Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Vietnam and the War on Terrorism

I have completed my history assignment (mentioned in this post) to read Richard Nixon’s book No More Vietnams. My friend Lysis has provided a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book at these links:
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6

By the way, Lysis, a high school history teacher, has a very entertaining post about a poster war the ensued at his school not long after the elections last November.

In his book, Nixon covers the entire involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam beginning in the early part of the 20th Century up to 1985 when the book was written. He states emphatically that it is his view of history and that others may have differing views. Despite being very critical of mistakes made, he is quite even handed and does a fair job of representing the views of the various parties involved. He provides keen insights into how different parties viewed things and their motivations for acting as they did. Still, he provides no quarter for the Communists and the media.

Nixon’s book is very strong on facts, but also explores some of the emotional issues surrounding the war. I learned many facts that I had not known and came to understand that some of the conventional wisdom about the war is based on ignorance and/or distortion of those facts.

Nixon also provides a great deal of analysis sprinkled throughout the book as to the effects of various choices made by various parties. Some of these bits of analysis are multi-faceted and deeply insightful on several levels.

One main thesis of the book is important to us today. An American president can only prosecute a foreign war as long as the hearts of the people are behind it. We should not get involved militarily in foreign conflicts without a clear mission statement, a clear plan for accomplishing that mission, and a clear plan for getting out. The American people become worn down and fatigued with protracted wars that do not have a clear moral justification and that lack a plan for getting out.

No American president prior to 1969 made a clear moral argument for our involvement in Vietnam. We had no plan for getting out of Vietnam prior to that time. By the time Nixon’s “Vietnamization” plan to transfer responsibility for fighting North Vietnam to the indigenous South Vietnamese came along, the U.S. was already tired of the conflict and anti-war sentiment had become extremely strong.

Nixon says that our involvement in Vietnam was a just and moral cause, although, we used our military might incredibly ineptly. He details mistakes (some horrible) and lost opportunities, but then shows how we actually did win the war. He then takes the reader on a painful journey that shows how we lost the peace that had been won. He is highly critical of the Congress that immorally left an ally high and dry resulting in innumerable deaths and incomprehensible suffering.

Nixon says that we must take allies as they are where we can get them, and that we can’t demand pure allies. The point is that we accept an ally that is better than the alternative even if the ally has a less than pristine record on democracy, trade, and human rights. We have ways to coax allies into making changes, but we can use only blunt force with enemies. People have more rights under allies than they would otherwise.

Nixon also forecasts the future of war in third world countries. He calls this the Third World War. While most of his prognostications are based on the idea that we will mostly be fighting will be fighting groups sponsored and supported by the old Soviet Union, his discussion of the nature and causes of these wars proves eerily accurate. He discusses the impending rise of terrorism and says that this will become pandemic unless we head it off.

Nixon says that the hawks are wrong with the attitude that all foreign problems are essentially military matters, but that the doves are even more wrong when they say that diplomacy without military might is the answer to foreign problems. He rightly notes that diplomacy without the force to back it up is worse than worthless. Diplomacy works only when we have the ability and the will to provide far nastier consequences. He says that while military might should be our last option, we must have the ability and the will to use it as our first option if conditions warrant it.

But Nixon says that we should start solving problems long before military action needs to be threatened. He notes that isolationism simply cannot work in today’s world. While we may not be interested in events elsewhere in the world, we cannot avoid the fact that they involve and/or impact us. We need to provide an appropriate mix of economic aid, trade, training programs, and diplomacy to prevent problems before they happen, but that we must use our military might to resolve problems when these methods fail.

Nixon says that we must attack the root causes of the problems. Groups that employ military means and/or terrorism must be supported by some power. While some repressive movements rise spontaneously in third world countries, they never gain power unless they are supported by some other foreign power. We must address the training and material flow from these foreign powers or even address the foreign powers directly to resolve these problems.

This last observation goes hand-in-hand with Michael Ledeen’s analysis of the nature of terrorist networks today. Ledeen says that while it is in vogue to state that terrorist cells throughout the world are largely autonomous and are not necessarily led by al Qaeda, experts know that the terrorist network is quite integrated. It operates with great support both in leadership and material from Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

Ledeen feels we are not doing enough to address the root of the problem, but are only whacking at the leaves. “We have killed thousands of terrorists there, and arrested many more, and yet we clearly have not dominated them. … We’re not nearly as vigorous as we should be in speeding up the fall of the mullahs, the Assads, and a Saudi royal family that has played the leading role in spreading the doctrines that inspire the terrorists.”

I think Nixon makes it clear that we need to be aggressive in dealing with problems like those pointed out by Ledeen. We need to do more in Iran and Syria. However, we have to be careful about what we do in Saudi Arabia lest we get rid of an ally, but replace him with something worse.

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