For more than 60 years, as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out in several books, the national security establishment of the United States has generally generally assumed that American military intervention is the solution to any major problem overseas. Within the government—and especially in civilian bureaucracies—dissenters from this view have been rare, and usually marginalized. Occasionally, however, a determined President has stood in the way of the bureaucracy and blocked what would have been a catastrophic intervention. Such was the case in 1961-2, when John F. Kennedy kept the Unites out of war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Last week’s revelation of a memorandum from dissenting State Department officials calling for war against the Assad regime in Syria confirms that President Obama has been playing a parallel role for some time.
John F. Kennedy took office in January 1961 in the midst of a series of crises around the world. Nikita Khrushchev was threatening to face the United States with a choice between war in Europe and the loss of West Berlin. The newly independent Congo had erupted into civil war. The CIA presented Kennedy with its plans to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba. And in Laos, the United States was poised to intervene in a civil war between a US-backed right wing government on the one hand, and a coalition of neutralists and communists supported by both the USSR and Hanoi on the other. Meanwhile, in neighboring South Vietnam, the security situation was deteriorating rapidly and the Diem regime was threatened.
As I showed in detail in my book, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War, Kennedy for nearly the whole of the year 1961 was deluged with a series of proposals from the Defense and State Department for large-scale military intervention in Laos, in South Vietnam, or in both. He repeatedly refused to accept them, noting that North Vietnam and China could easily intervene far more heavily in Laos than the United States could, and arguing that it would be almost impossible to secure public or international support for a war in South Vietnam. In November, he finally insisted on abandoning any plans for US military intervention, and settled on a course of trying to strengthen the South Vietnamese government instead. Meanwhile, in Laos, he rejected the almost unanimous advice of team and undertook negotiations to set up a neutral government in place of the weak pro-American one that was losing the war. Those negotiations were successfully concluded in 1962. During 1963, a Buddhist revolt threatened the Diem regime in South Vietnam, and Kennedy eventually blessed a South Vietnamese military coup to replace it. The option of American intervention, however, was never let back on the table.
The draft State Department memo that has been released was written by dissenting officials, but it probably represents the thinking of some senior ones as well. While it does not call for the introduction of ground troops into Syria, it calls for using air strikes to punish the Assad regime for violations of the cease-fire agreement. This, it claims—without much evidence—will strengthen Washington’s negotiating hand both with Assad and with the rebels. Their goal is to “advance talks involving internal and external actors, to include the Iranians and the Saudis, to produce a transitional government.” This seems to imply that while Assad may temporarily remain head of state, the intention is to remove him from power. While recognizing that “the Asad [sic] regime might prove resilient even in the face of U.S. strikes” and that the negative effects of military steps might include “of further deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations,” the dissenters declare that “it is time the United States, guided by our strategic interests and moral convictions, lead a global effort to put an end to this conflict once and for all.”
Just as President Kennedy foresaw the pitfalls of American intervention in Southeast Asia, President Obama seems to understand the perils of Washington trying to bring down yet another Arab regime. The conflict in Syria, as an important new book points out, is driven above all by the regional conflict between Iranian-led Shi’ites and Saudi-led Sunnis which the United States has helped to unleash and is now helpless to stop. The fall of Assad would probably lead to a new massacre of Shi’ite Alawites, and quite possibly to more gains in Syria by ISIS. The President has admitted that his decision to bring down Muammar Qaddafi in Libya was mistaken, and he does not intend to repeat it in his last months in office. While he might have made a much greater effort to explain his policies to the American people, he has done an admirable job of sticking to his guns in the face of the idea that the US can, and should, put an end to any destructive conflict and any wicked regime anywhere in the world.
Sadly, the parallel between Kennedy and Obama does not end here. Within a month of Kennedy’s death, evidence reached Lyndon Johnson that the military situation in South Vietnam was much worse than anyone had imagined, and by March of 1964 Johnson had agreed in principle to go to war, if necessary, after the November election. The Johnson Administration completed a plan for full-scale intervention by mid-December 1964, and implemented it beginning in late February 1965. The war Kennedy had refused to begin dragged on for nearly 8 disastrous years, with incalculable consequences for the United States and Southeast Asia. Hillary Clinton is now the favorite to succeed Barack Obama. She has conspicuously refused to renounce the Libyan intervention which she supported so vigorously as Secretary of State, and she has made clear that she thinks her former boss’s foreign policy is too restrained. She will, in my opinion, have us involved in war with the Assad regime within a year of taking office. Because Presidents who resist the consensus against foreign interventions are so exceptional, their impact is limited to their term in office. In the foreign policy establishments of both parties, interventionism still reigns supreme.