Tag Archives: Vietnam

Democracy, Development, and Reputation: Vietnam and Turkey

17 Dec

 

 

More than 25 years ago I took part in a major conference in Kuala Lumpur affirming the importance of human rights. At the end of the second day, the convener of the conference, Chandra Muzaffar, a leading advocate of human rights and democracy in Malaysia, arranged for a few of the speakers to meet with the controversial leader of the country, Prime Minister, Mahathir. I was the only Westerner among the 4 or 5 of us given this opportunity. As soon as we entered the room Mahathir looked straight at me while posing a rhetorical question: “Why do Western human rights NGOs and experts look only at our performance with respect to civil and political rights when our natural preoccupation is the promotion of economic and social rights?” Of course, his assertion was meant to challenge the complacent Orientalizing conventional wisdom, reducing the practice of human rights to whether or not a government is doing well or poorly on such issues as free elections and freedom of expression. No one denies the relevance and core vitality of rights, but not more so than whether the bottom strata of the citizenry, as measured by standard of living, can meet their basic material needs. This outlook remains dominant in the West, coloring condescending comments on non-Western human rights failures,, and persisting despite the West’s own downward spiral into the dark domains of illiberalism.

 

I was reminded of this meeting while in Vietnam for two weeks recently. Several Vietnamese intellectuals as well as the rather large Western expat community contended that the government of Vietnam had become repressive in the period since its extraordinarily victory in the Vietnam War. It was accused of harshly punishing critics and dissenters as if more scared of domestic protest than they had been of American B-52 carpet bombing. Such critics were right, of course, to lament this fall from grace on the part of Vietnam’s leaders, who also lacked the charisma and inspirational leadership of their wartime predecessors. At the same time it was unfortunate to fall into the Western trap of focusing on the failures of glasnost, while overlooking the achievements of perestroika, that is, judging political performance as the ACLU might rather than by reference to the overall wellbeing of the Vietnamese people.

 

What I am trying to draw attention to is the remarkable story of Vietnamese economic and social achievements, which center on drastically reducing extreme poverty and stimulating agricultural growth to such a level that Vietnam, previously frequently at the edge of massive famine, had become the third leading rice exporter in the world (after the U.S. and Thailand). In effect, the government of Vietnam, while failing to live up to expectations when it comes to such liberal ideals as transparency, participation, and accountability of their citizenry, was nevertheless successfully building a needs based economy in which there were relatively few below the poverty line and where almost everyone had their health, education, and housing needs met by the state. Not only was this an impressive profile of current Vietnamese society, but it represented a trajectory of steadily improving achievement. Since the 1990s, Vietnamese poverty rate had fallen from about 50% to 7% in 2015 in a period during which roughly 1/3 of the population overcame conditions of food insecurity, according to the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food.

 

These Vietnamese national accomplishments are the normative realities obscured or ignored by the regressive kinds of thinking that validates and invalidates performance in leading capitalist societies of the West—selective quantitative indicators of economic growth and stock market performance. Let us remember that rich countries in the West are at ease living with large pockets of extreme poverty in their own affluent societies as measured by homelessness and extreme poverty, including the absence of health care, educational opportunity, and even food and housing necessities. Shocking figures of inequality are hardly ever taken into serious account. For example, the fact that the three richest Americans—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet—possess wealth that exceeds the earnings of the entire American working class should occasion revolutionary incitement, but actually it is put to one side as a neutral outcome of moving beyond industrial capitalism.

 

The same one-sidedness is present in the discussion of another of my favorite countries in the world: Turkey—where I have spent several months each year for the last twenty. Of course, the dynamics are very adifferent within each national setting. The discourse in Turkey resembles that of Vietnam far more than that of the United States. The critical focus of anti-government forces has been the democratic failings of AKP since it assumed power in 2002; this criticism has sharpened since a drift toward more authoritarian rule in 2011, the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations, and spiked sharply, especially in international circles, after the failed FETO coup of 2016 and the often crude and often cruelly implemented overreactions of the Erdogan government to threats that it was entitled to perceive as dangerous. The purge in universities and media of those whose views and activities were deemed unacceptable by the Turkish government, as well as the moves against specific journalists and politicians, especially those associated with supporting the struggle of the Kurdish people, are deeply troubling developments, should worry the society as a whole, and do warrant international criticism.

 

But these negative developments should not be presented as the whole story about Turkey and the AKP/Erdogan leadership. Part of the Turkish problem of perception and accuracy is a tendency of debate toward polarizations of good and evil, secular and religious, and even truth and falsity. This has led negative criticism of Turkish governmental behavior to be misleadingly expressed in the form of unbalanced criticism. In the early phase of AKP governance of the country the standard complaints of an unrelenting opposition were directed at Erdogan as dictatorial and leading the country away from Ataturk secular legacy and toward a religious polity similar to that in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Of course, this line of attack was totally wrong. The early policy priority of the AKP consisted of satisfying European Union criteria for membership, which was actually a major step in the Ataturk direction of Europeanizing the country as the best path to economic modernization. During these early AKP years, the government in Ankara made a parallel effort to get the military out of politics and back in their barracks. Fairly considered, the first decade of AKP leadership dating from say 2002 was notable for achieving fundamental democratizing reforms that many knowledgeable observers of the country could never happen in Turkey. For example, Eric Rouleau, the eminent French journalist of Middle Eastern politics and later French ambassador to Turkey believed that the Turkish military would never give up its tutelage role that was not only well entrenched in the government bureaucracy, but also considered part of the hallowed legacy of Ataturk, as to be unchallengeable. Erdogan’s leadership achieved the impossible. Additionally in this period Turkey managed to break free of its Cold War straight jacket as a NATO pawn pursuing an independent and sensibly assertive foreign policy throughout the Middle East and beyond. The country also achieved a series of successes in trade and investment that led Turkey to be considered one of the most promising of emerging economies.

 

As things got worse from the perspective of political and civil rights, it was difficult for critics to express accurately these disappointments and criticism because the earlier negative comments of the opposition had earlier been so exaggerated. Some of the harshest critics, claiming with varying degrees of accuracy that they had applauded ed what the Erdogan leadership achieved in its early years, but in recent years the management of the Turkish state had fallen from grace. Recent exaggerations claim ‘there are no longer any newspapers in Turkey worth reading’ and the like. I would argue that there has been some decline in the range of media coverage and some lessening of criticism, yet several English language newspapers, including Sabah and Daily Hurryiet remain well worth reading, have useful critical commentaries on government policies and are informative about the major issues of domestic and international policy facing the country.

 

If international assessments were more balanced and less polarized, the AKP leadership would receive considerable credit in domestic and foreign policy from better educated and informed observers of the political scene in Turkey. Criticisms of Turkey’s failed Syrian policies would be set off against the success of Ankara’s African diplomacy, the vitality of its economy despite the obstacles created by the anti-Turkish international campaign, the robustness of its foreign assistance program (second only to that of the U.S., and highest in per capita terms), the care it has accorded over 3 million Syrian (and some Iraqi) refugees, the global attention it has brought to the plight of the Rohingya, and its various regional efforts at conflict resolution (including Cyprus; Israel/Syria; Iran’s nuclear program; Balkan and Caucuses internal relations within their respective regions). Turkey, unlike either Saudi Arabia or Iran, has mostly promoted a politics of reconciliation in the region, and unlike Egypt has done a great deal to help raise the standard of living of its most disadvantaged citizenry. The Turkish government has made Istanbul a global city in many respects, a center for inter-civilizational dialogue and alliance, and a sponsor of conferences dedicated to a more peaceful, prosperous, and humane global future. The TRT World Forum a couple of months ago in Istanbul featured presentations at the opening by the Turkish Prime Minister and at the closing by Erdogan, and in between panels on a variety of world order issues with a fairly wide range of speakers (including myself).

 

My most basic criticism of the anti-government discourse in and about Turkey is along the lines of my sense of what is right in Vietnam. For the bottom 50% or so of Turks the policies of the government have enhanced greatly their material life circumstances when it comes to health, security, housing, public transportation, as well as improved participatory rights of those outside the Western urban sectors. Talking with ‘ordinary’ Turkish workers during this period, such as private car drivers, apartment managers, barbers, fruit sellers, suggest that since the AKP has governed, their lives and that of their families has steadily improved, especially with respect to basic material needs, daily life, and enjoyment of what a modern society has to offer. Often ‘secularists’ deride these AKP supporters, and Erdogan enthusiasts, as uneducated and stupid. Their response when asked why they vote Erdogan adopts the opposite line: ‘Are we stupid?’ Many of these persons actually dislike the Islamic edge of the government identity or think the Syrian policies were a huge mistake, but for what is important for them, the AKP is far superior to alternatives. In effect, there’s nothing the matter with Anatolia, unlike Kansas!

 

It is not at all like the Trump base in America where the policies adopt by the elected leaders are in general materially harmful to much of this angry and alienated American underclass, and what they get from Trump are signals encouraging racism, xenophobia, and nativist patriotism, which seem to generate strong feelings of cultural satisfaction, especially when he punctures political balloons, many of which in any event were filled                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        with liberal hot air as suggested by the many glaring human rights failures during the long period of secular hegemony.

 

In the end we would all like to live in humane societies but in the interim it would diminish polarization and enhance understanding to balance strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced manner, especially with respect to class interests. The weakening of free expression, especially by punishing dissent and

treating criticism as subversion, has horrible effects for the intellectual and creative life that affects especially the sense of wellbeing of the upper echelons of society, but also weakens the innovativeness of those working in the private sector. The material neglect of the underclass causes fundamental deprivations in the daily life of the most economically marginalized portions of societies, hitting minorities especially hard. What I am objecting to is the invisibility of the suffering of the very poor (as in America) and the refusals to acknowledge the public achievement of their improved circumstances (as in Turkey or Vietnam).

 

My argument is not meant to be a reworking of the Huntington argument in the 1970s that developmental priorities tend to make authoritarian rule a palatable prelude to democratically oriented modes of governance. I am not suggesting that it makes sense to defer concerns with democratic practices and human rights, but that normative backsliding should not be the occasion for overlooking how well or badly a government behaves in other spheres of activity. In a sense, this is a search for balance and moderation, and a plea against using ideological brickbats to tear down legitimate governing processes, which undoubtedly need reforms, but do not deserve to be blacklisted except in the most extreme cases, and this is not happening. For instance, the human rights record of Turkey and Vietnam is the target of far more insistent criticism and attack than is the far worse records of Saudi Arabia or Sisi’s Egypt. Again, it is not that being worse elsewhere does not excuse being bad, but it does raise questions about motivation and geopolitical motivation. Vietnam is in a more fortunate position that Turkey because it is valued as part of the U.S. effort to contain Chinese influence, while Turkey is increasingly seen as a thorn in the side of such American allies in the region as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In effect, bashing countries for their poor human rights records needs to be geopolitically decoded if it is to be taken seriously.    

 

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Parallel Universes: Vietnam and Palestine

26 Nov

 

 

Not surprisingly, my sixth visit to Vietnam stirred many memories, among them, a recognition of the parallels between the Vietnamese and Palestinian experiences, two peoples who have meant so much to me over the course of my adult lifetime. I visited Hanoi in 1968 in the midst of the American war that was devastating the country and its population, causing more than three million deaths and deliberately injuring the environment and its human surrounding by using vast quantities of Agent Orange, containing the highly toxic chemical Dioxin. Agent Orange was being used to defoliate large areas of the countryside in the South as a tactic against revolutionary Vietnamese forces who were taking advantage of the wooded countryside to mount their attacks. The legacy of Agent Orange continues grimly to remind people of the war, giving rise to anguished societal suspicions of current contamination that seems confirmed by the continuing occurrence of birth deformities in certain provinces that far exceed normal statistical expectations. The Vietnamese mention this ongoing tragedy in muted tones as the government worries that it might hurt Vietnamese plans to increase their exports of agricultural products. It is part of the present atmosphere in which the war/peace preoccupations that I encountered when I visited Vietnam during the war have now been replaced by according the highest policy priority to economic growth and poverty reduction.

 

The Vietnam/Palestine parallel should not be understood as a claim of similarity. The two experiences are each highly distinctive, reflecting many particular features of the cultural, historical economic, and political experience of each country, as well as the specificities of relations to their regional neighborhood and global setting. At the same time these two peoples do share defining experiences of prolonged victimization intertwined with bitter resistance struggles because their desired national narrative collided with the geopolitical ambitions and commitments of the United States. In Vietnam the United States assumed responsibility for a colonial war already lost once by France in 1954, and pursued it with almost unrestrained fury for more than a decade before renouncing the quest in 1975, and slinking home in thinly disguised defeat. The supposed stakes of the conflict for the United States in Vietnam were mainly measured and justified in the ideological currency of the Cold War, holding the line in Asia against Communism after ‘the loss of China.’ According to the principal justification for the war, Vietnam was an Asian domino, which if it fell to national liberation forces, would lead to a rapid spread of Communism to Vietnam’s neighbors, which was then interpreted in Washington to mean the expansion of the Chinese sphere of influence.

 

Of course, the ideological and geopolitical motivations were packaged, as usual, with sleazy propaganda about the defense of freedom and the protection of South Vietnam against aggression from the North. This imposed division of Vietnam was itself a figment of the last stage of the Western colonial imaginary that tried to make the world believe that borders of geopolitical convenience took precedence over the the fundamental right of self-determination, which reflected the organic unities of history, tradition, and national identity. Eventually, as in most other anti-colonial struggles the national movement eventually prevailed during the period after 1945, enjoying in Vietnam the benefits of inspired political, military, and ideological leadership in the persons of Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap, and Le Duan, and a historical tradition of many centuries of success in defending national territory against foreign invaders, especially the Chinese. What is more, not only were the Vietnamese strengthened by this historical tale of victory. They were equally proud and sustained by an extraordinary record of post-conflict reconciliation with prior enemies that many other governments and societies could do well to heed. Political leaders in Hanoi enjoyed telling foreign visitors during the war how the Vietnamese prepared a farewell banquet for their Chinese intruders once they opted for peace, and decided to return home with the obvious implication that if the Americans stopped the war, friendship could follow, not recrimination and bitterness.

 

Never did I understand better the Communist slogan that our enemy is the government not the people than when I came to Vietnam in 1968 as an American peace activist. What I felt with a depth that could not be staged was the genuineness of these sentiments, then strongly associated with the teachings and beliefs of Ho Chi Minh. This attitude, so different than what I had experience as a child growing up during World War II, was epitomized by Ho’s appreciation of the American Declaration of Independence that Vietnamese school children were made to read and think about about throughout a war in which American planes were daily dumping tons of explosives on the villages and towns of an almost defenseless people. I remember driving in the beautiful Vietnamese countryside during the visit and being told by a government official that the driver’s entire family had been recently killed by a bombing strike, but that if an American plane were to attack us now he would risk his life, if necessary, to save yours. I felt moved at the time because it seemed so sincere, and consistent with all that I felt during my two weeks in the country at a time of its great national hardship, including shortages of food and medicine. The Vietnamese even in these dire circumstances were ready to give so much more than I was capable of giving!

 

My experience with the people of Palestine, whether living under occupation, as a minority in Israel, or in refugee camps, or in a global diaspora has many equivalent moving moments, maybe even more that were accompanied by tears either of grief or laughter. Both peoples exhibit resilience of will, virtue, love, and a lively comedic sense of reality that exceeds what seems imaginable. Beyond this, in the case of the Palestinian people their struggle continues to be maintained against seemingly overwhelming odds if the calculus of ‘political realism’ is to be trusted, which never seems to lose credibility no matter how often it errs. There are crucial differences between the principal adversary facing the Vietnamese and the Palestinians. It is this subjectivity of the oppressive forces that is not widely enough appreciated. Both the French and Americans, although investing heavily in their respective wars, always had a Plan B, a metropole to which they could retreat from Vietnam if the cost of the overseas campaign became too high.

 

For the Israelis, although many Jews as individuals do hold a second passport, there is no Plan B, no homeland other than that established by the Zionist settler colonial undertaking from its inception toward the end of the 19th century. These Zionist high stakes help explain the sense of justification with regard to the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian people. What the Israelis may, however, be forced to consider in the future, if adverse pressures from the combination of Palestinian national resistance and global solidarity initiatives becomes threatening enough to make attractive to Israelis the choice of Plan C, that is, ‘a just peace’ based on the equality of the two peoples.

 

Such a drastic shift of Israeli objectives would necessitate both rolling back the idea and mechanisms of an exclusionary Jewish state, that is, abandoning the biblical vision of Israeli Jews occupying the whole of ‘the promised land’ of Palestine and then dismantling the apartheid structures to sustain control over the Palestinian people as a whole. At this point a just peace seems such an unlikely scenario as to invite responses of ‘utopian’ or ‘impossible’ to any suggested course along these lines. Yet history has its ways of undermining oppressors, making the impossible happen. Israelis would do well to ponder their future before supposing that they can subjugate the Palestinian people indefinitely. These reflections should include the awareness that the Palestinians, like Israeli Jews as a collectivity also have no Plan B (and few second passports!). The Israeli self-serving contention that since Palestinians are ‘Arabs’ they could and should give up their quest for a sovereign Palestine, and be content with lives in the Arab world. Palestinians, as might be expected, connect their aspirations with their connections to Palestine, and would be no more content or secure if moving to Arab countries than Israeli Jews would be to live in a Western country, in fact, less so.

 

Most Palestinian leaders have long seemed ready to negotiate their versions of a Plan C, which contains the proviso that it must give concrete meaning to the affirmation of an ‘equality of rights.’ True, Hamas might seem reluctant to endorse a full fledged Plan C, at least at the outset, but their leaders too during the past decade have been seeking an escape from the treadmill of perpetual violence, and if Israeli leaders showed comparable good faith, a long term accommodation would seem attainable, beneficial to both peoples, and allowing both sides to feel comfortable with distinct interpretations of what was agreed upon, a zone of ambiguity that lawyers are very good about delineating so that differences are neutralized rather than resolved. More specifically, Hamas would not be made to legitimize Israel in the process of normalizing relations, and accepting the fact of its existence as a country.

 

During the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson once referred to Vietnam as a tenth-rate Asian power, making it seem as if a miracle would be required for the Vietnamese to achieve victory. Many military historians are still at a loss in their attempt to offer an understanding of the outcome of the conflict, given the economic and military disparities between the adversaries. The Vietnam War, especially after the illusions of an American victory were destroyed by the Tet Offensive in 1968, became too politically costly in blood and treasure to sustain, although think tank hawks never let go of their insistence that ‘defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory’ or alternatively, the insidious suggestion that ‘the war was lost in American living rooms’ (that is, by TV coverage, especially of dead Americans returning home in body bags and coffins). Such explanations amount to Orientalist denials of Vietnamese agency, implying the impossibility that such backward military technology could prevail when matched against the unlimited quantities of hyper-modern equipment available to United States armed forces.

 

For several years, extreme supporters of Israel have been urging the world to move on by accepting the reality that Israel has won, the Palestinians have lost, and regardless of feeling about the merits of the Palestinian struggle it has become one more lost cause. Daniel Pipes, long a Zionist zealot, has formalized this ‘game over’ diplomacy by using an NGO under his influence, the Middle East Forum to promote ‘a victory caucus’ in both the United States and Israel with the participation of members of the U.S. Congress and Israeli Knesset. There is something discordant about such triumphalist posturing. It doesn’t fit comfortably with the furious efforts of Israeli lobbies around the world to discredit the BDS campaign as ‘the new anti-Semitism’ or with the increasing momentum of the Palestinian global solidarity movement that has increasingly troubled Israeli think tanks, and given rise to heavily financed campaigns to punish anti-Israeli activists throughout the world. Given these realities, it seems to me that the relevant comparison seems South Africa’s about face, and not Vietnam’s victory. Apartheid South Africa also appeared to the world securely entrenched until its shocking moment of self-engineered collapse in the early 1990s at a time when even dreamers did not envision a peaceful transition to a post-apartheid reality.

 

Without counting on dreams and dreaming, we who care about a just future for both peoples need to realize it will depend on work, sacrifice, and above all, struggle. Dreams don’t become the new reality without the dedication of a people brave and creative, and helped by the inspirational effects on friends and supporters. This blessing of empowering and charismatic resilience is the core identity of the Vietnamese and the Palestinian people, their point of most profound convergence.

 

Memoir Sketch: Championing Lost Causes

27 Nov

 

 

By chance I was reading César Vallejo’s poem, “Black Stone on a White Stone,” in a translation by Geoffrey Brock, and was struck by the opening stanza:

                  I’ll die in Paris in the pouring rain

                  a day I have a memory of already.

                  I’ll die in Paris—I won’t try to run—

                  a Thursday perhaps, in Autumn, like today.

Without being literal, I was reminded that I could appraise my death while alive, and not leave a final reckoning to some solemn memorial event in which speakers are challenged to find humorous anecdotes to lighten the occasion, otherwise uttering honorific platitudes quite unrelated to the experiential core of my being.

 

I had been thinking quite a bit recently about ‘lost causes.’ Recently I gave a lecture at Columbia University on this theme, inspired by Edward Said’s seminal late essay “On Lost Causes” (1997) in which he ties together the ‘nobility of failure’ as portrayed in literature with his own unswerving dedication to the Palestinian struggle for a just peace. On that occasion, I was also stimulated by the approach taken, perverse in some ways, to this theme by Slavoj Žižek (In Defense of Lost Causes, 2009), especially his insistence that the best we humans can hope for is to choose the right kind of failure, and not be discouraged by apparent defeat or the distortions in practice of worthy goals. His paraphrase of Samuel Beckett’s electrifying guidelines seems relevant to my own wildly utopian dreams for a just world: “..after one fails, one can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbecilic Being.” (p.7) Finally, Camus’ notorious imagining of Sisyphus as “happy” strikes a different note, that acceptance of futility is a kind of illumination as to the nature of life’s ceaseless struggle for a redemptive meaning that can only end in frustration. The final words of The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) tell us something about Camus’ understanding of life well lived as being nothing more or less than a process that continues, punctuated by the rhythm of defeat: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Whether a life has, or should have, meaning beyond this purely behavioral matter of continuation and persistence, seems a personal matter for Camus, but not for me or for most religions.

 

Camus seems to be making a less ambitious claim than either Said or Žižek who are talking not just about futility as the generic character of human experience, but about engagement in the pursuit of what might be called the public spiritual good, a purposive journey or pilgrimage that imagines as realizable a just peace on earth. This understanding has led me to propose a political identity that I label ‘citizen pilgrim,’ the quest for a desired end as defining our public life experience as an active participant in the ‘not yet’ character of an unknown future. Of course, the thirst for immortality or life after death is the ultimate lost cause.

 

Although stimulated by these kinds of reflections on the human condition, I make no claim to situate myself on such grand pedestals of celebrity. It is rather an exercise in self-perception from the perspective of a whole life that cannot be definitively apprehended until after death: A sort of embrace of the impossible. Because not yet being dead, there may yet be redefining moments that would call for reassessment. In this respect, we remain inherently mysterious to ourselves, as well as to others. Yet if we wait for the drama of life to end we have clearly waited too long. Our only impossible possibility is to contemplate our death as if it has happened already, a futuristic memoir, although if written at an advanced age, is only trivially futuristic as most of what stirs the heart and soul has already happened or, if fortunate as in my case, is happening.

 

If I try to capture some sort of provisional essence in relation to public life I am struck by the early prosaic attraction of lost causes. I could say, self-critically, that only lost causes have ever held my interest and attracted me deeply. As a child living in New York City, I chose mindlessly to give allegiance to the Brooklyn Dodgers (before they became a success story, and long before they took their show to the lush confines of Hollywood) and spurned the New York Yankees, perpetual winners and even the rather boring New York Giants, geographically more natural as I was living in Manhattan. Yet even while still a wavering and sullen adolescent neither pinstripes nor golf had any allure for me. At the same time, I was instructed by the misfortunes of my father. After divorced by my mother he pursued unattainable movie stars and others achieving warm friendships but never the enduring intimacy that he was seeking. Living through his disappointments as a child helped me avoid a private life of lost causes, although not entirely.

 

Later, when some sort of deferred adulthood arrived, I finally began to think, feel, and act politically. First, I had to shake off the influence of my father’s confusing blend of a loving nature with hardhearted conservative politics: empathy and tenderness at home combined with an abstract love of country and state that affirmed militarism and belligerence internationally and cruelty and reactionary politics domestically, truly, an ethos of winners accompanied by his mild forms of racism and patriarchy, even homophobia, but fortunately contradicted by a non-judgmental acceptance of the other in concrete circumstances. Then Cold War liberalism came into my life. It was ‘the group think’ of academic life during my maturing years in the 1950s and 1960s, believing in the moral superiority of our capitalist and individualist side while favoring a more cooperative world order provided the United States did the things it needed to do to hold onto its advantages of wealth and power. While realizing the limits and shortcomings of the liberal mentality I never felt comfortable with radical alternatives, especially if institutionally and ideologically defined. Hence, political loneliness.

 

My first political encounter with a lost cause was Vietnam. I became opposed to the war on a prudential basis that drew upon the kind of consensus realism that was the required 101 thinking that prevails among university faculties, especially on elite campuses. Later, by way of friends and afraid to seem afraid, I went to North Vietnam, and saw the war differently, that is, from the perspective of the victims and the relative purity of a peasant society. I saw my country, the United States, as the main global bully, killing and devastating at a distance remote from its own society (although subjecting young American combatants willingly and unwillingly to service in an immoral and strategically perplexing war). Yet underneath this transformed outlook, I remained enough of a realist toady to presuppose that the side with hard power superiority would win in the end, that in effect I was sadly championing a lost cause. (I remember Lyndon Johnson bombastic dismissal of North Vietnam as ‘a tenth-rate Asian power’ as hubris, yet not inaccurate according to battlefield metrics). I was unabashed in declaring my commitment to Vietnamese self-determination, but I expected that eventually the suffering and destruction would be too much to bear for the Vietnamese, and they would submit to Washington’s will. Instead, I overlooked the historically positive side of American impatience, the unwillingness to stay the dumb course, and so it turned out that it was America that was unwilling to endure further suffering and loss, although statistically it was losing far less than the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese advantage was their perseverance and a recognition that what was at stake for them was almost an absolute as compared with the United States for whom it was always a matter of calculating the balance between gains and losses.

 

When the Vietnamese finally gained victory, I was pleased by the outcome of the war, and even briefly believed that the anti-colonial tidal waves sweeping across the world were going to reshape the future in desirable ways. At the same time, with a less active engagement I was committed to the anti-apartheid struggle, having visited South Africa in 1968 as an official observer at a major political trial of the leading resistance figures in the de facto colonized country, then called South West Africa, renamed Namibia after political independence. I had earlier worked at the International Court of Justice in The Hague for most of a year on behalf of Ethiopia and Liberia in a case that was brought to establish that South Africa’s administrative role in South West Africa was incompatible with the extension of apartheid racism. South Africa’s racist claims were astonishingly supported by the decision, and this made me convinced that law and lawyers could not be trusted, and that there would be no liberation from apartheid without the torments of a long and bloody struggle. It never dawned on me or those in South Africa with whom I discussed these issues endlessly that there might emerge a relatively peaceful path to majoritarian democracy and multi-racial constitutionalism. As with Vietnam, the relatively benign outcome seemed a kind of political miracle, and as such, did not shake my belief that I was hopelessly destined to be a lifelong champion of lost causes. Yet it also made me realize that victorious outcomes may somehow control the end game of lost causes. In this respect, the lostness of lost causes is always in doubt, not rationally so much as existentially, and that makes all the difference between psychology and history. It also vindicates devoting energy to just causes, whether they seem lost or not.

 

In recent years my main public involvement has been with the Palestinian struggle for rights under international law, for peace and justice. This struggle increasingly has the aspect of being a classic lost cause, given the power disparities, Israeli land grabbing, and the Zionist ambition as embodied in Israel’s current leadership to control all or most of historic Palestine. And yet, a brief review of the outcome of international conflicts in the period since the end of World War II suggests that the side that usually wins in the end takes control of commanding heights of law, morality, and historical destiny, not the side that dominates the battlefield or is more adept at deploying the instruments of violence. Like Vietnam, from the perspective of ‘war’ the Israel-Palestine encounter has all the ugly elements of one-sidedness. The violent encounters are more accurately grasped as ‘massacres,’ ‘horror shows,’ or ‘atrocities’ than as warfare. From my after death vantage point, I will not waver in support for the Palestinian struggle, yet I lack the present capacity to depict a plausible victory scenario, hence it is an engagement with a lost cause coupled with the proviso that we never know for sure.

 

Recently, after a talk on Palestine in Dunedin, New Zealand a person in the audience posed a challenging question: “shouldn’t you distinguish between ‘a really lost cause’ and ‘a lost cause.’ At the time I agreed that such a distinction would be useful as hope is an essential element in political engagement for most people, and to give finality to lostness would annihilate hope. Yet later I wondered about whether I made this concession thoughtlessly, which amounted to the admission that really lost causes should be denigrated, and probably abandoned, as pure Chekhovian nostalgia. I thought about PIranadello’s plays celebrating fantasy at the expense of reality (e.g. ‘So It Is (If You Think So),’ 1917), and recalled my spirited friends devoted to the empowerment of indigenous peoples as in the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. Such an engagement seems clearly to qualify as a really lost cause, and yet, the expression of the vision is itself an intrinsic good, ennobling, and liberating in precisely Pirandello’s sense, and humanly preferable to the denial of injustice as in the uncritical celebration of Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. Victories of the moral and spiritual imagination may be more valuable and redemptive in our lives even if their political embodiment seems forever beyond reclaiming.

 

For much of my professional life I have been devoted to the lost cause of eliminating nuclear weapons. At times, this lost cause has seemed as though it might not be lost, at other times it seems truly lost. Since we cannot know the future, our present assessments are unavoidably provisional, and it remains a moral imperative for me to remain engaged in the struggle for their elimination.

 

This dialogue with myself continues. Edward Said makes clear that when shifting gears from culture to politics, it is important to act responsibly in the latter settings of actual struggle where lives are at stake and suffering is real. He indicated that he was thinking of his own identification with the Palestinian struggle, which was radically different for this reason in his mind from a deep appreciation of the ethos that guided Cervantes to craft his great vision of the lost cause of medieval gallantry. I feel the same way, although less centered, embracing anti-nuclearism at the same time as affirming solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

 

Toward the end of the Vallejo poem these lines complete this arc of thought:

                  I see myself, as never before, alone

 

                  César Vallejo is dead. Everyone hit him,

                  though he is not doing them the slightest harm

 

I identify with such a self-image, but only politically, not personally where I am the fulfilled recipient of various forms of sustaining love. And I am not yet brave enough to say (and mean) ‘Richard Falk is dead.’ Yet to contemplate death without the metaphysical painkillers of an imagined afterlife is to be finally alone. In a sense learning to die is equivalent to learning to live alone, and takes courage and fortitude.

The Iraq War: 10 Years Later

17 Mar

 

 

            After a decade of combat, casualties, massive displacement, persisting violence, enhanced sectarian tension and violence between Shi’ias and Sunnis, periodic suicide bombings, and autocratic governance, a negative assessment of the Iraq War as a strategic move by the United States, United Kingdom, and a few of their secondary allies, including Japan, seems near universal. Not only the regionally destabilizing outcome, including the blowback effect of perversely adding weight to Iran’s overall diplomatic influence, but the reputational costs in the Middle East associated with an imprudent, destructive, and failed military intervention make the Iraq War the worst American foreign policy disaster since its defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s, and undertaken with an even less persuasive legal, moral, and political rationale. The ongoing blowback from the ‘shock and awe’ launch scenario represents a huge, and hopefully irreversible, setback for the American global domination project in the era of hypertechno geopolitics.

 

            Most geopolitical accounting assessments do not bother to consider the damage to the United Nations and international law arising from an aggressive use of force in flagrant violation of the UN Charter, embarked upon in the face of a refusal by the Security Council to provide a legitimating authorization for the use of force despite great pressure mounted by the United States. The UN further harmed its own image when it failed to reinforce its refusal to grant authorization to the United States and its coalition, by offering some kind of support to Iraq as the target of this contemplated aggression. This failure was compounded by the post-attack role played by the UN in lending full support to the unlawful American-led occupation, including its state-building mission. In other words, not only was the Iraq War a disaster from the perspective of American and British foreign policy and the peace and stability of the Middle East region, but it was also a severe setback for the authority of international law, the independence of the UN, and the quality of world order.

 

            In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the United States was supposedly burdened by what policymakers derisively called ‘the Vietnam Syndrome.’ This was a Washington shorthand for the psychological inhibitions to engage in military interventions in the non-Western world due to the negative attitudes towards such imperial undertakings that were supposed to exist among the American public and in the government, especially among the military who were widely blamed for the Vietnam disaster. Many American militarists at the time complained that the Vietnam Syndrome was a combined result of an anti-war plot engineered by the liberal media and a response to an unpopular conscription or ‘draft’ that required many middle class Americans to fight in a distant war that lacked both popular support, a convincing strategic or legal rationale, and seemed to be on the wrong side of history, which as the French found out in their own Indochina War favored anti-colonial wars of liberation. The flag-draped coffins of dead young Americans were shown on TV, leading defense hawks to contend somewhat ridiculously that ‘the war was lost in American living rooms.’ The government made adjustments that took these rationalizations serious: the draft was abolished, and reliance  henceforth was placed on an all-volunteer professional military complemented by large-scale private security firms; also, intensified efforts were made to assure media support for subsequent military operations by ‘embedding’ journalists in combat units and more carefully monitoring news reporting.

 

            President, George H.W. Bush told the world in 1991 immediately after the Gulf War that had been successfully undertaken to reverse the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait that “we have finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome.” In effect, the senior President Bush was saying to the grand strategists in the White House and Pentagon that the role of American military power was again available for use to do the work of empire around the world. What the Gulf War showed was that on a conventional battlefield, in this setting of a desert war, American military superiority would be decisive, could produce a quick victory with minimal costs in American lives, and bring about a surge of political popularity at home. This new militarist enthusiasm created the political base for recourse to the NATO War in 1999 to wrest Kosovo from Serb control. To ensure the avoidance of casualties, reliance was placed on air attacks conducted from high altitudes. The war took more time than expected, but was interpreted as validating the claim of war planners that the United States could now fight and win ‘zero casualty wars.’ There were no NATO combat deaths in the Kosovo War, and the war produced a ‘victory’ by ending Serbian control over Kosovo as well as demonstrating that NATO could still be used and useful even after the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat that had explained the formation of the alliance in the first place.

 

            More sophisticated American war planners understood that not all challenges to United States interests around the world could be met with air power in the absence of ground combat. Increasingly, political violence involving geopolitical priorities took the form of transnational violence (as in the 9/11 attacks) or was situated within the boundaries of territorial states, and involved Western military intervention designed to crush societal forces of national resistance. The Bush presidency badly confused its new self-assurance about the conduct of battlefield international warfare where military superiority dictates the political outcome and its old nemesis from Vietnam War days of counter-insurgency warfare, also known as low-intensity or asymmetric warfare, where military superiority controls the battlefield but not the endgame of conflict which depends on winning the allegiance of the territorial population.

 

            David Petraeus rose through the ranks of the American military by repackaging counterinsurgency warfare in a post-Vietnam format relying upon an approach developed by noted guerrilla war expert David Galula, who contended that in the Vietnam War the fatal mistake was made of supposing that such a war would be determined 80% by combat battles in the jungles and paddy fields with the remaining 20% devoted to the capture of the ‘hearts and minds’ of the indigenous population. Galula argued that counterinsurgency wars could only be won if this formula was inverted.  This meant that 80% of future U.S. military interventions should be devoted to non-military aspects of societal wellbeing: restoring electricity, providing police protection for normal activity, building and staffing schools, improving sanitation and garbage removal, and providing health car and jobs.

 

            Afghanistan, and then Iraq, became the testing grounds for applying these nation-building lessons of Vietnam, only to reveal in the course of their lengthy, destructive and expensive failures that the wrong lessons had been learned by the militarists and their civilian counterparts. These conflicts were wars of national resistance, a continuation of the anti-colonial struggles against West-centric  domination, and regardless of whether the killing was complemented by sophisticated social and economic programs, it still involved a pronounced and deadly challenge by foreign interests to the national independence and rights of self-determination that entailed killing Iraqi women and children, and violating their most basic rights through the unavoidably harsh mechanics of foreign occupation. It also proved impossible to disentangle the planned 80% from the 20% as the hostility of the Iraqi people to their supposed American liberators demonstrated over and over again, especially as many Iraqis on the side of the occupiers proved to be corrupt and brutal, sparking popular suspicion and intensifying internal polarization. The truly ‘fatal mistake’ made by Petraeus, Galula, and all the counterinsurgency advocates that have followed this path, is the failure to recognize that when the American military and its allies attack and occupy a non-Western country, especially in the Islamic world, when they start dividing, killing and policing its inhabitants, popular resistance will be mobilized and hatred toward the foreign ‘liberators’ will spread. This is precisely what happened in Iraq, and the suicide bombings to this day suggest that the ugly patterns of violence have not stopped even with the ending of America’s direct combat role.

 

            The United States was guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding of the Iraq War displayed to the world when George W. Bush theatrically declared on May 1, 2003 a wildly premature victory from the deck of an American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, with the notorious banner proclaiming ‘mission accomplished’ plainly visible behind the podium as the sun sank over the Pacific Ocean. Bush reveled in this misunderstanding by assuming that the attack phase of the war was the whole war, forgetting about the more difficult and protracted occupation phase. The real Iraq War, rather than ending, was about to begin, that is, the violent internal struggle for the political future of the country, one made more difficult and protracted by the military presence of the US and its allies. This counterinsurgency sequel to occupation would not be decided on the kind of battlefield where arrayed military capabilities confront one another, but rather through a war of attrition waged by hit and run domestic Iraqi forces, abetted by foreign volunteers, opposed to the tactics of Washington and to the overall aura of illegitimacy attached to American military operations in a Third World setting. Such a war has a shadowy beginning and a still uncertain ending, and is often, as in Iraq, as it proved to be earlier in Vietnam and Afghanistan, a quagmire for intervening powers. There are increasing reasons to believe that the current Iraqi leader, Nouri al-Maliki, resembles the authoritarian style of Saddam Hussein more than the supposed constitutional liberal regime that the United States pretends to leave behind, and that the country is headed for continuing struggle, possibly even a disastrous civil war fought along sectarian line. In many respects, including the deepening of the Sunni/Shi’a divide the country and its people are worse off that before the Iraq War without in any way questioning allegations about the cruelty and criminality of the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.

 

            The Iraq War was a war of aggression from its inception, being an unprovoked use of armed force against a sovereign state in a situation other than self-defense. The Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals convened after World War II had declared such aggressive warfare to be a ‘crime against peace’ and prosecuted and punished surviving political and military leaders of Germany and Japan as war criminals. We can ask why have George W. Bush and Tony Blair not been investigated, indicted, and prosecuted for their roles in planning and prosecuting the Iraq War. As folk singer Bob Dylan instructed us long ago, the answer is ‘blowin’ in the wind,’ or in more straightforward language, the reasons for such impunity conferred upon the American and British leaders is one more crude display of geopolitics—their countries were not defeated and occupied, their governments never surrendered and discredited, and such strategic failures (or successes) are exempted from legal scrutiny. These are the double standards that make international criminal justice a reflection of power politics more than of evenhanded global justice.

Global civil society with its own limited resources had challenged both the onset of the Iraq War, and later its actual unfolding. On and around February 15, 2003, what the Guinness Book of Records called “the largest anti-war rally in history” took the form of about 3,000 demonstrations in 800 cities located in more than 60 countries and according to the BBC involved an estimated 6-10 million persons. Although such a global show of opposition to recourse to war was unprecedented, it failed to halt the war. It did, however, have the lasting effect of undermining the American claims of justification for the attack and occupation of Iraq. It also led to an unprecedented effort by groups around the world to pass judgment on the war by holding sessions in which peace activists and international law experts alleged the criminality of the Iraq War, and called for war crimes prosecutions of Bush and Blair. As many as twenty such events were held in various parts of the world, with a culminating Iraq War Tribunal convened in June of 2005, which included testimony from more than 50 experts, including several from Iraq and a jury of conscience headed by Arundhati Roy.

 

            There is also the question of complicity of countries that supported the war with troop deployments, such as Japan, which dispatched 1000 members of its self-defense units to Iraq in July 2003 to help with non-combat dimensions of the occupation. Such a role is a clear breach of international law and morality. It is also inconsistent with Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. It was coupled with Tokyo’s diplomatic support for the U.S./UK-led Iraq War from start to finish. Should such a record of involvement have any adverse consequences? It would seem that Japan might at least review the appropriateness of its complicit participation in a war of aggression, and how that diminishes the credibility of any Japanese claim to uphold the responsibilities of membership in the United Nations. At least, it provides the people of Japan with a moment for national soul-searching to think about what kind of world order will in the future best achieve peace, stability, and human dignity.

 

            Are there lessons to be drawn from the Iraq War? I believe there are. The overwhelming lesson is that in this historical period interventions by the West in the non-West, especially when not authorized by the UN Security Council, can rarely succeed in attaining their stated goals. More broadly, counterinsurgency warfare involving a core encounter between Western invading and occupying forces and a national resistance movement will not be decided on the basis of hard power military superiority, but rather by the dynamics of self-determination associated with the party that has the more credible nationalist credentials, which include the will to persist in the struggle for as long as it takes, and the capacity to capture the high moral ground in the ongoing legitimacy struggle for domestic and international public support. It is only when we witness the dismantling of many of America’s 700+ acknowledged foreign military bases spread around the world, and see the end of repeated US military intervention globally, that we can have some hope that the correct lessons of the Iraq War are finally being learned. Until then there will be further attempts by the U.S. Government to correct the tactical mistakes that it claims caused past failures in Iraq (and Afghanistan), and new interventions will undoubtedly be proposed in coming years, most probably leading to costly new failures, and further controversies as to ‘why?’ we fought and why we lost. American leaders will remain unlikely to acknowledge that the most basic mistake is itself militarism and the accompanying arrogance of occupation, at least until this establishment consensus is challenged by a robust anti-militarist grassroots political movement not currently visible.      

Rethinking Afghanistan After a Decade

19 Sep

This post is a short essay responding to a question about my dramatic change of position on the Afghanistan War with regard to its initial justification and flawed execution. It is both a reconsideration of errors of judgment and reflections on how the world has changed in the course of this decade, focusing on the inability of the United States to grasp either its own decline or the related decline in the historical agency of hard power approaches to security.

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Reading what I wrote about Afghanistan a decade ago reminded me of how much my understanding of the role of war and hard power in upholding security for the nation and the world has changed. Actually, it seems clear to me that my views on Afghanistan back in 2001 were an exception to my general skepticism about Western interventions in the non-Western world, a view formed during ten years of opposition to the American role in the Vietnam War. At the time, with the Al Qaeda attacks so recently seared into my political consciousness, and some anxiety that more attacks of a similar kind were likely to follow, it seemed logical and helpful to adopt a war strategy as part of an overall effort to disrupt the mega-terrorist capabilities to inflict further harm either in this country or somewhere else on the planet. Although I realized that the international law argument for attacking Afghanistan, with the clear objective of regime change, was weak absent the exhaustion of diplomatic remedies, but such considerations were overcome in my mind by the political argument for doing immediately whatever was necessary to uphold security in this country and generally, and the moral argument that any successor government to what was being imposed on the Afghan people by the Taliban would almost inevitably be a step in the right direction. At first, these early assessments of mine seemed vindicated, but now with the benefit of ten further years of military engagement and retrospective insight, a reappraisal is long overdue.

 

There were some reasons for skepticism and worry from the outset of the approach to Afghanistan. The manner by which the air war was conducted, and its failure to adopt tactics designed to have a maximum impact on Al Qaeda capabilities were disturbing to me from the beginning of the military operations. The American military undertaking seemed poorly conceived and implemented, naively relying on untrustworthy coordination with Afghan ground forces that had their own distinct agendas often at odds with U.S. counter-terrorist priorities. This unreliability should have been known on the basis of intelligence and prior counterinsurgency experience. The United States Government, and especially the Rumsfeld Pentagon, were ideologically committed to fighting the war with minimum American ground involvement, thereby avoiding heavy American casualties, and yet achieve the goals of the intervention. This was proclaimed at the time to represent a test case for a ‘revolutionary’ transformation of warfare in which technology displaced troops on the ground. We learned very soon that virtually the entire Al Qaeda leadership had managed to escape across the border to Pakistan along with its main cadre of militant trained fighters.

 

Beyond this central mission failure, the promised regime change in Afghanistan quickly became a costly and obvious fool’s errand. The authority of the new political leadership in Kabul, handpicked by Washington, could hardly extend its writ beyond the capital city despite its dependence on the delegitimizing presence of foreign occupying forces. This led over time to the resurgence and regrouping of a variety of forces of national resistance to foreign occupation, as well as the unexpected revival of the Taliban as both a fighting force and a serious political challenger for control of the country.

 

Faulty perceptions in this post-9/11 period, including my own, ignored the lessons of Vietnam. It was one thing to mount a counter-terrorist operation against the Al Qaida presence in Afghanistan, which was itself an alien intrusion on national political space, but another for the leading country in the West to seek to override the workings of self-determination within Afghanistan so as to impose a governing structure and political culture more to its liking. This renwed reliance on counterinsurgency thinking, of which General David Petraeus, was the most influential voice within the military, sought to overcome memories of defeat in Vietnam by adopting an approach more friendly to and respectful of the indigenous culture and the human rights of the people supposedly being protected. But it is one thing to be abstractly sensitive in these ways, but it is another to remain a benevolent presence while killing the inhabitants of the country, especially its women and children, while simultaneously doing everything possible to minimize risks of injury and death to one’s own troops. In the circumstances that exist in Afghanistan these two sincerely held objectives are often in tension with notable incidents leading to anger either at the scene in Afghanistan or at home in the United States. It is ironic that Petraeus, despite his historical knowledge, political acumen, and his own prior efforts to right the mistakes of the past, relied on drone strikes at a rate of ten times that of his predecessor, resulting in a predictable rise in civilian casualties and popular alienation. The use of sophisticated unmanned aircraft firing missiles at human targets carries to new heights the technological one-sidedness of such counterinsurgency warfare where as much of the risk as possible is shifted to the territorial society and those who pick targets in safety have neither accountability for deliberate or accidental wrongs nor possess any leverage over the political dynamics within the country. It is this disabling irony that has yet to have its proper impact on American policymaking. Our political leaders seem unwilling to learn that military dominance rarely translates into favorable political outcomes at acceptable costs in the early 21st century.

 

Despite the evidence supporting such an interpretation of recent historical trends the mistakes of the past are stubbornly repeated, and such a pattern calls for an explanation. It is necessary to consider the impact of factors that overcome the expected rationality of government decision-making and problem solving. Perhaps, the most important of these is the emergence of what Mark Selden calls ‘the permanent warfare state’ in the United States. The country has for decades made a disproportionate investment in achieving military dominance on a global scale. The existence of such expensive capabilities generate strong bureaucratic and ideological pressures to rely on military approaches to ensure a favorable outcome of international conflicts. After all at present, if the United States spends more than the next ten countries in the world combined, there must be a commensurate political payoff, or else it is extremely discrediting with respect to the use of taxpayer revenues in a setting of intense fiscal concern about government spending..

 

It is this hard power dogmatism that has led the United States, along with its Western junior partners, to engage in a nation-building war in Afghanistan that seems destined for defeat and humiliation. As the Afghan saying goes: “You got the watches, we got the time.” Because the benefits to the United States of persisting in Afghanistan despite the costs seem so uncertain as compared to the clear goals of the opposition to rid the country of foreign occupiers, it seems likely that the longer-term and deeper commitments of the Afghan national resistance will reap eventually the rewards of its persistence. Of course, this prediction is reinforced by the low quality of the Karzai government that undermined its democratizing claim by stealing the most recent faux elections and through its corrupting links to the drug trade and warlords. In the twenty-first century those who cooperate with foreign invaders and occupiers rarely are able to claim ‘mission accomplished’ with any credibility at the end of the day. It is important also to realize that this was not true in the colonial era during which the superior military technology of the colonialists generally prevailed without large losses or major expenditures. Prior to World War II, there was insufficient confidence in the capacity of most non-Western societies to mount an effective national resistance to a determined military intervention, although even here Afghanistan stood out as the one country in Asia that colonial powers found impossible to pacify in a manner that served their interests, with both Britain and Russia failing in their attempts to do so. It is difficult for Americans to appreciate that foreign occupation poses such a stiff challenge to self-determination as to be very rarely viewed as liberating or legitimate by the civilian majority in a country subject to military intervention.

 

Such generalizations need to be distinguished from the sorts of interventions that seem to have been effective in Kosovo in 1999, and maybe again this year in Libya.  In Kosovo, the foreign intervention was a rescue operation in support of a domestic struggle of the Albanian overwhelming majority against what was perceived to be Serbian alien rule sustained by atrocities against Kosovars and posing an imminent threat of violent ethnic cleansing. It was, to the extent that the people of Kosovo enjoyed the status of being ‘a people’ in international law, possible to consider the NATO intervention as being in furtherance of self-determination rather than as an attempt to impose a Western oriented outcome. True, the clarity of such an endorsement of the Kosovo War is qualified by the absence of any UN Security Council authorization for the use of force and by NATO’s controversial reliance on high altitude bombing that killed an estimated 500 civilians on the ground. The post-conflict establishment of Camp Bonsteel, a huge NATO military base also raises questions about the purity of the alleged protective intentions.

 

In the case of Libya, although the NATO operations ignored the limits of the UN Security Council authorization, the military action reinforced a struggle already underway in the country, and backed by a majority of the population, against a hated dictator that was engaging in indiscriminate violence against his own people, and threatening to do worse. It remains to be seen whether the victors in Libya can bring constitutional democracy and an equitable economy to the country, but at least the intervention is highly unlikely to engender national resistance as there is no foreign occupation contemplated. There are already concerns about the prospect of manipulation behind the scenes by the intervening parties to bring big profits to NATO oil companies and construction firms. If these concerns materialize it could be quite discrediting to the nationalist claims of the new Transnational National Council leadership. Nevertheless, as of now, the main point stands: with UN backing, without any intention of foreign occupation and military bases, against an existing cruel, exploitative, and oppressive rule, and in support of an existing oppositional movement, a Western military intervention can achieve its initial goals, but even then not without evoking considerable controversy and raising suspicions about ulterior motives. Phase one is regime change as has taken place with the defeat of the Qaddafi regime, phase two is constitutional state building and equitable and sustainable development that remains to be achieved, and depends on national will and capabilities.

 

There was another major dimension of the Afghanistan War as it appeared in 2001 as compared to the way it seems in 2011. What I failed to appreciate then, and has still not been properly registered in mainstream foreign policy thinking, is that during the presidency of George W. Bush, the grand strategic emphasis was placed on control of the Middle East. This objective of grand strategy took precedence over the successful prosecution of the post-9/11 struggle against terrorism.  The two different undertakings were misleadingly merged in public consciousness by relying on the unifying, yet diversionary label of ‘global war on terror,’ but in fact while Afghanistan was directly linked to the 9/11 attacks the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was only indirectly, if at all, linked. The Iraq War launched in 2003 increased anti-American resentment throughout the Islamic world, and was at odds with an all out struggle against Al Qaeda, which would have given continuing priority to consolidating the early gains in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Instead, after the military attacks on Afghanistan produced the collapse of Taliban rule, the American emphasis immediately shifted dramatically to the Iraq War, and Afghanistan became a forgotten sideshow, which encouraged the steady deterioration of political order in the country, making a mockery of early claims of achieving a liberating political change welcomed by the population. Obama tried to overcome this unfortunate legacy of neo-conservative foreign policy by both promising to end the Iraq War, a commitment that remains problematic and unfulfilled, and a commitment to view the Afghanistan War as requiring renewed attention due to its relevance to the challenge of terrorism.

 

Finally, ten years after 9/11 the road not taken of law enforcement, intelligence collaboration, occasional special forces covert undertakings in foreign countries seems attractive on a number of grounds, and the defense of human rights at home and abroad. It would have avoided the costly, mostly failed efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would have avoided national humiliation associated with the panicky recourse to torture that led to the globally discrediting disclosures of  systematic abuse of detainees at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and a homeland security apparatus containing many features of authoritarian governance. It would have strengthened claims by the United States to provide benevolent world order leadership based on minimizing the role of war and military solutions, while maximizing the role of law, international police cooperation, and diplomacy, including efforts to take steps to acknowledge and overcome the legitimate grievances of the Arab World, especially the American failure to push for a fair and balanced solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict. This approach would have also allowed a greater concentration of the political imagination and the resources of the country on meeting domestic infrastructure problems and addressing such rising global challenges as climate change and persistent extreme poverty. Furthermore, such non-war path in response to the 9/11 attacks could have demonstrated a realization of the limits of hard power approaches to the solution of conflict and security problems in the early 21st century, and avoided falling again into the traps unwittingly set for the country by pro-interventionists and counterinsurgency advocates. Of course, a counter-factual portrayal of the decade is by definition unaware of the bumps in the road that would undoubtedly have been encountered, especially if further attacks had been successfully launched on high value targets within the United States.  Even conceding this unknowability, this alternative path would have been in closer accord with out ‘better angels,’ and corresponded with American continuing claims on the global stage to be the home of moral exceptionalism. If it failed once having been tried, the grounds for a more muscular approach would have been responsibly laid.

 

These retrospective comments are meant to be non-partisan as far as internal American politics are concerned. The Bush approach after 9/11 enjoyed  overwhelming support among the citizenry and in Congress. There were no influential dissenting voices. The mobilization of national unity on the basis of fear and anger, and reinforced by patriotic pride, was intense, effective, and unconditional. My regrets about the policies pursued are mainly preoccupied with the deficiencies of American political culture given the realities and challenges of our world. Unless the political mind of the country becomes quickly disenchanted with military approaches to conflict resolution there is every likelihood of repeating the mistakes of the past decade that will increase dangerous storm clouds that already cast dark shadows menacing the future wellbeing of the country and world.

The Tet Offensive in the Rear View Mirror of the Afghanistan War: Disengaging from Problematic Interventions

24 Aug

Prefatory Note: A few days ago I published an earlier version of this article in Al Jazeera English, but have revised it to take account of the developments in Libya of the last several days, as well as some comments about the criminality of prior Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The essential points remain that foreign military intervention, even with a UN mandate, is costly, unclear in its impact on human rights, and likely to interfere with political dynamics governed by the play of internal forces and the logic of national self-determination.

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On January 31, 1968 the combined forces of North Vietnam (DRV or Democratic Force of Vietnam) and the NLF (National Liberation Front) launched a spectacular series of attacks throughout the contested territory of South Vietnam. As many as 100 Vietnamese cities and towns were simultaneously attacked, 36 of 44 provincial capitals were captured, and the once impregnable American Embassy complex in Saigon was penetrated and several guards killed. These attacks were all repelled in a few days, with the Vietnamese taking huge losses, 37,500 estimated deaths, which came on top of 90,000 lost soldiers in the preceding months. The American commander, General Westmoreland, had confidently predicted prior to the Tet Offensive that the NLF would never be able to replace such losses, and victory for the United States in the Vietnam War was near at hand.

 

            During the Tet Offensive the American losses were announced as 2,500. This ratio of comparative deaths, and the fact that the DRV/NLF could not maintain their presence in any of the urban areas that they briefly controlled, led Westmoreland and counterinsurgency experts to claim a military victory for the American side. Add to this the evidence that the Vietnamese objective of these coordinated attacks on the points of Saigon’s governmental control in Vietnam was not primarily to kill or even to seize control of the country but to inspire popular uprisings by the people of Vietnam, and these hopes of Hanoi never materialized anywhere in the country.  This ‘defeat’ was acknowledged by the DRV commander General Tran Do who confirmed that the purpose of the Tet Offensive had been to stimulate a spontaneous uprising among the Vietnamese population against the continuing American military occupation of their country. This convergent perception of the Tet Offensive by both sides seemed authoritative, and yet, and this is my point, yet it proved to be politically irrelevant. General Do’s words uttered after the fact emphasize the secondary objective of the Tet Offensive: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans, and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us.”

 

            But what made these American casualties so important was not the loss of life. What made these death so deeply disturbing was their unsettling impact on both backers and opponents of the war in Washington, the backers because their belief that victory was at hand was shattered and the critics because the lies emanating from Washington had been finally exposed. If General Westmoreland was not deceived or lying the American casualties sustained during the Tet Offensive could not have happened given the supposed decimation of the Vietnamese enemy. If these expectations of an imminent victory had not been discredited by the Tet Offensive, the dramatic event would have been coolly diagnosed as a desperate lost gamble by the Vietnamese, and rather than turning attention to an exit strategy would have led to an intensified effort to achieve total victory on behalf of the Vietnamese regime in Saigon that had welcomed the American intervention.

           It was the shock effect on the American mood about the war that transformed the Tet Offensive into a big victory for the Vietnamese regardless of what their intentions for the mission had been or the unacceptable level of losses sustained.  The scale, scope, and surprise of the Tet Offensive had an immediate traumatic impact on American public opinion and related Congressional support for continuing the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese military leadership was also slow to appreciate the real importance of Tet. As General Do put it,  “As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention—but it turned out to be a fortunate result.” The Tet Offensive was interpreted by all sectors of opinion on the war as opening a ‘credibility gap’ between the government and the citizenry. This gap consisted of the space separating the excessively optimistic assessments relied upon by the White House to quiet opposition to a growingly unpopular war from the reassurances being given to the increasingly restive backers of the war. The Tet Offensive conclusively demonstrated to the vast majority of the American people that the prior claim by Washington that the Vietnamese adversary was abjectly knocking on the door of defeat, on the verge of surrender or collapse, was far removed from the truth. The Tet Offensive had such an unsettling effect on the American body politic that the incumbent president and assumed candidate for reelection in 1968, Lyndon Johnson, acknowledging his failure to achieve victory in the Vietnam War abruptly withdrew from the presidential race, declared a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam allegedly to give diplomacy a chance to end the war through negotiations, and firmly rejected a request from U.S. commanders in Vietnam for a troop surge.

 

          It is true the war dragged on for several more years with heavy casualties on both sides, but the Tet Offensive radically altered the American goal from ‘victory’ to ‘peace with honor,’ that is, ‘defeat in disguise.’ At the time Henry Kissinger, the foreign policy architect of the Nixon presidency, was only hoping for ‘a decent interval’ between the American withdrawal and the collapse of the client regime in Saigon. The subsequent Christmas bombing of Hanoi and the disastrous air attacks on the Cambodian countryside (that led directly to the Khmer Rouge genocidal takeover of the country) were part of the futile effort by the Nixon/Kissinger presidency to produce the token victory that they called ‘honor.’ Actually, when the war finally came to an end in 1975, the dominant image was of Vietnamese collaborators with the American intervention desperately seeking to escape from Vietnam by clamoring aboard a helicopter taking off from the roof of the U.S. embassy. Not honor but humiliation, chaos, and defeat became the end game for the United States in Vietnam, or put differently, the price paid with thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and American lives to avoid wounding American pride and geopolitical standing was all in vain.

 

                To this day, counterinsurgency professionals in Washington think tanks and the Pentagon contend that the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This distorted reading of history partly explains why American policymakers have failed (and refused) to learn the defining lesson of the Vietnam War: the virtual impossibility in the early 21st century of turning military superiority on the battlefield enjoyed by an intervening party into a favorable political outcome against an adversary that effectively occupies the commanding heights of national self-determination. That is in this century the symbols of legitimacy count in the end for more than drone technology and the weaponry of destruction. This American and NATO learning disability has led directly to embarking upon subsequent legally and strategically problematic interventions, especially in the period since the 9/11 attacks of a decade ago: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Military superiority succumbs over time to the strong historical tides of the last seven decades favoring the forces aligned with the politics of self-determination. Among other explanations for this conclusion that cuts against the grain of political realism is this:  the intervening side gets tired of an unresolved struggle long before fatigue sets in for the side defending national territory. An Afghan aphorism expresses this insight: “You’ve got the watches, we’ve got the time.” Since 1945 nationalist endurance consistently outlasts and outwits geopolitical endurance, and by so doing eventually offsets the asymmetries of military capabilities.

 

          But my reason for recalling the Tet Offensive is less about this primary feature of conflict in our time, especially in the setting of what Mary Kaldor has usefully called ‘new wars,’ than it is to comment upon contradictory perceptions of victory and defeat. These conflicts tend to be resolved on political battlefields far from sites of military violence, although each struggle has its own story to narrate. What seems to count most in the end is a decisive shift in political perceptions on the home front of the intervening side.  Neither the successful response to the attacks in terms of casualties or restored control of the cities in South Vietnam, nor the failure of the attacks to be followed by popular uprisings by the Vietnamese people mattered so far as the historical significance of the Tet Offensive is concerned. It was also not relevant that the military appraisal made by both sides was wrong, although the Vietnamese side was less wrong as the spike in American casualties added strongly influenced the political reassessments of the conflict by the White House and caused widespread consternation among the American people that increased pressures to withdraw from the war.

 

              This recall of the Tet Offensive is not meant to be an exercise in historical memory or even in the differences between how the military thinks and how the political process in a liberal democracy works.  It is rather a frustrated commentary on the increasingly absurd refusal of the Obama presidency to acknowledge the American failure to defeat the Taliban and put the governmental structure in Kabul under pro-Western secular custody, the role confidently assigned years ago to Hamid Karzai.  As with Vietnam, the American public is continually being told by the military commanders and political leaders about how well things are going, and even when unexpected setbacks do take place, these are quickly dismissed as ‘one-off’ incidents that should not become occasions for reappraisal. There was a recent disappointment in some liberal establishment circles within the United States that were growing skeptical about continuing the intervention in Afghanistan when the execution of Osama Bin Laden in May was not followed by a credible and liberating claim from Washington of ‘mission accomplished,’ which would have positively reclaimed the notorious miscalculation by George W. Bush in the early months of the Iraq War. Such a claim would have played well throughout the American heartland, and probably given Obama a clear path to an electoral victory in 2012. Public opinion according to recent polls would applaud an accelerated withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan: 59% of Americans would like to see all American troops taken out of Afghanistan immediately or within a year, while only 22% believe that the United States has sufficiently defined goals to make the war worthy of American military engagement.

                The American people have become generally opposed to foreign military intervention, although this attitude could quickly be reversed in the event that foreign extremists were able to inflict major damage on perceived American interests. According to Newsmax, August 11, 2011, only 24% of Americans support the U.S. military role in Libya, and 75% believe that the United States should not engage in overseas military action “unless the cause is vital to our national security.” It is obvious that for most Americans Libya was never seen as ‘vital,’ and the justification relied upon by the White House did not even pretend that ‘security’ was the rationale for military intervention, but invoked ‘humanitarism,’ which never qualifies in political arenas as a cause worth dying for. Of course, leaders will always argue that an intervention undertaken is vital, and could hardly do less, considering that lives of their citizens are put at risk. But what these poll results show is the common sense currently displayed by American public opinion: reject humanitarianism as an adequate basis for war making along with distrust of the post-facto security arguments put forth by elected leaders; healthy doubts about the self-serving claims of the military to be closing in on victory if only the public is patient and the leaders dispatch more troops. But such wars go on and on, however dysfunctional, the bodies pile up, and the political opposition is disregarded, and this despite what would have hoped was the cautionary influence exerted by the realization that the American empire teeters on the edge of financial disaster.

              True, after months of NATO bombing the anti-Qaddafi movement seems on the verge of victory. As with Kosovo in 1999, the Libyans seem overwhelmingly opposed to Qaddafi dictatorial rule and solicited the intervention. In these circumstances military intervention can succeed, but at a high price in terms of devastation and civilian collateral damage, especially in a casualty-safe war carried on from the air. Yet the outcome yet make clear, as the respected foreign policy expert on the UN and the Arab World Phyllis Bennis reminds us, whether it will be the Libyan people or the oil companies and NATO that benefit from the war and the destruction of the Qaddafi regime. We do already know, or at least should realize, that the whole NATO operation sets a bad precedent for the UN. Its authorization of the use of force back in March 2011 in Security Council Resolution 1973 was framed in terms of protecting civilians in imminent danger of massacre, but the NATO operation was carried out in such a manner as to achieve regime change by tipping the balance in what became an all out civil war. In this respect that guidelines in 1973 were so vague and loose as to be worthless or NATO exceeded the authority granted, despite the language of ‘all  necessary measures,’ and there was no effort to contain the military operations within the intended scope of 1973. In this latter regard, the five abstaining states (China, Russia, India, Brazil, and Germany ) are derelict in their failure to insist on adherence to the guidelines associated with civilian protection, which certainly did not extend to bombing the personal compound of Qaddafi or the state TV facilities.

              Several observations follow. During the Vietnam Era public opinion counted for more when the government was making its political calculations about continuing an unpopular war. Unquestionably, there has been a decline in democratic accountability in the United States with respect to war/peace issues. In part, this reflected the presence of a robust peace movement during the Vietnam War, which in turn arose as an angry response to the military draft that threatened the wellbeing of middle class America. Now there is no draft, the war is fought with professional soldiers, drones, and private contracting firms. Furthermore, the weaponry and tactics are designed to minimize American casualties relative to the destruction inflicted. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from a decade of warfare in Vietnam were not about whether to intervene in new wars but how. It may be that in place of international law and political prudence, both of which should rationally discourage interventions at odds with the logic of self-determination, the new source of restraint will derive from fiscal pressures to reduce defense spending. So far the militarist consensus in Washington has largely exempted the bloated U.S. defense budget from the knives of the cost cutters, who openly advocate socially regressive cost-cutting while calling for increases in defense spending. Even the more socially sensitive Obama democrats have largely continued to acquiesce in this willingness to treat the defense budget as non-discretionary, as well as proudly claiming to have increased military assistance to Israel. 

              When an American helicopter was shot down on August 6th, the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, and all 30 persons aboard were killed, including 22 members of the Navy Seals Elite Unit, I hoped that this would administer a Tet-like shock. The Obama administration could have used the occasion to say that it was time to bring American troops home and end involvement in the struggle over the political future of Afghanistan. It is common knowledge by now that the Afghanistan War is being fought against the nationalist Taliban and on behalf of a corrupted and incompetent Kabul regime for the political control of the country. It should be understood that the prior period of Taliban rule exhibited fundamentalist rule in an unusually violent and harsh form that exposed the Afghan population to massacres and crimes against humanity. Whether today’s Taliban, a less centralized organization would repeat its crimes of the past unknown in advance, and does lead to reasonable disagreement about the best course of action, which seems to be the choice of what seems to be ‘the least worst option’ at the moment.

             The unresolved conflict in Afghanistan is a clear and complex instance of the sort of ‘new war’ that will not be decided once and for all on the battlefield by soldiers and weapons or through the anachronistic agency of foreign intervention. The strategic justifications advanced to justify the war—preventing a future sanctuary for a reconstituted Al Qaeda and avoiding the takeover of Pakistan by extremists– seem highly questionable. It is more plausible to promote such security goals by closing out a military intervention that fans the flames of anti-Americanism, gives extremism a good name in Pakistan, and exhibits once again the impotence of American imposed military solutions.

 

Such an analysis yields a single moral, legal, and prudential imperative: when foreign intervention is losing out to determined national resistance, leave the country quickly, stop the killing immediately, and declare victory with pomp and circumstance or leave in dignified silence acknowledging the uncertainties surrounding the future, especially as to whether the Afghans on their own can work out accommodations and whether the Taliban this time round is ready to compromise and is less dogmatic in its understanding of Islamic governance. At this stage of the conflict in Afghanistan these are the only outcomes within reach for the United States. Moving toward their embrace might also help avoid such misadventures in the future. This would require replacing the palace guard in Washington that has been calling the shots in American foreign policy for many years. I admit that a Beltway realist reading these musings would likely respond: “Dream on!” And that is the problem!

The Afghanistan War in the Mirror of the Tet Offensive: When ‘Defeat’ Became ‘Victory’

14 Aug


             On January 31, 1968 the combined forces of North Vietnam (DRV or Democratic Force of Vietnam) and the NLF (National Liberation Front) launched a spectacular series of attacks throughout the contested territory of all of South Vietnam. As many as 100 Vietnamese cities and towns were simultaneously attacked, 36 of 44 provincial capitals were captured, and the impregnable American Embassy complex in Saigon was penetrated. These attacks were all repelled in a few days, with the Vietnamese taking huge losses, 37,500 estimated deaths, which came on top of 90,000 lost soldiers in the preceding months. The American commander, General Westmoreland, had confidently predicted prior to the Tet Offensive that the NLF would never be able to replace such losses, and victory for the United States in the Vietnam War was near at hand.

 

            During the Tet Offensive the American losses were announced as 2,500. This ratio of comparative deaths, and the fact that the DRV/NLF could not maintain their presence in any of the urban areas that they briefly controlled, led Westmoreland and counterinsurgency experts to claim a military victory for their side. Add to this the evidence that the purpose of these coordinated attacks on the points of governmental control in Vietnan was not to kill or even to seize control of the country but to inspire popular uprisings, and these never materialized.  This was acknowledged by the DRV commander General Tran Do who affirmed that the purpose of the Tet Offensive was to stimulate a spontaneous uprising among the Vietnamese population against the American military occupation of the country. This perception of defeat by both sides seemed authoritative, and yet, and this is the point, irrelevant. In General Do’s words at the time: “In all honesty, we didn’t achieve our main objective, which was to spur uprisings throughout the South. Still, we inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans, and their puppets, and this was a big gain for us.”

 

            But far more consequential than the American casualties that was certainly upsetting to backers of the war in Washington, was the traumatic impact of the Tet Offensive on American public opinion and related Congressional support for continuing the Vietnam War. This impact was also foreign to the military imagination of the Vietnamese at the time. As General Do put it,  “As for making an impact in the United States, it had not been our intention—but it turned out to be a fortunate result.” Exposed by the Tet Offensive was what was called at the time ‘the credibility gap,’ the space between the optimistic assessments by the White House that the war was being won, and the realities of the conflict.  The Tet Offensive was understood at the time throughout the United States as a massive refutation of the claim that the Vietnamese adversary was knocking at the door of defeat, on the verge of surrender or collapse. As a result of the Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson decided to withdraw from the presidential race for his reelection in 1968, declared a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam to give diplomacy a chance, and rejected a request from Saigon for additional American troops.

 

It is true the war dragged on for several more years with heavy casualties on both sides, but the Tet Offensive changed the American goal from ‘victory’ to ‘peace with honor,’ that is, ‘defeat in disguise.’ The subsequent Christmas bombing of the North and the disastrous invasion of Cambodia in 1970 were part of the bloody effort during the Nixon/Kissinger period of American leadership to produce ‘honor.’ Actually, when the war finally came to an abrupt end in 1975, the dominant image at the time being that of Vietnamese collaborators with the American intervention desperately seeking to escape from Vietnam by clamoring aboard a helicopter taking off from the roof of the embassy. Not honor but humiliation, chaos, and defeat became the end game for the United States in Vietnam, or put differently, the price paid with lives and devastation to achieve what was called ‘a decent interval’ between the American departure and the collapse of the client regime in Saigon.

 

To this day, counterinsurgency insiders contend that the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and this conviction has partly explained why American policymakers have failed (or refused) to learn the defining lesson of Vietnam: the virtual impossibility in the early 21st century  of turning military superiority on the battlefield enjoyed by the intervening side into a favorable political outcome against an adversary that occupies the commanding heights of national self-determination. This learning disability has led directly to subsequent failed efforts, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Military superiority succumbs over time to the strong historical tides of the last seven decades favoring the logic of self-determination. Among other explanations for this conclusion that cuts against the grain of political realism if this:  the intervening side gets tired of a unresolved struggle if it last more than a few years. As the Afghan saying goes: “You’ve got the watches, we’ve got the time.” Nationalist endurance is far stronger than is geopolitical endurance, and this acts as an equalizer with respect to the asymmetries of military capabilities.

 

But my reason for recalling the Tet Offensive is less about this primary feature of conflict in our time, especially in the setting of what Mary Kaldor has usefully called ‘new wars,’ than it is to comment upon contradictory perceptions of victory. These conflicts tend to be resolved on political battlefield far from the sites of military struggle, although each in its own way. What seems to count most in the end is a decisive shift in political perceptions on the home front of the intervening side.  Neither the successful response to the attacks in terms of casualties or restored control of the cities in South Vietnam, nor the failure of the attacks to be followed by popular uprisings mattered in the end so far as the historical significance of the Tet Offensive is concerned. It hardly mattered that the military appraisal made by both sides was wrong, although the Vietnamese side was less wrong as the spike in American casualties added considerable weight to the political reassessments of the conflict by the White House and aroused much anger among the American people.

 

This recollection is not meant to be an exercise in historical memory or even in the differences between how the military thinks and how the political process in a liberal democracy works.  It is more an expression of frustration about the unwillingness of the Obama presidency to acknowledge the failure of the mission to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.  As with Vietnam, the public is continually told by the military commanders about how well things are going, and even when unexpected setbacks take place, these are discounted as ‘one-off’ incidents that should not be allowed to become occasions for reappraisal. There was recent disappointment in some circles within the United States that were skeptical about continuing the intervention in Afghanistan when the execution of Osama Bin Laden was not followed by a credible and liberating claim from Washington of ‘mission accomplished,’ an ironic recourse to the Bush miscalculation in the early months of the Iraq War. Such a claim would have played well throughout the American heartland, and probably given Obama a clear path to reelection in 2012. Public opinion according to recent polls reinforces such an interpretation: 59% of Americans would like to see all American troops taken out of Afghanistan immediately or within a year, while only 22% believe that the United States has sufficiently defined goals to make the war worthy of American military engagement.

 

This same skepticism among Americans about foreign military intervention now applies more generally, although it could shift quickly if a foreign source of terrorism was able to inflict major damage on perceived American interests. According to Newsmax, August 11, 2011, only 24% of Americans support the U.S. military role in Libya, and 75% believe that the United States should not engage in overseas military action “unless the cause is vital to our national security.” It is obvious that the Libya does not qualify as ‘vital,’ and the justification relied upon did not even pretend that ‘security’ was the rationale for military intervention, but invoked ‘humanitarism.’ Of course, leaders will always argue that an intervention undertaken is vital, and could hardly do less, considering that lives of citizens are put at risk. But what these poll results show is the relative wisdom of the unacknowledged force of public opinion: reject of humanitarianism as an adequate basis for warmaking and disbelief in the post-facto security arguments put forth by elected leaders; healthy doubts about the self-serving claims of the military to be on the verge of victory. But such wars go on, however dysfunctional, the bodies pile up, and the political opposition is disregarded, and this despite the American empire teetering on the edge of financial disaster.

 

Several observations follow. During the Vietnam Era public opinion counted for more when the government was making its political calculations about continuing an unpopular war. Unquestionably, there has been a decline in democratic accountability in the United States with respect to war/peace issues. In part, this reflected the presence of a robust peace movement during the Vietnam War, which in turn arose as a response to  the military draft that touched the lives of middle class America. Now there is no draft, the war is fought with drones and private contracting firms. Furthermore, the weaponry and tactics are designed to minimize American casualties relative to the destruction inflicted. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from a decade of warfare in Vietnam were not about whether to intervene in new wars but how. It may be that in place of international law and political prudence, both of which should rationally discourage intervention contra the political weight of self-determination, the new source of restraint will derive from fiscal pressures to reduce defense spending. So far the militarist consensus in Washington has largely exempted the bloated U.S. defense budget from the knives of the cost cutters, who while besides being social reactionaries are military hawks. Even the more socially sensitive Obama democrats have largely continued to acquiesce in this willingness to treat defense spending as non-discretionary, as well as sustaining Israeli militarism with enhanced annual subsidies.

 

I had hoped that the helicopter incident on August 6th, the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, in which 30 persons died, including members of the Navy Seals Elite Unit, would provide the excuse the Obama administration should have been waiting for to say finally that it was time to bring American troops home and end involvement in the struggle over the future of Afghanistan. It is common knowledge by now that the Afghanistan War is being fought against the nationalism Taliban and on behalf of a corrupted and incompetent Kabul regime for the political control of the country. This is a clear instance of a new war that will not be decided once and for all on the battlefield by soldiers and weapons or through the anachronistic agency of foreign intervention. The strategic justifications for the war in relation to a future sanctuary for a reconstituted Al Qaeda or in relation to the destabilization of Pakistan are extremely speculative, and seem more intelligently addressed by withdrawal from a military engagement that fans the flames of anti-Americanism, gives extremism a good name, and manifests the impotence of American imposed military solutions.

 

It adds up to a single moral, legal, and prudential imperative: when in doubt, stop the killing and the dying!