralleling these academic arguments over the unipolar system, of course, are sharp differences of view over the practice of unilateralism in the use of military power by the United States against a weaker “rogue” state in the absence of a consensus of the international community. The Bush administration justified the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq as minimizing the likelihood of serious threats to U.S. and international security. Opponents saw the unilateral use of force in Iraq as more likely to increase regional instability and the dangers to U.S. and global security.
These debates on the advantages and disadvantages of unipolarity and of policies that exploit it have assumed that there has never before been anything in the modern state system even remotely similar to the present global structure of power. This assumption reflects the conventional view that there was a rough bipolar balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. The reinterpretation of the period between the Korean and Vietnam wars offered in this study suggests, however, that the dominance of U.S. power over that period was roughly equivalent to the unipolarity of the post-Cold War period. In the earlier period, U.S. power could not be balanced by that of the Soviet Union and China. By 1964, U.S. officials had begun to view the Soviet Union less as a Cold War rival for power than as a potentially useful adjunct to U.S. efforts to impose a settlement in Vietnam at some future date. Several major states today arguably occupy analogous political roles in relation to the issue of unilateral U.S. use of military force.
The insights that can be gleaned from reassessing the dynamics of the political system and of U.S. policy making toward Vietnam during that period are highly relevant, therefore, to the present “unipolar moment.” In particular, the U.S. experience on the road to war in Vietnam offers useful lessons about the ways in which the United States is most likely to become involved in wars in a unipolar system. The question is whether wars are more likely to arise from states that seek to make a significant change in the international balance of power, or even to disturb a regional status quo, or from the tendency of the United States to extend its power and influence too far and to provoke greater resistance and hostility to U.S. power.
In retrospect, it is clear that the U.S. dominance during the interwar period of the Cold War reduced to virtually nil the possibility of wars involving the Soviet Union or China — the only second- or even third-level states in the power hierarchy who at least in theory were hostile to U.S. power interests. Neither Communist great power was willing to taken even minimal risks of a military clash with the United States. The extreme imbalance of power ruled out even the encouragement by the USSR or the PRC of a direct challenge by local Communists to U.S. power interests. It is no accident that the Soviet Union and China, whose internal organization and ideology inclined them toward support for such challenges to the existing international order, both gave up their previous policy of backing revolutionary struggles just as the new power configuration emerged at the end of the Korean War. Those effects of the unipolarity of that interwar period can be counted as positive for preventing war.
The lesson of this study of the impact of unbalanced power on the Vietnam issue, however, is that the absence of challenge from second-rank or third-rank states in terms of power does not prevent the occurrence of war on the periphery. The initiative in challenging the U.S. power position in South Vietnam in 1959-60 did not come from either of the major Communist powers, after all, but from the Vietnamese Communists themselves. It was not the North Vietnamese regime, moreover, that initially pushed for an armed uprising aimed at upending the Saigon regime. The party leadership in Hanoi, under pressure from their Communist patrons and cautious in the face of the ever-present threat of U.S. military force, had been prepared to continue to support the Soviet-Chinese strategy of waging only political struggle in South Vietnam. The initiative came from the South Vietnamese victims of the Diemist repression, for many of whom the issue of armed struggle was literally one of life or death. Their motivation in taking up arms had nothing to do with Cold War politics between the two blocs. These southern communists and former Viet Minh forced the hand of the North Vietnamese regime by threatening Hanoi with a loss of control over its followers in the South.
In the earlier unipolar power era, then, it was those with the least power who were willing to take the initiative to challenge U.S. power, rather than those who were closest to the United States in power capabilities. Although seemingly paradoxical, this historical fact reflected an elementary reality: these local resistance forces had the least to lose and the most to gain from challenging the status quo established by U.S. power. Furthermore, they were the least knowledgeable about U.S. power capabilities. This fact suggests that the debate over the present unipolar power structure has been too narrow in its focus on whether other major powers or potential major powers are likely to challenge U.S. dominance. The previous experience with unipolarity indicates that the United States can probably intimidate second- and third-level states, because the risks of even slight over resistance to U.S. assertion of power beyond their borders are simply too great. One lesson of the path to war in Vietnam, however, is that war is much more likely to arise, not from a decision by those with the most to lose but from conflicts involving the vigorous assertion by the United States of its power interests abroad, even in the absence of an overt challenge by another state.
A second lesson from the path to war in Vietnam has to do with the roles of force and diplomacy in the ability of the dominant power to exert influence on potential foes. The dominance of the United States in the international politics of the interwar period was based primarily on its ability to manipulate the implicit or explicit threat to use U.S. air and naval power — including the ultimate sanction of the use of nuclear weapons — without having to actually use that power. We now know just how strongly the existence of strategic asymmetry impressed on the Soviet Union and China, as well as North Vietnam, the risks and costs of war with the United States. During the entire period between the Geneva Accords and the major U.S. combat intervention in Vietnam in 1965, the North Vietnamese leaders were ready to make far-reaching compromises on the length of time that an independent non-Communist regime could remain in the South, provided that it was buffered from U.S. political-military power. That position was a direct consequence of the ability of the United States to threaten wholesale destruction of North Vietnamese society. For the same reasons, the North Vietnamese also limited participation in the armed struggle to native southerners for the first four years of the war.
Despite genuine fear of U.S. attack, however, the DRV [Democratic Republic of Vietnam] became increasingly committed to the struggle in the South from 1961 on. Its gradual assumption of increasingly greater risk reflects two factors working in tandem. The first was the fact that the outcome of the struggle in the South bore on the primordial interest of the regime in national independence. The more direct reason for the escalation of North Vietnamese involvement, however, was that the United States completely shut the door on any compromise that could have allowed North Vietnam to end the war honorably.
By rejecting diplomatic negotiation, the United States threw away most of its actual ability to shape the political outcome in South Vietnam through a combination of threat, restraint, and knowing what concessions it could extract from Hanoi, short of giving up the ultimate possibility of reunification. Paradoxically, by attempting to press its advantage too far — and especially by engaging in systematic bombing of North Vietnam while blocking the possibility of diplomatic overtures — the United States sacrificed its considerable influence over Hanoi’s choices.
I have argued above that the outcome of U.S. policy can be traced to the reading of power relationships by the national security bureaucracy. In opting to put in a large ground contingent and postponing any diplomatic probe of Hanoi in 1965, Johnson’s national security advisers were basing their recommendations on the incentives that they presumed to be inherent in the overwhelming U.S. dominance in the power relationship with Hanoi. In doing so, they completely ignored the much more complex set of actual incentives facing Hanoi.
This episode illustrates the broader problem of the reliance by the national security bureaucracy on the absence of any external countervailing power in using force. It suggests that national security officials in the dominant state are incapable of going beyond crude signals of hierarchical power in thinking about going to war against a weaker state or sociopolitical movement in conflict with U.S. policy. The record of policy deliberations on Vietnam suggests that the advisers were simply unable to recognize that they were pressing their power advantage too far in South Vietnam in that crucial March-May 1965 period. The fateful decisions to deploy more troops and to forgo genuine negotiations were only possible because of the engrained habit of relying too heavily on the U.S. power advantage in Vietnam over a period of years. This is obviously not a tendency that is exclusive to the U.S. Vietnam policy in the first half of the 1960s, moreover. It is likely that it is endemic to policy making over a prolonged period of unbalanced power and conflicts with much weaker adversaries.
In documenting the effect of the imbalance of power on U.S. policy toward Vietnam, this study illustrates the most fundamental insight of realist international relations theory: that a rough balance of power is necessary to curb the tendency of the strongest state to exploit its power advantage to the maximum at the expense of weaker states. “Unbalanced power is a danger to weak states,” Kenneth Waltz once observed, adding, “It may also be a danger to strong ones.” Realist theory generally asserts that the tendency of the strongest state to extend its power and influence continues until it is checked by external forces or by sociopolitical forces at home that weaken its ability to do so.
Until the end of the Cold War, realists generally did not apply this general principle to the United States, but in the present “unipolar moment,” the issue of how to restrain excessive use of U.S. power is unavoidable. It has now become part of the debate over the advantages and disadvantages to the United States and to the world of U.S. dominance of the international system. Waltz, for one, has suggested that peace will require not only external constraints on U.S. power but internal restraints as well. Students of unipolar politics and foreign policy looking at the questions of domestic restraint on the deployment of U.S. power abroad would do well to take account of the political dynamics of policy making on the road to war in Vietnam.
A recurrent theme of this study has been that the impetus for the assertive use of U.S. military power in Vietnam came overwhelmingly from the national security bureaucracy itself, rather than from the presidency. The previous section discusses the ways in which the policy-making process on Vietnam because dysfunctional because of the refusal of national security advisers to accept a presidential policy that rejected the use of military force in defense of national security interests. That earlier unipolar experience suggests that the problem of inadequate domestic restrains may be exacerbated by the tendency of the national security bureaucracy to assert itself in policy making.
Alongside these parallels between the present unipolar moment and the one that existed for at least twelve years in the 1950s and 1960s, there are obvious differences as well. Perhaps the main one is a far greater pluralism of sociopolitical and intellectual views of national security in the current phase of unipolar power than existed in the earlier period. As long as the unipolar moment persists, however, the political power of the national security bureaucracy, both within the executive branch and in the larger society, will certainly remain a challenge to domestic efforts to restrain the use of military power by the United States.