Belmont Club

The Global "Vietnam"

The phrase “Vietnam” came to symbolize a “public aversion to American overseas miltary involvements” after Lyndon Johnson failed to beat Ho Chi Minh.  Until Ronald Reagan it was an article of Washington political wisdom that ‘Vietnams’ were to be avoided.  For a brief period Ronald Reagan succeeded in restoring  self-confidence not only through actual victory in the Cold War but by arguing that Vietnam was a narrative deliberately imposed by enemies upon the minds of the American public to paralyze it.

But the ghost of Vietnam had not been permanently exorcised.  It returned with a vengeance in the 2008 Obama administration under the new name of the “don’t do stupid stuff”. David Rothkopf, writing in Foreign Policy,  explains.

According to multiple reliable sources, on Air Force One during President Barack Obama’s recent Asia trip, he spent some time talking with his traveling press corps about his approach to foreign policy. He was defensive and, by one account, “fuming.” He felt that the criticism of his approach was unfair. He had clear ideas about how to manage America’s global interests. In his own words, they centered on a single concept: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

In fact, after making this point, he reportedly stood up, headed forward toward his own cabin on the plane, and then stopped. He turned back to the gathered reporters, and, much like an elementary school teacher hammering rote learning into students, he said, “So what is my foreign policy?” The reporters, in unison, then said, “Don’t do stupid shit.”

“Don’t do stupid shit” was a synonym for “I’m not going to get trapped in a Vietnam”.  However Rothkopf observed that the most important Red Line in Obama’s world could be crossed the other way around.  You could get into Vietnam by backing into it. The administration’s greatest weakness was failing to realize that inaction was also policy. Not doing something could also be “stupid shit” and passivity was no protection from landing ass backwards in a quagmire.

Matthew Yglesias writing in Vox, describes the administration strategy to avoid awakening the spirits which destroyed Lyndon B. Johnson.  It essentially involved telling everyone to shut up and cool their jets.  After all there ain’t no ghosts and until recently there weren’t no ISIS neither, unless you counted a JV team tricked out in a Lakers uniform. No point making any Republican noises which might attract them.

the core group of real “Obama people” has a surprisingly dovish self-conception, where they see themselves operating in a world in which demands for military intervention are constant and endless— from the media, from congressional Republicans, from foreign governments and their allies in Washington, and from the permanent security bureaucracy itself — but America’s actual ability to engage in non-counterproductive interventions is quite limited. …

Foreign conflicts are likely counterproductive on many levels — creating new generations of widows and orphans who resent the West, deepening ideological polarization between Islamists and liberals, and opening up new venues for jihad.

Imagine the administration’s horror then when after studied inaction, they heard a foreign policy crisis wailing in this distance which refused to go away.  No matter how little they provoked the dread spirit calling in the night, it stubbornly came closer and may be standing outside the Oval Office door itself.  Nobody wants to open the door and look the apparition in the face, for fear of what they might see.  Yglesias continues.

In that context, the administration is faced with a nightmare. And it’s a nightmare that looks a lot like what played out in Paris on November 13. …

A situation like the one above would demand a response that — like the invasion of Iraq — would almost certainly be counterproductive. It would be a violation of the “don’t do stupid shit” principle that constitutes a more profound national security doctrine than Obama is given credit for. After all, whether an attack comes tomorrow or next week or next month or next year, the US government is already well aware of the threat posed by ISIS.

The ghost might speak, and they would have to answer. It might even have a name, in fact the very name they were hoping never to hear. Yglesias says: “the problem is that inaction seems like a political impossibility. Having discussed this problem with several members of Obama’s team, I believe this inaction problem is” central to the administration’s paralysis.

If there were any ideas for countering it that the White House thought made sense, the administration would be executing them already. But an actual attack on US soil would, on an emotional level, demand that we “do something” — something that would already have been rejected as unworkable or counterproductive. A land invasion of ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq would be costly and only serve to further roil the waters of the region. Yet the idea of a president going on television in the wake of an attack and not vowing further punitive measures is inconceivable.

In this way, the hardest problem in US counterterrorism policy is in some ways as much a speechwriting challenge as anything else. The next time something goes wrong and an attack hits the United States, how do you sell the American people on the idea of not really doing anything about it?

That’s the problem right there: how to persuade the American people it is “stupid shit” to fight back.  One rhetorical place to start is by invoking the shade of “Vietnam”. The problem for the White House is that may be the name of the monster knocking on the Oval Office door.

The intellectual source of the administration’s problem lies in their failure to understand in what a “Vietnam” actually consists. It does not necessarily refer to any random overseas commitment, but to any progressively failing  security policy from which there is no exit. Seen in this light, the precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, the unthinking use of American power to smash Libya under the rationale of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine and the Iran nuclear deal can be just as much an escalation as Lyndon Johnson’s landing of the Marines in 1965.

Inaction expanded Obama’s security dilemma to the point where he is in a bigger quagmire than Lyndon Johnson ever was.  He is in a kind of Vietnam. The difference is that America could leave that Southeast Asian country, but as Yglesias notes, this time the enemy can pursue the retreating troops back to Fort Hood. Robert Kagan writes in the WSJ that Obama has put the entire international order at risk by forgetting that it rested upon active stability.  You had to fly it like a plane, not simply fold your arms and refuse to do “stupid shit”.

For several years, President Barack Obama has operated under a set of assumptions about the Middle East … there could be no return of U.S. ground troops in sizable numbers … the U.S. has no interests in the region great enough to justify such a renewed commitment. …

These assumptions could have been right—other conflicts in the Middle East have remained local—but they have proven to be wrong. The combined crises of Syria, Iraq and Islamic State have not been contained. …

The multisided war in the Middle East has now ceased to be a strictly Middle Eastern problem. It has become a European problem as well. …  The spillover of the Middle East crisis into this weakened Europe threatens to undermine the continent’s cohesion and sap the strength of trans-Atlantic ties. …

There is a Russian angle, too. Many of these parties, and even some mainstream political movements across the continent, are funded by Russia and make little secret of their affinity for Moscow. …

Where does the U.S. fit into all this? The Europeans no longer know, any more than American allies in the Middle East do….

The president has also been inclined to reject options that don’t promise to “solve” the problems of Syria, Iraq and the Middle East. He doesn’t want to send troops only to put “a lid on things.”

In this respect, he is entranced, like most Americans, by the image of the decisive engagement followed by the victorious return home. But that happy picture is a myth. Even after the iconic American victory in World War II, the U.S. didn’t come home. Keeping a lid on things is exactly what the U.S. has done these past 70 years. That is how the U.S. created this liberal world order.

Obama’s struggle to preserve the liberal world order without touching the controls has led to a departure of the aircraft from controlled flight.  It’s now in a spin. He is now facing a catastrophe which bids fair to put that which destroyed Lyndon Johnson’s political career in the shade.  Yet as Matthew Yglesias notes all he can think of is to “sell the American people on the idea of not really doing anything about it”.

The most lasting contribution of Barack Obama to history may be to retire the phrase “Vietnam syndrome” from the lexicon and replace it with a single new word: in future years to completely tie yourself in knots will be to “Obama” something.  It’s a genuine claim to fame though perhaps not quite the immortality the administration hoped it would be remembered for.

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