Why US foreign policy needs to take more account of its limits
"What could possibly go wrong?"
Benoît Bréville of Le Monde diplomatique warns in a recent essay about the danger of continuing escalation between the US and Russia in Ukraine:
An impossible victory, a predictable stalemate, a persistence in error simply for the sake of not losing face: this is the fate awaiting not just the Russians. The US has shown, in Iraq and Afghanistan, its inability to learn the lessons of its involvement in Vietnam. So it was to Kyiv that former deputy defence minister Nguyen Chi Vinh held up the mirror of history when he said, ‘We should tell our Ukrainian friends that it is ill-advised to allow their country to become an arena of power politics, to rely on military power to confront your giant neighbour, and to take sides in great power rivalry’. Backed by NATO and provided with shiny new equipment, Kyiv is now setting itself grandiose war aims, such as reconquering Crimea. By encouraging this extremism, the West is ensuring that the conflict will continue, expand and become yet more bitter. [my emphasis]
Different people drew different lessons from the Vietnam War, of course.
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Bréville also raises an important historical observation:
The question of Western troop deployments [in Ukraine] may soon arise. For now, Washington says that’s off the table. But didn’t President Lyndon Johnson insist in October 1964 that ‘we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves’ (2)? Within months, he had changed his tune. From 1965, three million Americans would go to Vietnam; 58,300 of them never returned.
One lesson that I wish Congress would implement - not just a lesson from the Vietnam War - is that they need to exercise meaningful oversight on military policies and wars. Not “Benghazi! Benghazi!! Benghazi!!!” style stunts, but actual oversight.
Stephen Walt points out the chronic arrogance of US policy since 1989 that came with bipartisan Cold War triumphalism has continued to lead the US into blunders, the most spectacular so far being the Iraq War, whose 20th anniversary we’re currently observing:
As a rule, most governments in the world want peace, and they don’t want outsiders getting in their business and telling them what to do. For the past 30 years or more, the United States has repeatedly declared that other governments ought to embrace a set of liberal principles (elections, the rule of law, human rights, market economics, among others) and join various U.S.-led institutions. The U.S. definition of “world order,” in short, was inherently revisionist: Washington would gradually guide the entire world toward a prosperous and peaceful liberal future. Democratic and Republican presidents used various tools to advance that goal, and occasionally used military force to topple dictators and accelerate the process.
The results have not been pretty: costly occupations, failed states, new terrorist movements, increased cooperation among autocrats, and humanitarian disasters. One might add Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine to the list, insofar as Russia’s decision to attack was at least partly a response to well-intentioned but ill-considered U.S. efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO. However desirable these goals may have been in the abstract, the results are what matter, and they were mostly disastrous.[my emphasis]
The last point is still heresy to the New Cold Warriors, the idea that Russian actions in Ukraine might have been in any way a response to Western actions. Since Russia was saying clearly and publicly in the 1990s and since that they were concerned about NATO expansion, it takes some imagination to claim they couldn’t have perceived any potential threat. (And, no, that doesn’t justify Russia invading Ukraine and annexing part of its territory.)
Andrew Bacevich recalls the Iraq War and the assumptions that the Cheney-Bush Administration used to justify it in the context of the current US-Russia faceoff in the Russia-Ukraine War with the heightened risk of nuclear war.:
Ukraine has become the locus of a conflict that, willy-nilly, pits Russia against the West — which means against the United States. How far can Washington push Putin before he tries to retaliate in some fashion against his primary adversary? Does President Biden even recognize the urgency of that question? If he does, he’s chosen not to share his concerns with the American people.
Granted, Biden has made clear his determination to prevent any direct American involvement in combat with Russia. The president likely calculates that the willingness of Americans to support Ukraine with billions of dollars in weapons and munitions stems in part from the fact that no U.S. troops are fighting and dying.
But there may well be another assumption that underlies popular support for U.S. involvement in Ukraine — namely, that the people in charge, beginning with the man in the White House, know what’s actually going on.[my emphasis]
Bacevich quotes Anatol Lieven, “The greatest threat of nuclear catastrophe that humanity has ever faced is now centered on the Crimean peninsula.”
It’s a risk that the Biden Administration and, independently, the US Congress should be taking very seriously. That doesn’t mean the US and NATO would have to stop supporting Ukraine in the current conflict. It does mean they need to keep their fantasies about bashing Russia in their pants.
Bacevich doesn’t see Joe Biden as some Dr. Strangelove character. At least not yet. But he does note pointedly, “I do wonder why the four-star Air Force General who recently told his troops to get ready for war with China in two years wasn’t immediately canned.”
And he gives us an unsentimental reminder about the Cuban Missile Crisis:
Here’s the problem, at least as I see it: however smart and well intentioned, the people in charge in Washington today don’t know everything they think they know — and everything they need to know either. Detailed studies of the Cuban missile crisis have revealed that Kennedy and his men were acting on information that was all too often inadequate or simply wrong. They thought themselves in a position to control events when they weren’t. To a considerable extent, the U.S. and the Soviet Union avoided war in October 1962 through sheer dumb luck — and the selective disobedience of certain U.S. and Soviet junior officers who knew a stupid order when they heard one.
He concludes with the kind of ironic question that I often find myself asking about US foreign policy: “A proxy war pitting the United States against a paranoid adversary with a massive nuclear arsenal at his command: What could possibly go wrong?“
Bréville, Benoît (2023): ‘Keep tilting the battlefield’. Le Monde diplomatique March 2023. <https://mondediplo.com/2023/03/01edito> (Accessed 2023-21-03).
Walt, Stephen (2023): Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America. Foreign Policy 03/14/2023. (Accessed 2023-21-03). <https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/03/14/saudi-iranian-detente-china-united-states/> (Accessed 2023-21-03).
Bacevich, Andrew (2023): TomDispatch 03/19/2023. <https://tomdispatch.com/on-missing-dr-strangelove/> (Accessed 2023-21-03). Includes introductory comments from Tom Engelhardt.