Monthly Archives: July 2018

Vietnam War Debate: Quagmires and Stalemate Machines

The ghosts of the Vietnam War no doubt hovered over a recently assembled conclave of President Donald Trump’s advisers as they deliberated over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

In the Vietnam era, as today, the United States found itself engulfed in a seemingly never-ending war with mounting costs, unclear goals and few signs of success. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, successive presidents faced much the same options: Withdraw, decisively escalate or do just enough to avoid losing. Like his predecessors in both wars, Trump chose the middle path – incremental escalation with no clear exit plan. Although Trump called it a “plan for victory,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson candidly admitted that the additional American troops will likely do little more than “stabilize the situation.”

How can we to explain the seeming preference of U.S. presidents for muddling through – whether in Afghanistan or, 50 years ago, in Vietnam? This has been a central question in a course on the Vietnam War that I have offered for the past 30 years. In it, we look for answers in a fascinating debate among former officials that emerged in the late stages of the war.

Down a slippery slope

Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger offered one point of view in his 1967 book “The Bitter Harvest.” A onetime adviser to John F. Kennedy, Schlesinger compared Vietnam to a quagmire: The first step into a quagmire inexorably draws one down a slippery slope. Schlesinger argued that officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations stumbled blindly into Vietnam without understanding where the U.S. commitment would lead. Escalation proceeded through a series of small steps, none of which seemed terribly consequential. Each succeeding step was taken in the optimistic belief that a little more effort – a bit more aid, a few more troops, a slight intensification of the bombing – would turn things around by signaling American resolve to stay the course. Faced with this prospect, the reasoning went, the North Vietnamese communists would sue for peace on American terms.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1951. Wikipedia

These flawed expectations, Schlesinger argued, arose from a decision-making system characterized by “ignorance, misjudgment and muddle.” A dysfunctional bureaucracy fed presidents misleading and overly rosy intelligence. The Vietnam War debacle, in other words, arose from inadvertence and folly.

Just don’t lose

In separate pieces, this interpretation of what went wrong was challenged by Daniel Ellsberg and Leslie Gelb. Both Gelb and Ellsberg had formerly served as Defense Department officials during the 1960s, and both helped to compile the famous “Pentagon Papers.”

Gelb and Ellsberg reached similar conclusions about the sources of U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Ellsberg argued that policymakers during the Kennedy and early Johnson administrations followed two rules:

  1. Do not lose South Vietnam to communism, and
  2. Do not involve the U.S. in a large-scale ground war in Asia.

Each rule drew upon recent precedent. The “loss” of China to communism in 1949 led to charges that Democrats were “soft on communism” and a wave of McCarthyite hysteria at home. On the other hand, the public would also not tolerate another ground war similar to the unpopular Korean engagement.

Dan Ellsberg in 1971. AP

The perceived domestic political costs of either extreme – withdrawal or unrestrained escalation – steered Kennedy and Johnson toward the middle. As long as feasible, each president did enough to avoid losing South Vietnam but shunned the direct commitment of U.S. troops that military advisers insisted would be necessary to bring victory.

By 1965, the deteriorating political and military situation in South Vietnam cut this middle ground from beneath Johnson’s feet. The minimum necessary to stave off defeat now required the commitment of American combat troops. Even once this line had been crossed, however, troops were introduced in a gradual manner and Johnson balked at imposing higher taxes to pay for the war.

As Kennedy and Johnson anticipated, public support for the war waned as U.S. casualties mounted. Richard Nixon responded to these domestic pressures by undertaking “Vietnamization,” which gradually reduced American troop levels even while prolonging U.S. efforts to stave off a communist victory.

Ellsberg refers to this as a “stalemate machine.” Policymakers acted in a calculated manner to avoid losing for as long as possible, but understood that their policies could not bring victory. Stalemate was a conscious choice rather than a product of overoptimism or miscalculation.

Leslie Gelb at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. on July 24, 1971. AP Photo/Jim Palmer

While echoing Ellsberg’s account of the domestic constraints on U.S. policy, Gelb added two sets of international constraints. Withdrawal was ruled out because policymakers believed in the domino theory, which predicted that the loss of South Vietnam would set off a cascade of communist victories throughout Southeast Asia. They also feared that the U.S. would lose credibility with its allies if we failed to put up a fight in South Vietnam. For these reasons, as well as fears of a right-wing backlash, Kennedy and Johnson were unwilling to walk away from Vietnam.

Yet Kennedy and Johnson also feared the international risks of major escalation, Gelb argued. An invasion of North Vietnam raised the possibility that either China or the Soviet Union would intervene more directly or retaliate against U.S. interests elsewhere in the world. In an age of nuclear weapons, the U.S. preferred to keep the Vietnam conflict limited and to minimize the risks of superpower war.

From Vietnam to Afghanistan

Gelb and Ellsberg rejected Schlesinger’s argument that policymakers were overly optimistic and lacking in foresight. Rather, they saw policymakers as generally pessimistic, recognizing that the next step along the ladder of escalation would not be sufficient and that future steps would be necessary just to maintain a stalemate. With victory viewed as infeasible, presidents chose stalemate as the least bad among a set of terrible options. Presidents had no clear exit strategy, other than the hope that the enemy would weary of the conflict or that the problem could be passed along to the next president.

Instead of blaming bureaucratic bumbling, Gelb argues that “the system worked.” The bureaucrats did exactly what top policymakers asked them to do: Avoid losing Vietnam for more than a decade. The problem lay rather in the underlying assumption – never questioned – that Vietnam was a vital interest of the United States.

Who was right?

I’d contend that Gelb and Ellsberg make a more convincing case than Schlesinger. Muddling through offered presidents a politically safer short-run alternative to withdrawal or major escalation.

A similar dynamic appears at work in the U.S. approach to Afghanistan, where Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump have each accepted stalemate over the riskier options of retreat or decisive escalation. Against an entrenched Taliban insurgency, U.S. policy has been driven by the need to stave off the collapse of weak local partners rather than the pursuit or expectation of military victory. Even President Barack Obama’s surge in Afghanistan provided fewer than half the troops requested by the military. On the other hand, Obama later retreated from his own stated deadline for total withdrawal, opting to leave 11,000 troops in place. Now Trump has also reneged from previous pledges to disengage from Afghanistan, instead sending additional troops.

It may be that the logic of the stalemate machine is built into the very concept of limited war. Or that it is a predictable consequence of how presidents manage the constraints posed by American politics. In any case, the histories of U.S. military involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan should serve as warnings to future presidents who might be tempted to again jump onto the treadmill of perpetual war.

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Trump’s Campaign against the Liberal International Order

President Donald Trump’s last minute declaration that “I believe in NATO” will do little to reassure a world that for eighteen months has watched in bewilderment as he has trashed the alliances and multilateral institutions the United States itself did the most to create. Trump’s refusal to sign the joint communiqué from the recent G-7 meeting despite the efforts of America’s chief allies to accommodate Trump’s blustering demands offers a recent example. Others include his misleading complaints about burden-sharing at the recent NATO summit, his false claim that Germany is “captive to Russia” and his baffling attack on British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Trump’s ditching of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the simultaneous trade wars he has initiated against all of America’s major trade partners threaten to tear apart the international trade order. He has withdrawn the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Accord. Trump has proposed drastic cuts in U.S. funding to the United Nations and withdrew the U.S. from the U.N. Human Rights Council. As international opinion turns against Trump’s unilateralist behavior, America First has quickly morphed into America Alone.

Of course, Trump is not the first American president to balk at multilateral commitments, or bicker with U.S. allies or offer support for autocrats. But no previous president has mounted such an across-the-board assault on the basic principles and institutions of the post-World War II liberal international order.

Trump’s illiberalism goes beyond an amoral transactionalism. The quarrels with America’s allies over trade and defense burden-sharing are not really about bargaining for a better deal. Rather, Trump uses deal-making as a cover for weakening democratic socially progressive, culturally tolerant and internationally open governments, parties and movements across the Western world while simultaneously strengthening authoritarian, nationalist and protectionist governments, parties and movements around the globe.

Trump has gone out of his way to embrace authoritarian leaders abroad who tear down democratic institutions and violate human rights. Most famously, this includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump congratulated for the latter’s victory in a fixed election despite the pleas of his own advisers who wrote in Trump’s briefing book: “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.” Trump’s bizarrely obsequious behavior toward Putin at their recent summit meeting in Helsinki offers another example.

Trump praised Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte despite the latter’s notorious use of extrajudicial killings in that nation’s drug war. He congratulated Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the passage of a possibly rigged referendum that moved Turkey further down the road to outright authoritarian rule. Trump also welcomed Egyptian strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House, a step President Barack Obama had been unwilling to take in the wake of el-Sisi’s bloody crackdown on political opponents.

Trump serves as a lodestar for protectionist, nationalist and anti-liberal political parties and movements across Europe. Trump praised the British vote to leave the E.U. and campaigned alongside British anti-E.U. politician Nigel Farage. His administration has sought stronger ties with the extreme nationalist government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has a history of anti-Semitic speech and who has cracked down on the media and civil society.

Trump’s newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, stated in an interview with Breitbart that he wants “to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold…” Grenell singled out far-right Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as “a rockstar. I am a big fan.”

More stunning have been Trump’s constant stream of quarrels with America’s closest allies. At a rally in North Dakota on June 27, 2018, Trump complained that: “Sometimes our worst enemies are our so-called friends and allies.” Having previously referred to NATO as “obsolete,” Trump recently ordered the Pentagon to study how much money could be saved by removing U.S. troops from Germany.

On trade, Trump has imposed unilateral tariffs on goods from all of America’s major trading partners. Trump ordered staffers to prepare draft legislation that would provide the president with the power to ignore the principles of non-discrimination that lie at the heart of WTO trade rules. He has threatened to withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA unless Mexico and Canada meet poison pill demands.

Trump rejects the liberal idea that markets should determine flows of commerce among nations. Instead, Trump seeks to use the size of the American market as leverage to impose one-sided deals on smaller trade partners. In Trump’s view: “trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

How far can Trump take this radical reorientation of American foreign policy? One possible check might be push-back from within the Republican party. Yet Trump appears to have pulled the rank-and-file of the party along with him, making it difficult for Republican office-holders to buck Trump even on issues where there are clear differences, such as trade. The weak, non-binding resolutions passed by the Senate in recent days declaring support for NATO and asserting a Congressional role in trade policy are hardly sufficient to give Trump pause.

If, indeed, the Republican Party unifies around a highly nationalist, illiberal foreign policy and Trump retains power for a full eight years, then the ruptures to a liberal and multilateral international order may prove beyond repair and America’s image as a rogue state will be difficult to reverse.

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