Friday, January 25, 2013

The Vietnam War and the US "destiny" as a "Great Power"

Chester Coioper makes a telling statement about the nature of the United States as a superpower pursuing a strategy of global hegemony in his 1970 book, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam. That global posture was then being pursued in the context of the Cold War, where the US faced a major "peer competitor" (to use current terminology) in the Soviet Union.

This is from the first chapter of his book. And its fitting that he should quote Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism in support of his point:

The fruits of Vietnam (win, lose or draw) are likely to be sour, not only for America but for many other countries who have, or thought they had, an American "commitment." We may be able to demonstrate that we honored our commitment to Vietnam , but will the American people, at least in this generation, rush to honor others? Will this war, which had been justified as a demonstration of American concern for international order, lead to a new form of American isolationism? In the light of South Vietnam's experience, will other threatened small nations seek American "protection," or will they prefer to passively succumb to Communist pressure?

This is one of the crucial questions. Its answer will shed light on the role and destiny of the United States over the next decade and perhaps beyond. In trying to engage with this fundamental problem we must resign ourselves to the fact that there are only two knowns, neither of which is very helpful: the first is that the United States will remain a Great Power; the second is that virtually nothing else can be predicted with a high degree of confidence. Irving Kristol is right, I think, when he says, "because we are a Great Power, we are a 'committed nation' without knowing what our commitments precisely are. Our commitments are necessarily defined, to a considerable extent, by circumstance and contingency."

Several things are striking here, things which continue to plague American foreign policy:

  • The foreign policy specialist frets that the American people may be reluctant to go to war to honor stupid commitments made largely in secret by the foreign policy elite, often in pursuit of unworthy aims.
  • The bogeyman of "isolationism" is used to stigmatize anyone that questions such dubious commitments and unjustified wars.
  • Justifications for bad policies shift freely: the Vietnam War was "justified as a demonstration of American concern for international order"? (!?) Actually, it was more that the Communists would soon be killing us in our beds if we didn't fight for the "anti-Communist," corrupt, authoritarian regime in South Vietnam. Also, there was that supposed attack in the Tonkin Gulf ...
  • Substitute "Al Qaeda" for "Communist" and a lot of the exaggerated, tendentious justifications for foreign adventurism can still be used almost word-for-word.
  • The unthinking chest-thumping over the US "destiny" as a Great Power still substitutes for good sense and reasonable judgment.
  • Clowns like the late Irving Kristol - and now his son Bill - are still taken to be Very Serious People on foreign affairs, not matter how spectacularly and consistently wrong they are; "we are a 'committed nation' without knowing what our commitments precisely are"? No wonder we create so many disasters when this kind of thing passes for thinking, much less a serious variety.

In fairness to the author, the above passage is not entirely representative of Cooper's book, which was and remains an important work on the US involvement in Vietnam, with particularly attention to the diplomacy of that involvement from the Second World War on. He describes in detail many of the policy dilemmas and calculations that were part of that process, and includes descriptions of the very real problems the US intervention there faced.

But the paragraphs quoted above do convey a sense of general Cold War conventional wisdom in framing such matters. And it is striking how many of the lazy assumptions behind it still seem so current today.

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