Friday, June 12, 2009

The Ghost of Quagmires Past

It has occurred to me that lately, in the face of so much else going on here at home, the on-going conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has been kicked to secondary status in media coverage like an unpleasant afterthought - yet it continues to drag on, and the bodies of American servicemen and women continue to pile up, and the permanently wounded continue to come home forever changed. So I think it's time to take a look at this some more. To that end I am reprinting here both my Memorial Day Post and C.J.'s reply "A Corrupt Bargain" immediately below it all as a single post (C.J. is a graduate student in International Relations at USF currently working on his Masters thesis on Foreign Policy in the Middle East). Anyone please feel free to comment on this, just click on the comments link immediately below the post. JF


"All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride."

- from the Antigone of Sophocles

During this years Memorial Day weekend there was a small but rather ideologically eclectic gathering of friends at the home of my aunt where I currently live, and one of the things we did at this gathering - in honor of the holiday - was to offer a sunset toast to the fallen in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which number has reached about 6,000 American dead and some 40,000 wounded. The totals among the local population are of course, as always, significantly higher. While these numbers do not quite approach the staggering statistics of the conflict in Vietnam (a conflict that occupied the U.S. for almost exactly the same length of time), the other parallels of our continuing struggle with the insurgency there, and our continuing stubborn failure to learn from the same old mistakes are quite striking to me.

In the midst of all the current consternation over the economy we are hearing a little less than we had about the continuing and yet equally critical crises in our foreign policy - and of late I have felt personally compelled to re-visit these questions during my private times of reflection and study. I am currently re-reading a book by the late Robert Kennedy - a man who remains one of my personally most admired heroes - published over 40 years ago entitled To Seek a Newer World. The book was first released in the paperback form in which I am reading it in March of 1968, the same month when "Bobby" Kennedy rather suddenly announced his candidacy as a Democratic rival to the incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. As we know from history Senator Kennedy would be tragically assassinated in the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles shortly after his victory announcement in the California primary in June of that same year, and later that summer the Democratic convention in Chicago would erupt in violence over the Vietnam divide that would hand the Presidency to Republican Richard Nixon.

In the aforementioned book the final chapter - the one on Vietnam - was revised for the paperback edition (a hardback edition had already been published in the fall of 1967) in the context of the Tet "lunar" New Year offensive of January 1968, that confirmed the opinion of an already rapidly gowing number of thinking Americans that the war was an unwinnable lost cause. I have selected some brief excerpts from this book that are especially telling in the parallels that can be drawn to our current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan (an undoubtedly soon to be the case in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East) and I wanted to share them as my "Memorial Day" remarks:

"...This does not mean that military force is ineffective or unnecessary. The most loyal of citizens may deny allegiance to his government if insurgent terror is not prevented and overcome by government force. The most developed and unified societies often find force necessary to defend themselves against those who reject peaceful political processes. Force is the last resort of all states and societies, and we ourselves have used it to repress internal disorder several times in this decade, Military force can and must be a part of any effort to combat insurgency. Citizens and governments need protection, a sheild behind which reforms can be carried out. But no primarily military effort can be successful against a deeply rooted insurgency with any degree of popular support. Still less can any amount of force redeem political failures, or win the allegiance of the people to a government that does not earn that loyalty...[italics JF] Where the needs and grievances of a people, whether for social change or national independence, begin to be met by the political process, then insurgency loses its popular character and becomes a police problem...

Many critics of the war have decried the damage to civilians, and our lack of sufficient effort to assist the victims. No one can fail to be shocked by the photographs we see every day, of the children burned or drowned or bombed. The wars supporters counter with a demand that the critics also condmen the Viet Cong. Certainly their terrorism is as personally and inhumanly brutal as anything in the war: attacking, torturing, and killing not only village officials and civil guards, but teachers and nurses and ordinary citizens, and the wives and children of those in whom they wished to strike fear. In condemning that moral blindness that reproaches only the United States, while refusing to recognize the terrorism of the Viet Cong, the wars supporters are unimpeachably right. There are no moral excuses to be made for the brutal terror of the Viet Cong. But the morality of our actions will not be elevated by the sins of others. Moreover, their terrorism has not prevented the Viet Cong from convincing large numbers of South Vietnamese to work and fight and sacrifice for their cause.

There are three possible routes before us: the pursuit of military victory, a negotiated settlement, or withdrawal.

Withdrawal is now impossible. The overwhelming fact of American intervention has created its own reality...Moreover tens of thousands of individual Vietnamese have staked their lives and fortunes on our presence and protection...These people, their old ways and strengths submerged by the American presence, cannot suddenly be abandoned to the forcible conquest of a minority....and the effect of a withdrawal on our position around the world. ...these are the arguments against withdrawal. But these arguments do not in any way support a policy of continuing the present course of the conflict, or continuing it at its present level, or in the same way. Still less do they support a search for nonexistent ways to military victory. The war has estranged and alienated us from our closest friends in the Western Alliance. [italics JF] Not one has seen fit to aid us in Vietnam... In the Congress, liberals and conservatives alike have firmly stated their conviction that the United States should never again engage in an effort like Vietnam that "wars of national liberation cannot succeed."

The third alternative is a negotiated settlement - as we have known for more than two years, the only satisfactory solution to the war. This course is our stated government policy. This is the course that I favor, and that I believe is in the best interests of this country. Only negotiations could allow us to end the fighting without precipitate withdrawal. A negotiated settlement must be less than a victory for either side. Both sides must come to any discussion with at least one basic condition, one irreducible demand, one point they will not yeild. For the United States it must be that we will not abandon South Vietnam to forcible takeover by a minority. For our adversaries it must be that they will not accept a settlement that leaves in the South a hostile government. ...For either side to yield its minimum conditions would be in fact to surrender. No war has ever demanded more bravery from our people and our government - not just bravery under fire or the bravery to make sacrifices - but the bravery to discard the comfort of illusion - to do away with false hopes and alluring promises. Reality is grim and painful. But it is only a remote echo of the anguish toward which a policy founded on illusion is surely taking us. This is a great nation and a strong people. Any who seek to comfort rather than speak plainly, reassure rather than instruct, promise satisfaction rather than reveal frustration - they deny that greatness and drain that strength. For today as it was in the beginning, it is the truth that makes us free."

From To Seek a Newer World by Robert F. Kennedy
pp. 171-229 (Bantam 1968)

To the fallen,



"A CORRUPT BARGAIN" - C.J.'s reply


As a Master's candidate in International Relations (IR), who is currently writing his thesis on American foreign policy and Middle Eastern contingencies, I feel that I can speak with some degree of authority on this subject. The main questions presented here are how to deal with the ramifications of entering an unnecessary and morally questionable war in Iraq. How did we get here? How do we proceed? And what, if any, are our exit strategies? I use the plural because nothing ever goes according to plan in war and this scenario offers particular intricacies where our interests are concerned. Thus, we're gonna need at least several exit strategies.

The Realist school of thought underscores the Bush Doctrine of preemption. The Liberal school of thought highlights the focus of the Clinton [Doctrine] administration's emphasis on trade. These two doctrines are not always at odds but their synthesis poses several problems. We got into Iraq based on preconceived notions of threat levels based on faulty intelligence. We have proceeded our "mission" there based on reducing that "threat" while trying to uphold a block of trading partners throughout the Middle East. And our exit strategies, based mainly on the Powell Doctrine have been largely ignored. More's the pity.

But the fact is that Iraq was, and continues to be, a morally corrupt bargain between the two schools of thought most considered in IR. If there are, as you say, " three possible routes before us: the pursuit of military victory, a negotiated settlement, or withdrawal" then you have been thorough in your consideration. But this is no Vietnam. Victory in an insurgency, against a foe that employs asymmetric warfare is an impossibility (as we learned in Vietnam). Withdrawal is also impossible at this point . . . in the parlance of Texas hold 'em; we're all in. But negotiated settlement may be an option. Thus, unlike Vietnam, we may have a valid third option. "A negotiated settlement must be less than a victory for either side. Both sides must come to any discussion with at least one basic condition, one irreducible demand, one point they will not yield." And this is exactly the problem in Iraq today. There is no carrot big enough nor stick long enough to affect a change in a part of the world who sees hastening the reign of chaos in the world as a harbinger of their good fortune [call it an end of days mind set]. At leaast the Vietnamese met us in Paris every time we bombed the shit out of them. So realism is the surest answer but the one I least respect. Thucydides discusses this aspect of IR in more detail in his Minoan dialogue but suffice it to say that you can't drag a terrorist to the negotiating table when he feels confident that he/she is doing Allah's work.

But, as Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural speech . . . "the quiet dogmas of the past are insufficient to the stormy present." And therein, my friend, lies the dilemma.


1 comment:

  1. Reply to CJ: Unlike you I am not a foreign policy analyst - US history, constitutional and criminal law are my forte - but I am well acquainted w/the Vietnam conflict. As I recall it turned out to be China that was the major support behind the North, and by extension the Viet-Cong. It was Kissinger's secret negotiations w/China (not to mention Nixon's well publicized visit) that ultimately facilitated the American withdrawal in 1972-73.
    My argument in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan is simply that as a straight forward military victory against an insurgency of this kind is a hopeless enterprise - that negotiation w/the "client-states" that back these people might produce concrete results. It would seem that President Obama's desire to go to the table w/Iran or Syria for instance (for which he has caught a lot of flack from the Republicans) is a good idea. This was where I thought the analogy w/RFK's views seemed to fit.