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Covering Up Failure: Ignoring the Record of Regime-Changing Interventions

6 Dec

[Prefatory Note: the post below is the modified text of a keynote presentation at Fifth International Conference in Public Administration, Sofia University, Kliment Ohridski, “Public Governance after 2020: What we Know When we Know Nothing?” the title of my remarks was “The Record of American Military Intervention Since Vietnam: Why Knowledge Rarely Matters.” My central claim was that the militarized U.S. political class rejects the record of failure with respect to regime-changing interventions since suffering defeat in the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.]

“Covering up Failure: Ignoring the Record of Regime-Changing Interventions”

My remarks may seem somewhat almost irrelevant to the conference theme of “public governance.” In actuality, I think this inquiry is uncomfortably on point, provided we treat law, morality, knowledge as vital components of public governance. The central question being asked is ‘why American foreign policy persists in carrying out regime-changing interventions in countries of the Global South when the performative record has been so consistently dismal since 1975. These interventions have proved to be costly failures ever since Vietnam, and include Iraq and indirectly Libya, and most recently Afghanistan. With such a record surely the members of the U.S. political class, generally intelligent and well-educated, can be assumed to have become aware that under 21st century conditions such political/military undertakings do not work. This was not a welcome message in Washington, and was not allowed to influence American foreign policy, excepts in marginal respects.

It would seem that knowledge of failure doesn’t fundamentally reshape policy when strong bureaucratic and private special interests oppose a major substantive adjustment that challenges entrenched power. The negative assessment by the public of the lost war was dubbed in establishment circles as the ‘the Vietnam syndrome,’ suggesting a medical disorder in the body politic that was having the effect of irrationally constraining U.S. threats and uses of military force in light of the Vietnam experience. At first, some tactical adjustments were made by strategic planners in Washington that were hoped to serve as a cure for what had gone wrong in Vietnam without rejecting the viability of military intervention if future geopolitical challenges arise. These adjustments included professionalizing the U.S. armed forces (and eliminating the draft of ordinary citizens that sparked the anti-war movement as casualties accumulated), embedding media representative with combat units as well as not showing on TV returning servicemen and women in coffins, and refashioning counterinsurgency doctrine to stress bonding with the national population. Such changes helped restore the viability of regime-change, quickly restoring credibility of such undertakings in elite circles. These adjustments while well received in government circles, but were not sufficient to convince the American public that it was

desirable for the country to get back in the intervention business. It took the First Gulf War of 1991 to achieve this result, a quick battlefield victory in a war with widespread regional and international support, which showed to advantage American superior weaponry and had the added of largely being financed by allies of the US. It was left to President George H.W. Bush to run the victory lap: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” Sadly, Bush’s comment was vindicated by revived U.S. militarism and foreign intervention, especially in the Middle East.

The victory achieved against Iraq’s inferior military forces was projected as an impressive instance of the decisive relevance of military superiority, but its relevance to the Vietnam-type experience was misinterpreted, possibly deliberately. The First Gulf War in 1991 was essentially a conventional war, a typical undertaking of collective self-defense resolved by encounters between opposed military force, and having the single goal of reversing Iraq’s prior conquest, occupation, and annexation of Kuwait. The war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not involve intervention for regime-change or interference with the post-war political orientation of Kuwait. In fact, regime change in Baghdad was explicitly rejected as a goal by the American president. On the contrary, Kuwait’s sovereignty and independence was restored, while Iraq’s sovereignty and independence was respected, although the Iraqi people were seriously victimized by the imposition of post-war sanctions.

Despite the character of the First Gulf War, it proved possible to sell the victory to the American people as providing renewed confidence in U.S. capabilities to wage again cost effective warfare, especially on missions calling for regime change and occupation. In effect, the bad memories of Vietnam were erased prematurely. This shift in strategic outlook and the public mood paved the way to the notable  failures of subsequent years in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. True these failures were politically mild as compared to Vietnam largely by the political effect of shifting battlefield tactics away from land warfare, by relying on weapons and tactical innovations that produced many fewer American casualties and what deaths did occur were those of professional soldiers that assumed such risk by their own volition, and by privatizing war-making through contract arrangements with new commercial undertakings of a mercenary nature. These features of subsequent interventions in the Global South had the net effect of weakening anti-war activism in the United States despite the fact that the Iraq War of 2003 replicated the experience of the Vietnam, completely failing in its political objectives, including securing a friendly reception from the targeted society.

The larger dynamic involves the public management of unwelcome knowledge. An awkward challenge faced the foreign policy elite in the U.S.–What should we do when we know something we would rather not know? A condition of radical uncertainty pertains to the future of international relations. Governments are confronting increasingly problematic relations of knowledge, policy, and behavior with respect to public governance. I believe this reflects the pressures exerted by an unprecedented bio-ethical-political-ecological crisis for which there is no diagnosis—as in the Asian acknowledgement of helplessness: ‘disease unknown, cure unknown.’ The knowledge foundations of modernity resting on science, rationality, empirical observation, open debate has been subverted. ‘Why do nothing when we know something’ (versus What We Know When We Know Nothing) With a mobilized political will governments have the tools, knowhow,

and capability to address climate change even if unable to reach consensus as to the underlying malaise

Why intervention has not been a successful policy option for militarily strong states seeking to retain entrenched colonial possessions or pursue hegemonic/geopolitical ambitions in the world since the end of WW II? During the Cold War this observation applied to both the Soviet Union and the U.S.? The Soviet experience in Eastern Europe and later in Afghanistan strengthened impression of widespread illegitimacy and impotence of these forms of militarist geopolitics, inducing persevering forms of national resistance and leading to an eventual successful assertion of national self-determination that produced political failure for the intervening side of the struggle.

The U.S. experience was somewhat more ambiguous but also bloodier than that of its closest allies, the main European colonial powers were encountering historical forces that were part of a worldwide decolonizing momentum. Israel was the most important exception to such a transformative global trend. For distinctive reasons the Zionist movement managed to establish a settler colonial state in Palestine at a time when the historical flow was strongly favorable to anti-colonial aspirations due to the weakening of Europe by the two world wars, rising nationalism elsewhere, a favorable normative climate for European decolonization associated with Soviet opposition to colonialism and US ambivalence.

The American War in Vietnam was a sequel to the lost French colonial war in Indochina. It was a war fought at the interface between the colonial era and the Cold War epoch. signaling the hazards of large-scale external military intervention seeking to control the political future of a formerly colonized country in the Global South. The outcome exhibited the failure of intervention despite being backed by overwhelming military superiority. This bewildering reality was confirmed over and over again in subsequent years. It should have demonstrated to the political class in the Global North that enjoying an edge on the battlefield was no match for determined resistance especially if bolstered by external assistance, skilled tactics of resistance, and sustained by the deep roots of nationalism.

We are left with some questions. Why has this repeated experience of defeat insufficiently convincing to discourage intervention? How was China able to learn to satisfy its geopolitical ambitions outside its immediate region and border areas by non-military means? Is this learning disparity the key factor that explains U.S. decline and China’s rise? Or is it more a matter of state-guided capitalism being superior to market-driven capitalism, at least against the background of Asian political culture? Or are the economistic benefits of authoritarian order, including the distribution of material benefits, a large part of the story of the rise and fall of great powers under contemporary conditions?

What we should know by now is that imperial reliance by the Global North on hard power to control societies in the Global South is a costly, prolonged undertaking, prone to failure and is a major reason for the power shifts from West to East during the last half century. Whether the West, led by the U.S. will continue to rely on militarist geopolitics to confront the challenge of China, and the East, still remains an open question. As does the complementary question as to how China and others will respond, whether by geopolitical realignment or by a reflexive geopolitics that confronts Western militarization with its own versions of militarized postures in foreign policy and at home. Not far in the background are the ecological challenges associated with climate change that may make traditional geopolitics, including the diversion of energies and resources associated with arms races and war, a fatal indulgence for the human species.

Why Foreign Military Intervention Usually Fails in the 21st Century

1 Nov



When Nehru was taking a train on his return to India after studying abroad when he read of the Japanese victory over Russia in the 1904-05 Russo Japanese War. At that moment he had an epiphany, realizing the hitherto unthinkable, that the British Empire was vulnerable to Indian nationalism. An earlier understanding of the colonial reality by native peoples generally subscribed to the postulates of hard power primacy making it futile or worse to challenge a colonial master, although throughout history there were always pockets of resistance. This soft power attribute of colonial hard power by way of intimidation and a façade of invincibility is what made colonialism efficient and profitable for so long at the great expense of colonized peoples.


A traditional colonial occupation assumes that the foreign domineering presence, while oppressive and exploitative, refrains from ethnic cleansing or genocide in relation to the indigenous population. When settler versions of colonialism emerged in relation to the Western Hemisphere and regions occupied by traditional peoples that were without either population density or some kind of industrial capability, the occupier managed to achieve enduring control typically relying on brutal means to establish its state-building claim via some form of dispossession that successfully superseded indigenous identities. Thus the indigenous identity is marginalized or extinguished, and the settler identity is legitimized as the ‘true’ identity.


There is still a mysterious connection between military inferiority and political victory. It seems to defy common sense and the pragmatic wisdom of political elites that believe in the historical agency of hard power long after the empirical record casts severe doubt on such ‘realist’ claims. Of course, and it should not be overlooked, if an occupied people mistakenly chooses to risk its future by militarily challenging the occupier on the battlefield it is likely to lose, and may suffer extreme losses. Military resistance is possible, but it needs to be calibrated to the interplay of unequal capabilities and take advantage of elements of conflict that favor the militarily weaker side.


As Tolstoy portrays in War and Peace the extraordinary Russian resilience displayed in defeating and expeling the superior military forces of Napoleon’s France, it was a matter of tactically retreating to the point that French supply lines were stretched beyond their capacities to maintain their alien and foreign presence, especially given the rigors of the Russian winter; Hitler’s war machine experienced a similar devastating defeat at the hands of the outgunned Soviet defensive forces who also understood the benefits of withdrawal. In effect, there are tactical, geographical, ideological, normative dimensions of conflict that when intelligently activated can neutralize the seemingly decisive advantages of the militarily superior side that has the best weaponry. The history of imperial decline also illustrates the eventual neutralization of the sharp realist edge that had been earlier achieved through battlefield dominance.


The architects of colonial expansion made ideological claims that were able to give their economic and political ambitions a kind of moral justification. It was Europe’s moral hubris to insist upon an imperial entitlement premised on the supposed civilizational and racial superiority of Western peoples. Such a rationale for conquest and occupation put forward an apparent normative claim to govern backward peoples, and additionally argued that more advanced industrial practice make more efficient use of resources than did the native population.


In the period since World War II, considering the weakening of the European colonial powers, a determined drive for nationalist self-empowerment spread to all of Asia and Africa. Each situation was different, and in some the colonial power left more or less willingly after a period of struggle, as in India, while in others long wars ensued as in Indochina and Algeria. The wave of anti-colonial successes politically transformed world order, creating dozens of new states that reshaped the political landscape of the United Nations. The anti-colonial movement enjoyed extraordinary success in achieving formal independence for colonized people, but it did not end the role of hierarchy in structuring international relations and the world economy. The geopolitical ascendancy of the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the capitalist world economy sustained on a material basis the exploitative and dominant relationship of the West to the non-West.


During the Cold War, geopolitical rivalry and American efforts at counter-revolution directed at left-oriented political developments, led to military interventions designed to impose limits on the exercise of the right of self-determination. The Soviet interventions in East Europe, such as Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were emblematic of such a pattern within the state socialist bloc of countries. The United States relied on covert interventions whenever possible (as in Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954), and resorted to military interventions when necessary to uphold its strategic and ideological interests. The Vietnam War was the most important example of a full-fledged intervention designed to prevent the emergence of a left-leaning government that would strengthen Communist influence in South Asia.


The United States enjoyed complete military dominance in Vietnam throughout the decade long war, having mastery of air, sea, and land, yet proved vulnerable to certain defensive tactics of guerrilla warfare. The war was lost by the United States in the end because its political system lost patience with its inability to establish stability in support of a Vietnamese leadership that was anti-Communist and dependent on the West. Some militarists contend that the war was lost on TV in American living rooms (seeing the body bags of Americans killed in Vietnam swayed public opinion) or because the military presence that reached a half million relied on conscripted troops that gave rise to a student led anti-war movement. In other words, the war was lost politically, not militarily.


Such an understanding is partly true, but it overlooks the role of national resistance in Vietnam, and attributes the outcome to the faltering political will of the intervening side. The great advantage of those national forces seeking to expel foreign occupation, even if indirect as in Vietnam where the United States was nominally supporting one side in a civil war, is its familiarity with the terrain and its far greater stake in the outcome. Henry Kissinger made the apt observation that in a counterinsurgency war if the counterinsurgent side doesn’t win, it loses, while if the insurgent side doesn’t lose, it wins. Such a statement, not surprisingly considering its source, overlooks the role of people, especially the greater steadfastness of those fighting for the independence of their country as compared with those seeking to impose an alien or foreign solution on a conflict. The foreign intervener calculates whether it is worth the cost, and in a democratic society, the mixture of casualties and the absence of a timely victory, gradually undermines the popular enthusiasm that may have accompanied the earliest expressions of support. Patience among the citizenry runs out when the foreign war does not seem to be closely connected with the defense of the national homeland. This became especially clear in the United States during the latter stages of the Vietnam War when the American public began to perceive a ‘credibility gap’ between the government’s claim that it was winning the war and a more sober account of a stalemate without a victorious end in sight. For the Vietnamese, this was not a matter of whether to give up or not, but how to continue their struggle despite their material inferiority and the adversities associated with the devastation of their country. The Vietnamese leadership was prepared for every eventuality, including a 50-year retreat to mountainous regions, being convinced that at some point the foreigners would tire of the conflict and go home.


The United States as global hegemon is incapable of learning such lessons or accepting the ethos of self-determination that has such salience in the post-colonial world. Instead it tries over and over again to reinvent counterinsurgency warfare, hoping finally to discover the path leading to victory. The American strategic community believed the lessons of Vietnam were to build better support at home for the war effort, embark on war with sufficient force to achieve victory quickly, and abandon the drafting of its military personnel from among its youth. The warmakers also tried to design weaponry and tactics so as minimize casualties in these one-sided wars for the intervening side. At first, the adjustments seemed to work as the adversary was foolish enough to meet the foreign challenge on the battlefield as in the 1991 Iraq War or where the military intervention was itself seeking to remove Serbian foreign rule as in Kosovo in 1999. There was enthusiasm in the Washington think tanks for what were thought to be a new triumphal era of ‘zero casualty wars.’ Of course, there were zero (or very low) casualties, as in these two wars, but only for the foreign intervener; the society being attacked from the air endured heavy casualties, and much devastation, as well as the demoralizing experience of total helplessness.


In the post-9/11 atmosphere of ‘a global war on terrorism’ this same geopolitical logic applies. The violence is carried to wherever on the planet a threat is perceived, and the victims are not only those who are perceived, whether rightly or wrongly as posing the threat, but also to the innocent civilians that happen to be living in the same vicinity. There is no deference to the sovereignty of other countries or to civilian innocence, and a unilateral right of preemptive attack is claimed in a manner that would be refused to any adversary of the West. The weaponry is designed to minimize political friction at home, exemplified by the growing reliance on attack drones that can inflict strikes without ever risking casualties for the attacker. Such weaponry allows war to persist almost permanently, especially as it serves both bureaucratic and private sector interests, and produces an almost enveloping securitization of the political atmosphere, destroying democratic freedoms in the process.


As the outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq show, despite the enormous military and economic effort by the United States, the political outcome was disappointing, if not yet clearly a defeat. And the results are strategically worse from an American perspective than the original provocation and goals.Putting the point provocatively, many in the Washington policymaking world would be secretly glad if there occurred a second coming in Iraq of Saddam Hussein who alone could restore unity and order to the country. The American version of a civilizing mission was ‘democracy promotion,’ which proved just as unpalatable to the population being attacked and occupied as were the earlier moral claims of outright colonial administrations. Indirect adverse consequences from a U.S. perspective of these failed intervention included the intensification of Sunni/Shi’ia sectarian tensions throughout the region and the establishment of fertile breeding grounds for anti-Western political extremism.


The West also builds support for its militarist approaches to contemporary forms of conflict by demonizing its adversary, ignoring their grievances, whether legitimate or not. The politics of demonization that fits so neatly with ascribing terrorist behavior to the other also has the effect of rejecting diplomacy and compromise. Yet interestingly, there is a willingness to regard yesterday’s demon as today’s ally. This shuffling of ‘the enemy’ has been happening constantly in the setting of Iraq and Syria. The abrupt entry of IS on the scene is the most spectacular example of such a shuffling of alignments, having the effect of suspending the anti-Assad efforts of the United States and Europe.


There is more to these unlearned lessons than strategic failures, and being on the wrong side of history. These venture cause millions of ordinary people in distant countries to bear the terrifying brunt of modern weaponry that kills, wounds, displaces, and traumatizes. For the intervener the outcome is at worst a regrettable or even tragic mistake, but the society back home persists in its complacent affluence; but for the target societies, in contrast, the experience of such foreign military encroachment is experienced as swallowing a massive dose of criminality in a global setting in which the criminals scandalously enjoy total impunity.


Given the way elites think and militarism is structured into the bloodstream of major states, foreign military intervention is intrinsic to the war system. We must work now as hard to eliminate war as earlier centuries worked to eliminate slavery. Nothing less will suffice to rescue the planet from free fall to disaster.


In the end, we have reached a stage in the political development of life on the planet where civilizational and species survival itself depends on the urgency of building an effective movement against the war system that remains indispensable to sustain hierarchy and exploitation, wastes huge amounts of resources, and dangerously diverts problem-solving priorities from climate change and the elimination of nuclear weaponry. Unless such a radical transformation of the way life on the planet is undertaken in the decades ahead, two intertwined developments are likely to make the future inhospitable to human habitation even if the worst catastrophes can be avoided: globalization morphing into various forms of authoritarian and oppressive political leadership intertwined with extremist movements of resistance that have no vision beyond that of striking back at the oppressors. How to evade such a dark future is what should be everywhere preoccupying persons of good will.