In 1979, the estimable historian Theodore Draper published an article called "Ghosts of Vietnam." That was fourteen years after the American intervention in Vietnam had started in earnest,and we are now eleven years away from 9/11 and the two wars that followed. It was four years after Saigon had fallen (Iraq, I might note, is now an Iranian ally once again on the verge of civil war), and the same year in which a Chinese attack on Vietnam exposed the absurdity of the original justifications for the war. Draper stated the theme of the article on his first page. "One might well assume," he said, "that the present custodians of American foreign policy had been chosen because they were proven right in their judgment of the war. It could come as a surprise that, in order to rise to the top of the post-Vietnam American political system, it was almost necessary to be wrong, hopelessly and certifiably wrong. Yet in some odd way, that is what has happened." Draper's main examples were Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brzezinski's then-staffer, Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington. Not only had they all supported the war, but none of them had ever come up with any very good reasons for doing so. Yet they remained pillars of the foreign policy establishment and at that moment they were directing American foreign policy. Meanwhile, by the end of 1980, most of the Senators who had opposed the war from the beginning, including J. William Fulbright, George McGovern, Gaylord Nelson, Wayne Morse, and Eugene McCarthy, had lost their seats, retired, or died.
During the next decade those favoring a restrained foreign policy frequently faced accusations of suffering from the "Vietnam syndrome," a serious disease whose victims had a reflexive aversion to deploying force abroad. During the same decade a neoconservative counteroffensive argued violently that liberal opposition had lost the war in Vietnam. In retrospect, however, it is clear that the most important victims of "Vietnam syndrome" were the Pentagon and, as a result, the Reagan Administration. Military leaders who lived through Vietnam as junior or field-grade officers knew that another such disaster would finish the American military as they knew it. Even Reagan's Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger opposed the use of force except to meet direct threats to the security of the United States. With the sole and almost comic exception of Grenada, the Reagan Administration did not initiate a single foreign war. After more than 250 Marines died in Lebanon, Reagan quickly pulled the rest of them out. He, like Eisenhower, found the winning political formula for the Cold War: talk tough, build nuclear weapons, but stay out of messy fights.
George H. W. Bush, of course, invaded Panama--Grenada on a slightly larger scale--and liberated Kuwait. On the latter occasion, he declared, "we've kicked Vietnam syndrome once and for all." But he hadn't: his design and execution of the war, directed by Vietnam veteran General Colin Powell, carefully avoided occupying Iraq and undertaking long-term responsibilities. That frustrated the chicken hawks like Paul Wolfowitz who had stayed out of Vietnam but now wanted to replay it. They had to wait for a President of their own generation to get their chance.
I am weighing in in place of Theodore Draper this morning because Chuck Hagel's nomination is under strenuous attack from neoconservatives because of his skeptical attitude about American power and the use of force; because he opposed the surged in Iraq (although he voted for the original resolution authorizing the war); because he evidently opposes war with Iran; and because he once referred to a "Jewish lobby." That choice of words was infelicitous, since the vast majority of American Jews are neither lobbyists nor neoconservatives, but conservative Jewish lobbies do exercise enormous power in Washington, power comparable or even greater than that of the NRA, and a taboo has grown up against pointing this out. Neoconservatives are accusing Hagel of being an appeaser and, in one case--Elliot Abrams--of being an anti-Semite with a Jewish problem. It seems only fair to point out that Abrams has a Jewish problem of his own: he argued in a 1997 book, Faith or Fear: How Jews can Survive in a Christian America that Jews should become Republicans. Most of his fellow Jews have declined to follow that path, and many, I'm inclined to think, still believe in an America that is defined by its Constitution, not by any religion, and that they therefore do not need to ally with the most militant Christian factions to "survive" here.
The necons also hate Hagel because he is a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart, whose opinions might carry some weight that theirs do not. (I don't think there's a single prominent neocon who fought in Vietnam and I can't think of one who even served as a non-combatant in that era, as I did myself from 1970 to 1976.) Hagel is an almost exact contemporary of mine and many of us learned important lessons in those years, especially about the United States's ability to build a new client government in a nation in the midst of a civil war. The events in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 12 years have only reaffirmed those lessons, at an enormous new cost to American society. I am proud that I did not allow September 11 to make me forget them, and thus, just weeks after the attack, I wrote and published the following:
"Although we now have a right and a duty to strike at any perpetrators we can identify, it seems to me far from certain that the kind of precision strikes in which the American military now specializes will be able to destroy Osama bin Laden, much less his organization, within Afghanistan. That country is very large—approximately 1000 by 400 miles of mostly mountainous terrain—and has a population of more than twenty million people. The Soviet Union had no success operating there; can our army expect much more? Can we really commit the resources necessary to establish law and order in a hostile country in which Muslim fundamentalists are the strongest political force? Can we conquer Iraq, which the Bush administration clearly suspects of complicity, at the same time? Is the western world prepared to re-occupy large portions of the Middle East for decades to come?"
The neocons' real quarrel is with Barack Obama, who did opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, but who has now chosen his second Secretary of State who at the time supported it. He decided to escalate the war in Afghanistan, just as Richard Nixon initially wanted to escalate the war in Vietnam, but he has now reached the inevitable conclusion that we have done what we could there as well. Meanwhile, the Army and Marines, as I can testify, are as disinclined as they were after Vietnam to become involved in anything similar and will remain so for a long time to come. The neocons, rather than reconsider--something of which they are incapable--now want to compound their disastrous mistakes with yet another one, a war with Iran. But a more interventionist foreign policy, it seems, will not be an outcome of our current political crisis, just as the Civil War was followed by one of the least militaristic periods in the whole history of the US. The Hagels are winning the argument.