Friday, May 7, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: "For LBJ the domino theory was really a matter of domestic politics"*

       I wrote Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? (Princeton, 1999) to exemplify how international political interventions – America's constant aggressions, violating international law and decency, the massive infrastructure of 800 military bases around the world – often serve domestic, anti-democratic purposes.  They enable leaders, bipartisanly, as a component of an oligarchy, to fight against or suck much of the life out of reforms at home (the Democrats do the latter) by stigmatizing "foreign influence" in what I named the “anti-democratic feedback of global politics."  Both parties pillory the most decent and sometimes heroic people in American politics.  Even Martin Luther King, as J. Edgar Hoover put it, and LBJ, post-1967, and Reagan echoed, “was a communist.”* (By this, they meant a "Soviet agent"). 

         My view is also an internal critique of all the leading forms of American realism and neo-realism, suggesting that citizens often have common interests from below across borders against the militarism, repression and exploitation of their own states (including  parliamentary or presidential "democracies"). Democratic internationalism focuses on what happens to ordinary people when they assemble and protest for decency.  They are sometimes met by police with guns, Ku Klux Klan thugs, courts, and anti-radical, racist or sexist ideas. Democratic internationalism  underlines the importance within American politics, especially against reform movements and in Presidential elections, of "outsider"-baiting, saying that a movement is stirred up by foreign agitators, that a President or a Presidential candidate is "soft" on external enemies.  This interplay of international and crazed domestic politics (say, building a wall against Mexico, an unarmed, quasi-colony of the United States, to keep out "Arabs") is a large force in American life.

      Now heading off civil rights or unions or anti-Vietnam or anti-Iraq war movements, or rounding up immigrants across the country or the emergence of fascist/apartheid Arizona (it is the new Mississippi of our era, the place of whose elite Phil Ochs once sang “Mississippi find another country to be part of”) sometimes boomerangs even on the elite.  It enables leaders to stir nationalism, suppress reform, maintain inequalities, and  keep power.  But it also enables the party out of power to stigmatize the current leader as the prisoner of external "enemies" and slink back into power at his (or her) expense.  It is the center, the heart-blood of mainstream American politics.

       Thus, in 1960, the Democrat John F. Kennedy labeled Eisenhower and Nixon as creators of a phony “missile gap” and got elected, amusingly, by red-baiting, and, in a sexist vein, taunting as "soft", the red-baiter-in-chief, Nixon. Nixon had won his first Senate race in California by launching anti-radical or anti-communist slurs against Helen Gahagan Douglas. 

       Jonathan Schell recently published a striking article in the Nation below about how Obama’s “necessary” war in Afghanistan cannot be won by the United States and is simply a quagmire in which more American troops are being sunk, more civilians murdered by missiles and troops as supposed “collateral damage.”  Obama took a long time, meditating on the escalation. It was plainly irrational (Al-Qaida is no longer in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan inter alia).  He was greeted by howls from Leslie Gelb, head of the Council on Foreign Relations,  about "not supporting the military" (Gelb had ironically just been self-critical about his own and other "expert" baying to invade Iraq). Obama knew that reactionaries would bait him as "soft" on security; 5 occupations and aggressions are not enough for the Palins and McCains...

     But since people hate those who murder their mothers, fathers, and children, broader enmity to the American empire is created, and as an outlier, terrorists. This can then be used to feed the ever hungry military-industrial-media-think tank “expert”- political complex (the war complex as I call it for short).  This circle is hard to break.  Unjust war, occupation, murder of civilians breeds terrorism, makes Americans more insecure and less free, makes the war complex grow, breeds aggression, occupation, murder of civilians... 

        The “global war on terror” is a meaningless phrase for an indeterminate, aimless “war” featuring unending aggressions, a little like Ajax stealing out at night to slaughter the oxen, or some puffed up Bush or Cheney attempting to fight the wind or the sea...The term itself has now mercifully been abandoned by the Obama administration which attempts not to live by fear-mongering alone. In Obama, we have a non-fool as President.  

        And yet Obama, too, as President, has blood on his hands.  Obama too throws prisoners away (50 of the indefinitely detained and tortured at Guantanamo are too “dangerous” ever to be tried even by a military commission).  Obama, too, orders the murder of an American (Awlaki) outside any war zone and without legal process. See Horton here and Greenwald here

      But Americans are not made more secure by drone missiles which take out mainly innocents or unending wars in distant places or military bases in Kyrgyzstan.  Who among us can explain exactly where Kyrgyzstan is – the base which 50,000 American occupiers will pass through this year on the way to Afghanistan?  The new Presidential appeal for oppressed young people, denied a decent education and opportunity, is: wouldn't you like a job or to get to college in America? Sign up for...Kyrgyzstan.

         Schell  reveals what I call “the emperor’s new clothes” aspect of anti-democratic feedback.  He shows that Lyndon Johnson understood as well as Martin Luther King that what he was doing in Vietnam was futile and counterproductive. He feared being attacked by the crazed right (at the time, Barry Goldwater, who in retrospect, looks like a man of integrity, the fate in American mainstream politics as it becomes more reactionary era by era, the Democrats ever bowing, for instance today to the know-nothing Sarah Palin-Bill Kristol-new “McCain” Right).  

          There are occasional exceptions forced from below. Today when the Democrats are about to lose in 2010, they have heard the revived demonstrations; hundreds of high school students marched to the State Capitol in Denver last week, big May Day marches took place in many cities against open apartheid in Arizona. Following the lead of Major League Baseball and “Los Suns” of Phoenix for the Cinco de Mayo in the NBA – see here, Senators Harry Reid and perhaps Michael Bennett will speak up on this issue.  It is good to know that apolitical sports franchises have more courage and insight than the Democratic Party. But let the Democrats act against fascism.  

         To outflank baiting from the Right, the new immigration bill which Obama is encouraging starts with a horrifying crackdown on immigrants who have been in the country 20 years (for instance, ICE just "rounded up" - this is a Nazi activity, see trucks here  - 400 workers in Los Angeles with deep roots and children who have grown up here).  To prove their "toughness," the Democrats are almost as inhuman as the more overtly authoritarian and irrational party.  Unchecked by protest from below, the so-called "center" in the elite shifts ever to the Right - it is now authoritarian and quasi-fascist.

           Schell offers a profound quote from McGeoge Bundy, LBJ's National Security Advisor,  preparing memoirs with Gordon Goldstein: "For LBJ the domino theory was really a matter of domestic politics." 

          According to the domino theory, if Vietnam "fell" to Communism, it would hit other dominos, the Philippines, Japan and California for example.  Today, it is hard to believe that policy makers once lived in so toxic and panicky an atmosphere as to believe it. But the American elite has some fearful sense of its own fragility.  Fear is a competitive matter for the two parties in which one can out-red-bait, out-race-bait, out-woman-bait - "soft on national security" -  the other.  This is aggravated by electoral competition in parliamentary/Presidential regimes, but might also be invoked by leaders or potential leaders in an authoritarian one.  

          As Shakespeare suggests in the words of the king in Henry IV, one must “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” (get potential leaders who are threats to the Crown involved and perhaps killed in wars).  At that time “leaders” actually fought on occasion, unlike Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld who had "better things to do." 

       So there is little limit to the bipartisan degradation that ensues.  Was the horror of 9/11 – 3,000 innocent people of 80 different nationalities killed (some "illegals" still not identified) – really a reason to make – now bipartisanly, a police state?  A torturer regime (Obama now at least criminally protects water-boarders from investigation and it would be interesting to know what combination of "techniques" is being used in secret in Bagram)? To make many wars? To produce a global depression so that the executives of Goldman Sachs could bet against their own clients and rake off obscene profits?  Is all this – and the likely sequels - “necessary” or is it rather, for America, self-destructive?   

       Obama was elected against and mitigates some of this.  Yet for him,  escalation in Aghantistan is also a quagmire, which very likely he has some sense of. He tried for several weeks to figure out how to get at Al-Qaida in Pakistan since there are "less than a hundred" in Afghanistan.  But he ran a campaign in which “the good war”in Afghanistan would replace the “dumb war” in Iraq.  This is not because the Afghanistan occupation is less dumb or corrupt or losing or criminal (a pointless act of aggression even if the US had killed Bin Laden and gotten out).  It is because no Democrat can be elected without outflanking the Republicans as being a “tough guy.” Hence, Hilary invented being under fire in Bosnia and cast herself as ever-vigilant at 3 AM...Who do you really want to go up - "3 AM to 3 AM" - against John McCain (the shadow man who would perhaps blow the world up to be President)?

        Obama should take heed from LBJ’s experience: LBJ knew Martin Luther King was right (even though he created an atmosphere which contributed to King’s assassination - see here and here).  Obama is smarter and more decent than LBJ, but he is the American President… 

      Today Afghanistan has no “serious” government, the administration and the New York Times say.  Rather Karzai is seriously angry at the American crippling of children, lifting a 4 year old boy out of a hospital bed and carrying him in his arms to point to the sky at the American helicopters who blew off his legs.  See here.  If one wants the image of the American empire to those with eyes, this is it.  Karzai is not “reliable.”  In this respect, he speaks for ordinary Afghanis, despite the fact that he is an American puppet.   He is “corrupt” (can the privatizing American government – sending 7 Blackwater/CACI mercenaries to Iraq for every 3 soldiers in Obama’s escalation, call anyone else corrupt?) and his brother is a drug runner. 

      More deeply, even those who aptly call him corrupt including honest people in the embassy,  nonetheless, represent a military-industrial-media-politician-think tank "expert" empire or war complex, stealing $708 billion a year – Obama’s official military budget, 2 1/2 times the Cold War level, see here – from ordinary people in order to make them more insecure. Imagine a regime which spent, oh, say $200 billion of that on green jobs, publicly supported higher education for all, provide universal health care…This is a regime not so far from what Obama wants, but which he  cannot quite maneuver to, starts toward and falters, an unusual politician floating and maneuvering in the sea of two party-"other" baiting and madness.  

      Imagine further a reasonable regime that withdrew from the two occupations, from Europe and Asia (shuttered most of the military bases)**...See here.

       It is likely that only mass civil disobedience could bring even the first about.  And given the widespread happiness that Obama was elected and illusions about what a President can do, we are still some way from such a movement (perhaps Greek protests are showing us and the rest of Europe some image of the future).

        In Afghanistan, Obama is trying to divide the Taliban, to negotiate where he can.  But the quagmire of domestic politics – the mad howling about how he himself is other, “lacks” a birth certificate, and despite what Obama  is doing – waging 5 unjust wars and occupations (Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq) and possibly heading for Iran – is still “weak” on security.  What LBJ acted upon:  “the domino theory is really a matter of domestic politics,” Obama, unfortunately, knows all too well.

      As Schell strikingly and amusingly puts it, that the Emperor declares a war “necessary” (even in Barack’s careful way, promising an exit) does not mean it is not a quagmire.  America cannot reshape the world to its liking – the mania of the modern era in foreign policy.  Anti-colonial movements have changed the world; there can be no effective colonialism any more.  Yet Barack wants to leave 100,000 soldiers and mercenaries in Iraq even after he has "withdrawn American forces" - a charade which certainly resembles colonialism (Did Britain ever have 100,000 troops in Iraq?).  

         Consider the legacy in naming American imperial expansion of  William Appleman Williams and Andrew Bacevich.***  Or consider great power realism, whose main emphasis (along with Marx and Engels) is that it is dangerous to occupy other places, that it breeds revolt.  Our very interventions, creating Osama against the Soviets (Reagan’s beloved “Mujahadeen"–“freedom fighter” predecessor to the Taliban) or Saddam Hussein (“he may be a bastard but he’s our bastard” as a CIA man once put it, or as Robert Gates once said bemusedly and fearfully,  “he was no agrarian reformer,” shooting the last leader of the Baath Party in the head at an executive meeting.  Gates was comparing him negatively to what Mao was until the US, given McCarthyism and attacks from the Right, decided that it must go to war to fight China in Korea…

        Some consistent academic neo-realists are very critical of such wars (and I almost hesitate to include John Mearsheimer among neo-realists since his account, for example of Afghanistan – see here or of Israel’s self-destructive predatory occupation of the territories - see here - is so sharp).  But neo-realism emerged as an odd philosophy of science translation of a realist cliché: that professional diplomacy must be separated from popular diplomacy (Kennan).  American realism including Morganthau's emerged against a curious image of Woodrow Wilson as an idealist fighting for a League of Nations (it left out Wilson's extraordinary belligerence in Latin America, his overthrowing of the Haitian republic or implanting in Nicaragua a clerk in an American mining company as "President" as well as his love for the Ku Klux Klan). Realism might, as Mearsheimer does today, have criticized these things, but it was too caught up in the American policy elite, best not to notice... 

        Instead, realism was the enemy of ideals about democracy.**** Still neo-realists also treat all regimes as powers; this deflates "crusading" fantasies of the Wilsonian sort in demonizing and punishing Wilhelmine Germany after World War I and giving a cause to German reaction. 

        But this core realist and neo-realist emphasis changed during the Vietnam war when Kennan spoke of “our military-industrial addiction” in the 1984 introduction to American Diplomacy.    As I argue in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, the anti-war movement became the bearer of the “national interest” or a common good during Vietnam (for Morganthau and Niebuhr, and in terms of where the criticisms led, Stanley Hoffmann and Kennan).  In debating with me in Political Theory (1992) and at the American Political Science Association meeting, Steve Krasner (a neo-realist) even acknowledged this point: “I guess the anti-Vietnam war movement represented the national interest.”   This insight is, however, inconsistent with Krasner’s misguided operational definition of the national interest as a bipartisan “state’s interest.”

       Neo-realism however, translates Kennan’s earlier contemptuous defense of diplomacy (which reflects a real, if unwise diplomat’s prejudice against movements from below against outrages) into bad philosophy of science.  The international “level” in which all regimes are merely powers with interests is allegedly sealed off from the domestic level.  Realism and neo-realism can make one critical of the “illusions” of one’s own power, especially prevalent in the biggest one.  What I call the “Emperor’s New Clothes” and add in response to Schell's article and the perils of Obama, the self-destructiveness of “the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”   The bad philosophy of science in neo-realism, for instance, noticing that there are “levels of analysis” in physics but not seeking or striving to find theoretical links, and asserting instead without argument – never the levels shall meet or intersect – is J. David Singer’s.  This error however was generalized in neo-realism by Kenneth Waltz.  

       But My Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? asks the question: if we conceive the world as (neo-)realists do, as one of intense and often criminal power-rivalry, how does that effect democracy at home?  The answer is: devastatingly.  Consider for example, the supposed XYZ affair in the 1790s in which the French Revolution supposedly tried to suborn some American diplomats,  and Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts initially making criticism of the President a capital crime.  This attack (Joe Lieberman, Scott Brown and John McCain, take note!) focused on “illegal” Scottish and Irish editors of newspapers supporting an emerging, pro-Jefferson and Madison second Party in the United States (the Democratic-republicans versus Adams’s Federalists).  

         Adams called Jefferson and Madison "Gallomen," partisans of the French Revolution.  Before there were "reds," there were pro-French Revolution agitators. This ideology has a long, if infamous, pedigree.  Even the Spartacus revolt, according to the Roman slaveholders, was stirred up against the "benevolent" Empire by "outside agitators." Adams' attempt to suppress the party of Jefferson is what I name anti-democratic feedback: a President can use implications of dangerous foreign allegiance to crush democracy, civil rights, decency at home.  

       In Lessons in Disaster drafted initially with McGeorge Bundy as a memoir, Goldstein’s phrase about Johnson -"For LBJ the domino theory was really a matter of domestic politics"***–underlines a further aspect.  Smart leaders like LBJ, Senator Richard Russell and Barack Obama know that they are caught like flies in gelatin in a difficult to avoid conflict with the other party – they will “lose” China, “lose” Vietnam, be “weak” against Russia, be "soft" in foreign policy even waging two occupations and three other aggressions.  Like flies in gelatin or drowning sorcerer's apprentices, they strive and sink...

        But they can escalate or in George Downs and John Rocke’s elegant phrase in Optimal Imperfection, “gamble for resurrection.”  They do so because electoral competition here makes use of the worst forms of anti-radical, racist and sexist ideology.  Those who have such illusions want America to reshape everything in its supposed benevolent image.  That is the neocons, but given the war complex, also Democratic "experts" (Brookings is as bad as the American Enterprise Institute). "Experts" bay for war.

     Even economic collapse does not stop the war complex from hungering for more war.  Despite the miracle of electing Obama (a decent and smart black man who attenuates the darkness of Cheney-Kristol),  decadence has turned into decline.

        “The benevolent hegemon” says William Kristol, who illustrating the sorcerer’s apprentice (anti-democratic feedback), is one of the least “benevolent” figures in American public life.  Having campaigned for aggressing against Iraq on the basis of lies – the edge of current decline and something that should have cancelled any future public influence - he and Liz Cheney launched a recent infamous, anti-radical attack on the “Al-Qaida 7.”  These 7 lawyers in Eric Holder's Justice Department committed the supposed “crime” of defending clients held at Guantanamo.  Their "crime" was  practicing law. Lieberman, Brown and John McCain want to destroy the legal system and make Americans, like the would-be terror bomber in Times Square “enemy combatants,” stripped by order of the President of their citizenship, and thrown away.  Throwing away people on the suspicion of the government without any public process of investigation or trial, spitting on habaes corpus, they want to drag King George III out of his grave and rouge him up. In Plato's metaphor, ravenous dogs who have tasted the flesh of war crimes, they celebrate tyranny.    

     But even so sophisticated and thoughtful a politician as Obama who avoids fear to a considerable extent, orders the CIA murder, without a legal proceeding, of an American citizen, Awlaki,  He escalates in Afghanistan when he knows Al-Qaida is not there – see here, here and here. He does the thing he seeks to avoid.  He is no longer the decent campaigner; he is now the President.  In these policies, Obama, too, is the sorcerer’s apprentice…

      Now John F. Kennedy, by far the most thoughtful modern American leader who avoided nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 (see “The Fog of War” for just how close he and Khruschchev came to nuclear extinction) wanted to deescalate in Vietnam but couldn’t because of red-baiting.  As Schell reports,

      "Even Kennedy, who according to [Gordon] Goldstein showed remarkable independence in refusing the nearly unanimous advice from his advisers to send large numbers of combat troops to Vietnam, expressed his fear of being called a 'communist appeaser.' As he said to his aide Kenny O'Donnell in early 1963, 'If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I'm re-elected.' That re-election, of course, never came."

       John Kenneth Galbraith, my father’s friend and student, and then ambassador to India, kept reporting secretly to Kennedy on Vietnam, and warning him against escalation. Kennedy did not rule merely from the echo chamber (today referred to as epistemological closure by Andrew Sullivan and others) of his advisors.   In this respect, he was different from Bush and perhaps even from Obama who knows but could not escape the danger. American decline is real.  American politics is as tragic as American diplomacy.

The Fifty-Year War


The Nation.

November 11, 2009 

I was about to write that there can be no military solution to the war in Afghanistan, only a political one. But I almost fainted with boredom and had to stop. Who, as President Obama lengthily ponders his decisions regarding the war, wants to repeat a point that's been made 11,000 times before? Is there anyone on earth who doesn't know by now that you can't win a guerrilla war without winning the 'hearts and minds' of the people? The American public has known this since the American defeat in Vietnam. The formerly colonized peoples of the Third World, whose hearts and minds were the ones contested, know it. American officialdom knows it. (In a recent New Yorker profile by George Packer of Richard Holbrooke, Obama's envoy to the so-called Af-Pak region, Leslie Gelb, who worked in the Pentagon in the 1960s, recalled, 'Changing hearts and minds--all the smart young men thought that.') Today, even the general in charge in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, now asking for 40,000 or more troops, knows it. He can read all about it in the new Army counterinsurgency manual produced by his boss, Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus. There he can learn that 'political factors have primacy in COIN [counterinsurgency]' and that 'arguably, the decisive battle is for the people's minds.'

But if one has repeated this point anyway (as I have, by a backdoor route), then one must go on to make the rather newer point that there is no political solution that serves the foreign invader either. The problem is structural and fundamental. Like the imperial powers of the past, the United States wants to impose its will on other countries. Yet it is different from those previous powers in at least one respect: it does not aim to rule the countries it invades indefinitely. Conscious that the American public will not support war without end, it means to leave one day. Therefore the art of victory has to be to try to set up a government that can both survive US withdrawal and serve US interests. The circle to be squared is getting the people of a whole country to want what Washington wants. The trouble is that, left to their own devices, other peoples are likely to want what they want, not what we want.

One problem flowing from this dilemma is that the more the United States does to set up such a government, the more the "Afghans themselves" (or the Vietnamese themselves or the Iraqis themselves or the whoevers themselves) are tainted by the association. If the paradox of military engagement in such a conflict is that the more you fight the more you lose, then the paradox of political engagement is that the more you rule the weaker the native component of the government becomes, and the more likely it is to collapse when you leave, as the South Vietnamese government did in 1975. That is scarcely a new point, either. For instance, as far back as 1964, Senator Richard Russell said in a phone conversation with President Lyndon Johnson, "It appears that our position is deteriorating, and it looks like the more we try to do for them, the less they're willing to do for themselves." (Holbrooke reprised the point to Packer when he commented on the Afghan government, "The more help they need, the more dependent they get.... In Vietnam, that's exactly what happened.")

The problem of the missing government is no detail of policy; it is fatal to the whole enterprise. And the absence is even more acute in Afghanistan today than it was in Vietnam. Johnson's defense secretary, Robert McNamara, pointed out in 1965 that the government of South Vietnam was a "non-government." And the same year Under Secretary of State George Ball, an in-house dissenter, wrote, "The 'government' in Saigon is a travesty. In a very real sense, South Vietnam is a country with an army and no government." The difference in Afghanistan in 2009? No army, either. (That's why one difficulty that plagued Vietnam, repeated coups d'état, is one problem the United States does not have in Afghanistan.) After touring the Garmsir District in Afghanistan recently, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins wrote, "In Garmsir, there is nothing remotely resembling a modern state that could take over if America and its NATO allies left." In January a Defense Department report stated, "building a fully competent and independent Afghan government will be a lengthy process that will last, at a minimum, decades." Yet without such a government, US policy in Afghanistan is not merely destined to fail; it is incoherent. In a sense, it is not a policy at all. There is a lot in Afghanistan that is different from Vietnam, but this much is the same or worse.

Why, when so much was learned at such cost in Vietnam, is it necessary to learn it all again, through additional bitter and futile experience? The story of the deliberations in the mid-'60s leading to the decision to fight in strength in Vietnam can help us to understand. Anyone who lived through that period and examines the record that has been made available since then has to be astonished by how much the policy-makers knew and understood about the reality of the situation even as they made their ruinous decisions. In 1965 and 1966, on the eve of the great public protests of 1967 and 1968, antiwar commentators such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, I.F. Stone, Mary McCarthy and Walter Lippmann defied the conventional wisdom emanating from the government. They articulated the realities reiterated above, as well as others. It took acuity and intellectual courage to do so. It seemed at the time that they were telling officialdom, which denied all this in public, things it did not know. And yet as we can see now, little of it was a surprise to the policy-makers. In their private deliberations, they acknowledged these things. Here, for example, is Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy, one of the architects of the policy, in a memo from October 1964 listing the problems facing the United States:

A bad colonial heritage of long standing, totally inadequate preparation for self-government by the colonial power, a colonialist war fought in half-baked fashion and lost, a nationalist movement taken over by Communism ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent--these are the facts that dog us today.

Kai Bird, from whose book The Color of Truth this passage is quoted, comments, "In this one long-winded sentence Bundy managed to touch just about all the points I.F. Stone, Bernard Fall or other early critics of the war would make within a year."

Bundy's brother McGeorge, who was national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was scarcely more hopeful. A believer in the doctrine of credibility, which held that a defeat anywhere in the world for American power would be a devastating and unacceptable defeat for it everywhere, he conceded that the US effort in Vietnam might fail but perversely argued that even an unsuccessful war would "damp down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done," for "this charge will be important in many countries, including our own." Thus to fight and fail was better for credibility--and for winning elections--than not to fight at all. Also available, in June 1964, was a definitive memo by intelligence analyst Sherman Kent debunking the principal rationale for the war, the domino theory (a close cousin of the doctrine of credibility), which held that if South Vietnam fell under the control of the North, noncommunist countries throughout Asia and even elsewhere would fall to communism.

Especially striking is the state of mind of Lyndon Johnson, whose secret belief, so sharply at variance with his public assurances, was that the cause was all but hopeless. In the taped conversations with Senator Russell in May 1964, a year before Johnson embarked on his buildup of combat troops, Russell describes the war as "the damn worst mess I ever saw," and Johnson murmurs agreement. Russell tells the president that if it were up to him he would "get out" rather than expand the war. Johnson asks Russell, "How important is it to us?" Russell answers, "It isn't important a damn bit," and Johnson gloomily says of sending in combat troops, "I just haven't got the nerve to do it, and I don't see any other way out of it." These nearly despairing comments are not those of a man filled with a false optimism about the course he is about to embark on.

We are accustomed to thinking that hard experience in Vietnam taught certain lessons that then, for a while, became cautionary principles. But this record reveals that most of those lessons were known--though not publicly admitted--before the big Vietnam escalation. The difference is important. If the disaster was launched in full awareness of the "lessons," then we shouldn't expect that relearning those lessons will be potent in stopping a similar disaster now. If they didn't prevent the disaster the first time, why should they the second or third time? Some other lessons seem to be needed. Why, we therefore need to ask, did Johnson and his advisers steer the country into a war that even to them was looking more and more like a lost cause, or at best a desperate gamble?

In Bird's book and in a more recent one--Lessons in Disaster by Gordon Goldstein, who helped McGeorge Bundy to prepare a book reconsidering the war--another factor moves into the foreground. Bundy's death prevented completion of that book, but Goldstein makes use of Bundy's notes in his own book. Seeking to understand the origins of the war, Bundy was impressed with the salience of domestic politics. In 1949 the Communist Party had come to power in China, and ever since, Republicans and other right-wingers had been accusing Democrats of "losing" China. The belief that the United States could have prevented the communist victory was a fantasy; yet the charge became one of the principal themes of Senator Joe McCarthy's attacks on Democrats, which sent currents of fear far beyond the government and into society at large, intimidating and paralyzing a generation. The dread of being accused of lacking patriotic toughness--and above all of being accused of losing a military venture--cast a long shadow. Even Kennedy, who according to Goldstein showed remarkable independence in refusing the nearly unanimous advice from his advisers to send large numbers of combat troops to Vietnam, expressed his fear of being called a "communist appeaser." As he said to his aide Kenny O'Donnell in early 1963, "If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I'm re-elected." That re-election, of course, never came.

Johnson was more deeply frightened by the right. Urged by Senator Mike Mansfield to withdraw from Vietnam, he answered that he didn't want another "China in Vietnam." Bundy fueled Johnson's fears. In a 1964 memo he wrote that "the political damage to Truman and Acheson from the fall of China arose because most Americans came to believe that we could and should have done more than we did to prevent it. This is exactly what would happen now if we should seem to be the first to quit in Saigon." In another memo, Bundy outlined a moderated version of the domino theory and went on to argue that neutrality would be viewed by "all anti-communist Vietnamese" as a "betrayal," thus angering a domestic constituency powerful enough "to lose us an election."

Did Bundy and Johnson's other advisers push the country into a disastrous war in order to win an election--or, to be more exact, to avoid losing one? Motivations are never easy to sort out. On the one hand, Johnson, Bundy and the others surely gave sincere credence to the domino/credibility theory, just as Obama probably believes that the war in Afghanistan is "necessary," in his words, "for the defense of our people." (Unfortunately, impossible missions do not become possible because they have been dubbed necessary; on the contrary, they become quagmires.) On the other hand, that theory also meshed with suspicious ease with the perceived domestic political need, always on the president's mind, to appear tough to the domestic audience--to do everything he could to avoid appearing "less of a hawk than your more respectable opponents," in Bundy's retrospective words. After thinking the matter over for thirty years, Bundy would declare the domestic considerations uppermost. In his words describing Johnson's frame of mind at the time, "LBJ is not deeply concerned about who governs Laos, or who governs South Vietnam--he's deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ball game of the Cold War. The great Cold War championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don't lose. Now that's too simple, but it's where he is. He's living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions."

Former Defense Secretary McNamara agreed. Johnson, he said in an interview with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post in 2007, "didn't want to listen" to McNamara's growing doubts about the war. Why? Domestic politics: he was "more afraid of the right than the left. And he was afraid that if he did anything to in any way appear to appease the North Vietnamese, he would be severely criticized by the right wing of American politics. Therefore he didn't do it." Johnson later confided the same. To his biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin he said, "I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the communists took over in China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy. And I knew that all these problems, taken together, were chickenshit compared to what might happen if we lost Vietnam." Or, as Bundy put it to Goldstein in words that could serve as an epitaph for the era, "For LBJ the domino theory was really a matter of domestic politics."

Are these events too distant from the present to be relevant to Obama's deliberations regarding Afghanistan? On the contrary, what is uncanny about the current debate is precisely the degree to which it displays continuity with the Vietnam debate. The Obama administration knows it. A few months before he became special envoy, Holbrooke, who was an official in Vietnam in the mid-'60s, favorably reviewed the Goldstein book in the Times, praising it for offering "insight into how Bundy, a man of surpassing skill and reputation, could have advised two presidents so badly." We can imagine that Holbrooke would not like this to be said of him a few decades from now. Peter Spiegel and Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal have revealed that the Goldstein book has become required reading at the White House. Lessons of Vietnam are flowing through other channels as well. Petraeus's counterinsurgency manual, with all its talk of winning hearts and minds, is pure Vietnam. To most Americans, Vietnam taught one big lesson: "Don't do it again!" To today's military, Vietnam has taught a host of little lessons, adding up to "Do it better!" The military has in effect militarized the arguments of the peace movement of the 1960s. Are the hearts and minds of the local people arrayed against the United States? Then be nice to them. (In a Washington Post column supporting a troop increase in Afghanistan, David Ignatius cited the fact that US troops are issued petty cash to buy Afghans soda and other goodies.) Are civilian casualties discrediting the American effort? Cut them to a minimum, as General McChrystal is seeking to do (with mixed success). Is corruption in the client government rampant? "Pressure" it to be honest.

Along the political track, the lessons of the past have also been transmitted down to the present. The experience of Senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, was decisive. He proposed to end the war, which by then was unpopular with the public, yet lost the election in a landslide. The defeat seemed to confirm the fears that had haunted Johnson: those who oppose or lose wars lose elections. That lesson instilled in the Democratic Party a bone-deep fear of "McGovernism," which has continued to this day.

And so, hanging over the scene, still, are the political pressures that go back almost fifty years, to Vietnam, or even sixty years, to the myth that the United States lost China. There is an unmistakable continuity that runs from McCarthy's attacks on Truman and his administration for "appeasement" and even "treason" clear down to Dick Cheney's and Karl Rove's and Glenn Beck's refrains assailing Obama for opposing the Iraq War, not to speak of Sarah Palin's charge during the election that he had been "palling around with terrorists." (The Republicans even call Obama a "socialist," as if the cold war had never ended.) We have no internal records of the administration's decision-making, nor of course any thirty-or-forty-years-later rethinking and bean-spilling, so we cannot know how much domestic factors weigh in the deliberations. It might be hard to tell even if we did possess these. Yet it is no secret that Obama's support for the war in Afghanistan served as protection against charges of weakness over his policy of withdrawing from Iraq. (We might go as far as to say that in having a second war to support while opposing the war in Iraq, Obama had a political opportunity never available to Johnson, all of whose eggs were in the Vietnam basket.) In the words of foreign policy old hand Morton Abramowitz to Packer, " show he was tough, made Afghanistan his signature issue because he wanted to get out of Iraq."

In short, in strictly political terms, the Vietnam dilemma has been handed down to Obama virtually intact. Now as then, the issue politically is whether the United States is able to fail in a war without coming unhinged. Does the American body politic have a reverse gear? Does it know how to cut losses? Is it capable of learning from experience? Or must it plunge unchecked over every cliff it approaches? And at the heart of these questions is another: must liberals and moderates always bow down before the crazy right when it comes to war and peace? Must presidents behave like Johnson, of whom his attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, later said, "It would not have made any difference what anybody advised him--he would have done what he did [in Vietnam].... It was fear of the right wing." What is the source of this raw power, this right-wing veto over presidents, Congresses and public opinion? The person who can answer these questions will have discovered one of the keys to a half-century of American history--and the forces that, even now, bear down on Obama as he considers what to do in Afghanistan.

Recently Obama paid a night visit to Dover Air Force Base to view the homecoming of the remains of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The event, as these returns always are, was minutely choreographed, every step and gesture planned in advance, as if molded and slowed by the pressure of death. Obama saluted in slow motion, in unison with four uniformed soldiers, then walked in step with them past the van that had just received the remains from a cargo plane that had brought them home. No one spoke. On the one hand, it seemed that Obama might have been absorbed more deeply into the military, to have been caught in its somber spell. On the other hand, his presence seemed a silent public vow, as he makes his decisions, to keep his mind fixed on matters of life and death, not on the next election. His actions in the weeks and years ahead will tell which it was.

*LBJ’s National Security advisor, McGeorge Bundy was writing his memoirs with Gordon Goldstein when he died.  Goldstein has used the notes for his own book, aptly titled  Lessons of Disaster.  Iraq is a worse repetition of that disaster…

**Perhaps this was projection.  Reagan was once an officer of the Screen Actors Guild when it was led by “commies” before he became a fink for the FBI. Reagan then became the voice of General Electric in the “GE television theater of the air,” an audition for his later political rise.

***To remedy American decline (that it is no longer a manufacturing economy, that it has no more troops to send to its two occupations - is "overstretched" in a neo-realist idiom - that it faces more economic collapse and overtaking by China perhaps as early as 2020 and so forth), Christopher Layne rightly suggested yesterday, in a talk at the Korbel School, retrenchment of this kind.  As an internal critique of neo-realisms, I pointed out that the internal, anti-democratic effects of such imperial policies are frightening.  In response to a question from me along these lines, Kenneth Waltz once insisted that "a theory can only cover a limited number of things" - even though he and I turned out to agree about the causes and dangers of Truman-McCarthyism (a theory that insists a priori that the international sphere and domestic regimes are completely separate matters - try the policies of the current Iraqi regime and see if one can make that separation work - does rather badly in protesting to internal questions and further thoughts that its scope is "limited"). 

       Layne acknowledged my point, largely agreed with me about the internal consequences. The logic of (neo-)realism is to think about threats to decency at home. See also here

***Other Williams students have made fine contributions to thinking about an era which endangers American democracy, and make sometimes striking suggestions about how to head off this course.

****The modern identifier of the security dilemma (roughly, it takes only one bad apple, and all the other peace-oriented powers would have to prepare for war), John Herz also suggested in the late 1960s that the threats of nuclear war and to the environment - even before the recognition of global warming - rendered previous realisms, downplaying the need for genuine (moral) international cooperation, ineffectual.



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