Why I Love People’s “Vietnam Syndrome” – OpEd – Eurasia Review

Vietnam Syndrome was a term used after the American defeat in the Vietnam War to explain and complain about the US government’s reluctance to vigorously use international force to shape its foreign policy. This reluctance was from its earliest formulations felt by the foreign policy establishment in Washington, including conservative think tanks.

The use of the “syndrome” suggests that a medical disorder afflicted this political establishment and needed to be overcome as soon as possible. Yet for many others, myself included, the Vietnam Syndrome was greeted as a long-awaited cautious and principled post-Vietnamese plea for a rights-based, rights-respecting American foreign policy. self-determination of the countries of the South and restrictions on the use of international force enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.

Over the years, Vietnam Syndrome has lived this double life. One of the proposed remedies was the Weinberger Doctrine, which essentially sought to correct alleged government mismanagement of its intervention in Vietnam over a full decade. What Caspar Weinberger, a right-wing politician and at the time Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, proposed in 1983 was that the United States should not enter into future dubious non-defensive foreign wars, with the Vietnam War in mind, without meeting the following conditions:

1) The engagement must be deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies.

2) It must be done “wholeheartedly and with the intention of winning”.

3) The political and military objectives and the means of achieving them must be clearly defined.

4) As conditions change, reassess whether the commitment remains in the national interest.

5) Before a commitment is made, there must be “some reasonable assurance” of popular and congressional support.

6) A commitment to arms should be a last resort.

Weinberger. in particular, criticized the Vietnam engagement because it involved a gradual, incremental increase in U.S. engagement, which he argued almost always ends in failure. Although Weinberger, and those in the Beltway who quickly subscribed to his prescription for the future, adopted the doctrine as a formula for victory in future wars of intervention (what Tom Friedman later dubbed “wars of choice”) without law).

Read carefully, there are ambiguities in Weinberger’s formulation. It was never clarified whether the Vietnam War was considered vital to “our national interest” or lacked “a clear intent to win”. Yet it was hoped in Washington that the Weinberger Doctrine might put an end to the idea that under no circumstances should the United States expend the blood or treasury of its citizens on non-defensive wars in the Global South.

And yet, sophisticated political leaders in the United States understood that the Vietnam Syndrome carried more weight than offering a formula that guaranteed that policy makers could win such wars in the future. It was therefore not surprising that the first words spoken by President George HW Bush in 1991 after a US-led victory over Iraq in the first Gulf War were “By God, we have launched the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all”. The implied assertion was that victory in the desert in conventional warfare would demonstrate that the United States could turn its military superiority into political victory, which it had been unable to do in Vietnam.

Again, the request was ill-conceived and turned out to be disastrously premature. First, the Vietnam War was a war of national resistance waged against Western colonialist forces, not a defensive conventional war designed to reverse Iraq’s aggression and annexation of Kuwait. Beyond that, the military phase was mandated by the UN Security Council and regional consensus, with implementation delegated to a US-led coalition of countries. Only warmongering ideologues and short-sighted commentators could confuse the First Gulf War with the Vietnam War.

Neoconservatives eager to exploit the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s realized that the Vietnam Syndrome continued to frustrate their strategic hopes of democracy favoring military interventions, especially in the Middle East, by seizing the unipolar moment. Its advocacy format, Project for a New American Century (PNAC), actually acknowledged their program’s political reliance on “a new Pearl Harbor” to reawaken the dormant fighting instincts of the American public. Although the PNAC itself did not make the connection, Vietnam Syndrome has resisted earlier erasure efforts.

It was only finally overcome in the public sphere by the 9/11 attacks, which President George W. Bush seized upon in a moment of national hysteria to declare the Great War on Terror in 2001. These attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, indeed, the new Pearl Harbor that the PNAC had been waiting for. Yet once again the analogy has proven disastrously misleading, causing failures reminiscent of Vietnam in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as indirectly in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

The Weinberger Doctrine may have influenced the Pentagon to substitute air power and drones for ground boots whenever possible and rely on “shock and awe” tactics to quickly overwhelm a lesser adversary, but it turned out that these tactics were no more successful than what failed in Vietnam. Ultimately, costly, controversial and protracted occupations, the desired political outcomes have not been achieved in the targeted countries of the Global South. Despite the Soviet collapse, the United States continued to encounter frustration in its attempts to manage geopolitics, particularly when the effort was to accompany regime change intervention with state building along the lines Western neoliberals.

In my view, the prevailing and sensible interpretation of the Vietnam Syndrome was as an inhibition to entry into non-defensive wars without at least UN authorization and the mission’s compliance with international law. The Vietnam Syndrome was formulated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War not as a warning to warmongering bureaucrats against losing wars, but as an opposition to all wars of intervention and aggression. This primary meaning of the Vietnam Syndrome has been lost over the decades, a victim of state propaganda and complicit media, reinforced by private sectors profiting from the war.

When the former Bush announced to the world the burial of the Vietnam Syndrome “under the sands of the Arabian desert”, he was not delighted with the successful application of the Weinberger doctrine. It was celebrating the first clear post-Vietnam victory in the war. The legacy of widespread defeatism among the American people was what bothered and inhibited the Washington establishment, especially in Congress. Already a decade earlier, Ronald Reagan had said “[f]or too long we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome. Like Bush, Reagan had no trouble accepting the guidelines of the Weinberger Doctrine. What he objected to was the mood of political timidity in the country that weakened the will of public opinion to support the pursuit of adversaries in the Global South with American military power.

Among my current fears is that Russia’s attack on Ukraine has completely reversed the restraint guidelines implicit in the Vietnam Syndrome as far as the American public is concerned, with the odd partial exception of the extreme right of the political spectrum. Ukraine as a white and European society apparently the victim of an attack that caused tremors of fear in other Russian neighbors, especially those in Eastern Europe who were coercively located in the sphere of Soviet influence for over 40 years of the Cold War and had strong political bases of ethnic and emotional support in major Western European and North American countries.

Currently, the escalating Ukraine crisis suggests that the loss of the inhibiting influence of the Vietnam Syndrome irresponsibly risks catastrophic consequences in blood and treasure, seemingly unaware of the dangers of challenging the traditional spheres of influence of large powers such as Russia. This is not to condone Putin’s aggression, but rather to worry about making efforts to make the world a little more insulated against major wars, especially wars that are likely to be fought with weapons. nuclear.

Pre-2022 efforts to interfere in Ukraine’s politics by promoting anti-Russian movements while overlooking Ukraine’s abuse of Russian-oriented majorities in the Dombas do not vindicate Putin, but they do cast a cast a shadow over NATO’s assertions of a virtuous policy guided by respect for the territorial sovereignty of States, human rights and a mutual concern to maintain the conditions for peaceful coexistence between geopolitical rivals.

The apocalyptic dangers now facing the world with the greatest risk of nuclear war since at least the Cuban Missile Crisis also tell us why the problem in Vietnam was primarily one of promiscuous militarism rather than avoiding defeat at war. future, which was the concern of the Weinbergers. Doctrine.

In this context, I am a strong advocate for the revitalization of the Vietnam Syndrome in its populist variant, as a doctrine of strong restraint when it comes to the use of military force, and not only in countries of the South. Rather than a “syndrome,” it was from the outset 50 years ago an angry reaction to a botched war effort that was intended to inhibit and even discredit belligerent impulses in Washington.

I like the Vietnam Syndrome because it was the right road to redemption for American foreign policy after the defeat in Vietnam. Yet the Vietnam Syndrome promise was first reformulated by the militarized bureaucracy in Washington not to prevent wars, but to make them supposedly winnable by the Weinberger Diversion Doctrine, which may work conceptually but has failed miserably. once operationalized. And more recently, a sense of restraint has been all but removed from foreign policy deliberations when it comes to a major nuclear-armed state facing defeat at its own borders and ruled by a dangerous autocrat.

Privileging the just cause of resisting Russian aggression in Ukraine while neglecting the imperatives of geopolitical prudence in the nuclear age is an astonishing display of managerial incompetence in Washington that jeopardizes the future of the entire human species. . It should enlighten people everywhere about the grave dangers of a unipolar form of world order accentuated by the scattered possession of nuclear weapons. One false step on either side and we are finished as a species.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Queen Mary University of London Professor of Global Law and Research Associate at UCSB’s Orfalea Center for Global Studies.

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