Thursday, June 20

The Only Tool You’ll Ever Need

Fareed Zakaria, "Obama's Syria policy is full of contradictions".  June 19

I USED to think that the only useful service Fareed Zakaria served was as a walking, talking embodiment of the twin contributions of Ivy League brainpower and professional journalism to modern American political life. (Unless, say, you’re the Cheney administration and need the closest thing to Reasonable and Serious you could find to validate your execrable foreign policy program. Fareed Zakaria. For Those Times when Judith Miller Just Isn’t Enough.™) Then last Thursday he turned up on The Daily Show in John Oliver’s first week as guest host, to help prove that Jon Stewart isn’t the only thing wrong with that show.

Anyway, Hey, Kids! Enjoy being totally oblivious about Vietnam, and pretty much the rest of US foreign policy since 1946? Well, have we got an argument for you!
In the debate over U.S. intervention in Syria, there is a striking, almost bizarre mismatch between ends and means. We want to defeat a ruthless and powerful regime, rescue a country from civil war and usher in a new democratic political order. But those seeking this outcome also believe firmly that we must never consider committing U.S. soldiers to the fight. “The worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground in Syria,” Sen. John McCain said recently.

Yeah. Y’know what else is an “almost bizarre” mismatch? 1) Those stated ends and whatever we could reasonably expect to happen at best, given even a cursory examination of “history” or “reality”. 2) Those stated ends and the generalized anti-Arab, religiously pro-Israel agenda that drives it, especially from people who wanted to take Damascus just as soon as we wrapped up that little problem with Saddam Hussein. 3) Things John McCain says and anything which takes what John McCain says seriously.

Okay, so Beltway insiders want to continue the tub-thumping they’ve been doing since Quemoy and Matsu, but in the short-term they’re unable to dribble in a US fighting force, because, after Iraq, “accomplishing nothing”, or “losing” temporarily has a bad name. Thanks for the analysis.
When asked the U.S. objective in Syria, some proponents of intervention say it is to end that country’s humanitarian nightmare. But in the short term, arming one side will increase the violence and bloodshed.

That would be a real dilemma, if anyone was really serious about that “humanitarian” horseshit.
That’s fine if it serves our real objective,

Provided we’re still 6000 miles away.
which is the ouster of the Assad regime, a nasty and evil dictatorship. But that is a negative objective. The lesson of Iraq is that defeating Saddam Hussein — whose regime was perhaps even worse than Bashar al-Assad’s — was only a stepping stone to an outcome.

When (if ever) do we get to the part about “not lying about your fucking objectives” being the lesson of Iraq?
Our goal for Syria is a democratic country where all sects can live in peace. Achieving that would require a lot more than the defeat of Assad; it would require an occupation of sorts to ensure the creation of a suitable political system.

An occupation of sorts.
We attempted just that in Iraq and, despite a massive, decade-long effort that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, Iraq today cannot be described as either genuinely democratic or multiethnic. (The international intervention in the Balkans was also followed by a decades-long occupation, which continues to this day in Bosnia.)

Thanks for the faux balance, old chap. The international intervention in the Balkans, spearheaded by the Europeans, arguably prevented thousands of deaths in ethnic warfare. The war in Iraq, courtesy the Coalition of the Willing, dismantled a half-functioning society and replaced it, after a decade, with a half-functioning society minus thousands of its previous members. While eradicating its fully-functional nuclear weapons program. At a cost of only a couple trillion, depending on who's counting (Nobody). Otherwise they're identical.
Put another way, we want an outcome in Syria that is even more ambitious than the one in Iraq — yet we intend to achieve it through a “no-fly” zone.

Put it another way: we're still talking about occupying and democratizing a Middle Eastern country. Hallucinating the means is small potatoes compared to that.
In the mid-1980s, the scholar Samuel Huntington pondered why the United States, the world’s dominant power — which had won two world wars, deterred the Soviet Union and maintained global peace — was so bad at smaller military intervention.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that its Ivy League scholars could imagine the US “won” either World War, “deterred” the global machinations of a Soviet Empire which couldn’t manage to feed itself, and “maintained global peace” by starting a war every 2.4 years on average.
Huntington concluded that we rarely entered conflicts actually trying to win. Instead, he reasoned, U.S. military intervention has usually been sparked by a crisis, which put pressure on Washington to do something. But Americans rarely saw the problem as one that justified getting fully committed. So, we would join the fight in incremental ways and hope that this would change the outcome. It rarely does.

Huntington also concluded, rather famously, that “the answer” to our little imbroglio in Vietnam was to use such massive force that the South Vietnamese population would be driven into centers of population concentration, thereby depriving the rural Marxists of fecund rurality.

Worked like a charm.
(More recent conflicts where we have succeeded — the 1990 Persian Gulf War, Grenada and Panama — were all ones where we did fight to win, used massive force and achieved a quick, early knockout.)

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Grenada? Panama? Dear god you fucks are desperate to claim expertise. What were we doing in Korea, playing for a tie? You do understand that the only way the United States could have used “unlimited force” to “win” in Vietnam or Korea was the use of nuclear weapons, right? Or use conventional warfare to defeat the fucking Chinese in China? Defend those ideas, then. You can’t even say this shit unless you know absolutely nothing about what you’re talking about.
One of the U.S. Army’s most intelligent officers...

God help us.
Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, wrote a study of the Vietnam War that detailed this error. He described Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 plan as one of incremental pressure that “depended on the assumption that the limited application of force would compel the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table and exact from them a favorable diplomatic settlement.” The strategy, McMaster noted, was “fundamentally flawed.” The enemy is fighting to win — not playing a negotiating game.

McMaster’s been praised for doing precisely what he did not do: uncover a structural deficiency in the Johnson administration which led to an incorrect application of force in Vietnam, a war we otherwise would have “won”. He topped this off, Mr. Zakaria, by accusing Robert McNamara of treason, for the egregious act of not doing what H.R. McMaster thinks he should have.

This is worse than stupidity; it’s dishonest stupidity. McMaster didn’t discover this shit. It was understood at the time, a time when, by the way, he was busy soiling diapers. Johnson found himself in a situation that wasn’t of his own making. He was President of the United States during the Cold War. No President of the United States in the 50s or 60s was going to stand up and tell the nation that the threat of the Soviet Union was vastly overblown, nor that it wasn’t bent on enslaving the Free World. Nor was he going to explain to the American people that the Vietnam wasn’t a war of Soviet Aggression, but the overthrow of a corrupt and evil European colonial system, one we’d been given the chance to eliminate after WWII and instead had propped up. Temporarily. Contrary to all our stated humanitarian love of democracy. You wanna know who dribbled our way into quagmire in Vietnam, go look at who was screaming about “losing” China fifteen years earlier.

It was a war of political machination. The only way you don’t have a war of political machination in Vietnam is to not have a war. Johnson concluded he couldn't get away with that. And he was right. The ridiculous and evil Catholic mandarins would have fallen, and this country would have proceeded to shit itself for a decade. Especially its Beltway insiders and Ivy League scholars. And brilliant general-officer analysts. Do you fucks realize there were people in this country still insisting that Ford "do" something about the Fall of Saigon?

And that’s just the top of the manure pile. Even assuming it was possible to assemble a million combat troops and send them simultaneously into Vietnam, along with a bombing campaign which would have made Nixon blush, and even assuming (against direct evidence) that this would have guaranteed a “win” (defined how? Keeping Diem in power?), suggesting that Johnson should have, or could have, done so without consideration for the global ramifications is playing War like playing Risk. It’s not analysis. It’s masturbation.

This shit was understood at the time. It gets promulgated now because there are people who believe, unshakably, that it is impossible for the United States to’ve won two World Wars but lose to a bunch of peasants. But the Vietnamese had been fighting invaders for hundreds of years. They kicked the Chinese out. They humiliated the French. They were superior, experienced fighters, well-trained and well-led. And they were well-supplied, too. Not because of the Soviets (that came later, after the Reds saw us step in it), but because of all the weapons we sent into the country to install democracy. Not that that should bother you now.

The most odious thing about this is that it’s our history, it’s the plain lesson we’ve been taught over and over again, from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, and gets ignored because some people would rather not hear it. (Which reminds me, I don't hear McMaster slagging Truman, or Bush.) Some, in fact, would rather talk about Grenada and Panama, like those are a guide to occupying Middle Eastern countries. And may I add, Mr. Zakaria, that it’s especially galling coming from someone who was convinced at the time of the wisdom of that very same approach, by the same arguments, by George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld?


mb said...

Anybody who thinks we didn't win in Vietnam because we pulled our punches should consider the comparison of things like total tons of TNT dropped on Vietnam vs. the amount dropped on Nazi Germany. We bombed the holy shit out of Vietnam and then some and made lots of dead Vietnamese and lots of dead Americans. And, in retrospect, it all looks like complete bullshit.

But that doesn't seem to make it into anybody's "Lesson of Vietnam."

Robert M. said...

You know who fought to win? The Brits in the (Second) Boer War. I don't know from military history, but a friend who spent a decade as an intelligence officer in the Korean DMZ once explained to me that "COIN" was bullshit because the Boer War was the last successful counter-insurgency action by a major military power.

Every campaign since then has been unable to stomach the kind of brutal, dehumanizing, near-genocidal actions required to actually defeat an "enemy" who has that kind of overwhelming home-field advantage.

So, contra Zakaria, we really have two choices. We can really go all out with his "boots on the ground" fantasy: start drafting Americans to invade Syria, build and guard civilian concentration camps, and beat or kill anyone who has ever even talked with anyone who was thinking that they someday might want to fight back. Or we can accept that there are some problems that actually can't be solved by a bullet or boot to the face, and throw the billions of dollars we might spend on military intervention into supportingactual humanitarian efforts.

Poicephalus said...

There's a nit.
USA did win the Pacific part of that war.


Weird Dave said...

The USA method for winning wars:

Fight for about 3 1/2 years and if that doesn't work drop a nuke or two.

Poicephalus said...

Weird Dave,
reducing every population center by firebombing makes nukes seem compassionate. Thank Lemay for moving that window.


ckc (not kc) said...

...or 'Bomber' Harris

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