Missing the Fundamentals

Spencer Ackerman, associate editor of the magazine, has written a remarkable piece for the New Republic, most of whose editors and writers, it is worth remembering, were generally favorable to the war in Iraq during the run-up and through most of the first two years. He sees the administration and many war supporters among conservatives and neoconservatives reverting to a pattern they or their intellectual/political forebears displayed during the last agonizing years of the Vietnam war. He coins the phrase "The other Vietnam syndrome" for the phenomenon.

In brief, they have shifted from emphasizing the prospects for victory to warning about the dangers of defeat – and placing the blame for possible defeat not on conditions on the ground or the wisdom of the war itself but on a lack of will to win among strategic elites back home. We’re losing not because the future of Iraq is not, or should not be, America’s to dictate, but because critics of the war, and even of the administration’s prosecution of the war, are sapping the will to fight brutally enough to win.

You can see it in the president’s insistence on returning the war to front-and-center in recent speeches, at a time when some Republican strategists are trying to shift the emphasis in the election from the war to the economy (which by the usual numbers is reasonably healthy, though there may concerns about how the fruits of economic growth are shared). It doesn’t seem like smart politics, and the president is nothing if not a shrewd political animal, at least when the politics are electoral. In terms of the other Vietnam syndrome, however, it makes a certain amount of sense.

"On the right," Ackerman writes,

"the latter half of 2006 is feeling a lot like 1968, the year that the American public finally lost faith in the Vietnam war. And, just as they did then, conservatives are turning causality on its head: People aren’t growing disillusioned with the war because we’re not winning it; we’re not winning it because people have grown disillusioned. After Vietnam, this analysis enabled the right to avoid the agonizing reappraisal of U.S. foreign policy that has been the war’s legacy for liberalism and the Democratic Party."


I would question whether liberalism and the Democratic Party have undertaken as agonizing and thoroughgoing a reappraisal of U.S. Foreign policy as Spencer Ackerman seems to believe. It’s probably a bit unfair but not altogether without justification to suspect the Democrats and liberals support the kind of foreign adventures a Democratic president undertakes – see Bosnia and Kosovo – based on the essentially Wilsonian crusading and hegemonic spirit that is still America’s fundamental approach to the world. But they have learned to be skeptical, perhaps belatedly and often not in public, about adventures undertaken by a Republican president, especially one with whom they feel (to put it as mildly as possible) so little empathy or sympathy.

But Ackerman’s point about the conservative response to Vietnam, which avoided tussling with the fundamental question about whether the war was justified or winnable at all by laying defeat at the feet of the defeatist anti-war movement, strikes me as valid and important. He thumbnails the intellectual progression of several reasonably representative figures of the time, including Norman Podhoretz and Henry Kissinger. "Most Republicans and conservatives initially supported the war," he argues, "but criticized Lyndon Johnson’s handling of it." If only he would stop micro-managing, unleash the military by mining Haiphong Harbor or obliterating the Ho Chi Minh trail, then we could win.

When Richard Nixon came to office he promised "peace with honor," which turned out to mean intensifying the war for a while. When that didn’t work and Congress got impatient enough to vote to cut off funding in 1974, the critics became the reason the war wasn’t working. If only they had given the strategy more time to work, we still could have won the thing. Congress had betrayed the troops and the antiwar movement was guilty of pressuring them to do it. As Henry Kissinger put it back then, "the so-called peace movement had evolved from seeking an end of the war to treating America’s frustrations in Indochina as symptoms of a moral degeneration that needed to be eradicated root and branch." Letting the desire for peace slide into anti-Americanism undermined the country as a whole and destroyed the essential will to win.

It may seem strange to assert that the most essential ingredient for victory in a war is what you or I think about the country’s leadership rather than such mundane matters as troops on the ground, equipment, tactics, intelligence or a clear set of objectives. But by casting the reason for the debacle in Vietnam in this way, conservatives avoided dealing with the deeper question of whether the Vietnam war was really an honorable, justifiable or even prudent undertaking.


Now they’re pulling the same trick with respect to the Iraq war. The war is going badly. It can’t be because the war was unjustified, because we not only justified it we were eager for it to begin, more than ready to be impressed by "shock and awe." It can’t be because those tasked with running the war were incompetent, because we have stood by those leaders through thick and thin and aren’t about to admit that they might have been mistaken. It can’t be because those same leaders were willfully blind not only to the unpromising ethnic divisions in Iraq but also failed to pay close enough attention as an insurgency developed? Can it?

Most of all, it can’t be because the grand national strategy of "extraregional hegemony" – which Christopher Layne, author of the fascinating new book The Peace of Illusions, argues has been the de facto U.S. grand strategy since at least shortly before World War II – by its very nature gets the U.S. involved in conflicts that are not only hard to win but utterly marginal to core U.S. interests. Almost all elected Republicans and Democrats, while they might not cop to the term, subscribe to this territorially and ideologically aggressive foreign policy, though they may quibble over where to intervene to create yet another test of American "credibility" next. We certainly can’t expect them to rethink something so intrinsic to their very political natures as to be virtually unnoticed as an ideological position at all.

So the rush is on to blame any and all failures in Iraq on the very people who tried to prevent the U.S. from getting involved in this act of aggression in the first place. Yes, there are johnny-come-latelies to the ranks of war critics, people who were neutral or supporters of the war until it became too obvious to ignore that it wasn’t going well. But some of us were there from before the beginning.


It may not be only conservatives who use this blame-the-critics-for-sapping-American-will-to-win ploy. Most certified (or certifiable) election pundits expect the Democrats at least to take control of the House on Tuesday. If the Democratic victory is substantial enough – say a gain of 25 seats or more – it is likely to be interpreted as a negative referendum on the Iraq war. But will that make much difference in the course of the war?

If only for structural reasons, it could make very little difference. If Democrats control the House, it is likely to be by a fairly narrow margin, and one leavened by the fact that national Democrats were more than happy to pour money into the campaigns of candidates who ran to the right of incumbent Republicans on issues from gun control to abortion to foreign policy – see Heath Shuler in North Carolina or Brad Ellsworth in Indiana. And the Democratic Party is far from having a coherent, let alone unified position on how to get out of this mess – or even whether we should try very hard. Our constitutional structure gives the executive branch the dominant role in conducting foreign policy – threatening to cut off funds is the only way for the House to have real leverage, and that’s a last-ditch kind of tactic.

President Bush, if I read him correctly, may very well dig his heels in further if confronted by criticism from a Democrat-controlled House and refuse absolutely to change. He might change course without admitting it’s anything more than a few intelligent tactical adjustments in response to the report expected from former Secretary of State James Baker, the Bush family’s consigliere who has apparently been assigned the task of trying to pull the blundering son’s chestnuts out of the fire. But even a Democrat-majority Congress could have little direct influence on foreign policy.


If the Democrats do gain control of the House, of course, they could be very useful conducting investigations into various actions and issues. What did the White House really know about WMD before the invasion? How extensive was the cherry-picking of intelligence? How many retired generals would be happy to testify on the incompetence of Don Rumsfeld? Why did the Bushies fail to connect the dots before 9/11? Which genuine experts on terrorism were ignored or sidelined so the neocons could have their pet project of ousting Saddam? And on and on.

Such investigations would be useful if only because they would keep the executive branch busy responding and help to dictate the news cycles, taking much of the initiative away from the White House. If they lead eventually to something resembling a national discussion of whether the U.S. really wants to pursue extraregional hegemony as a grand strategy, they might be useful. But even if Democrats win Tuesday they are likely to have little substantial effect on policy in the short run.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).