Sunday, August 27, 2006

# Posted 1:23 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A LIBERAL HAWK GRAPPLES WITH VIETNAM: In The Good Fight, Peter Beinart sets out to reconstruct a historical narrative that can serve as the foundation of a modern liberal foreign policy that is both idealistic and strong. Thanks to Harry Truman, Beinart has a protagonist around which he can build the first chapter in his story, about the first decades of the Cold War.

Then comes the hard part. Vietnam was a war started and fought exclusively by liberal hawks. They were the "best and brightest" of their day. So how can Beinart salvage his liberal hawk narrative of the Cold War?

The answer, peculiarly enough, is the exact same as that given by those of us who still defend the decision to go to war in Iraq, which Beinart now disavows. The answer is simple: Good principles, bad implementation. But it's a tough argument to defend now and an even tougher one to defend for Vietnam.

Beinart attempts to walk the tightrope by describing Vietnam as war against Communist-led nationalism mistaken by American statesmen for a war against Soviet Communism. George Kennan had understood this distinction, but:
With Kennan's distinction gone, containment suddenly meant preventing Communism's spread in every corner of the globe.

For Kennedy and Johnson, that assumption became a blindfold, preventing them from seeing the enemy in Vietnam for what it was: Not an agent of Moscow or Beijing, but a nationalist movement led by a Communist Party.

Instead, the United States earnestly, valiantly and brutally tried to build an artificial nationalism, based on the "nation" of South Vietnam. (p.40)
This argument, nationalism-not-Communism, is a time-honored staple of the historical literature, but still quite problematic, especially for a liberal hawk.

Should the United States have abandoned South Vietnam because the North and the Vietcong could reasonably represent themselves as nationalists? That is a reasonably good argument for a realist to make, since a hard war for marginal real estate is better to avoid.

But Beinart is an idealist and thus has to grapple with a tougher question: Should the United States have abandoned the people of an allied state to a brutal conquest and ruthless dictatorship simply because the conqueror had nationalist credentials?

Beinart's suggestion that the US tried to build an "artificial nationalism" actually undercuts his assertion that Kennedy and Johnson didn't appreciate the nationalist credentials of their opponents. They did.

Surprisingly, Beinart doesn't explore an alternate hypothesis that might allow him to salvage much more of the lib-hawk heritage. Prominent scholars such as Andrew Krepinevich have argued that America lost in Vietnam not because our opponents were nationalists, but because the US Army tried to fight a conventional war instead of a counterinsurgency.

Although Krepinevich deals primarily with tactical and operational concerns, I would take his argument one step further, to the political domain. As Krepinevich argues, counterinsurgency is about giving the indigenous population what it wants. I would assert that this includes a legitimate government.

Instead of the revolving-door juntas and fixed elections that LBJ imposed on South Vietnam, he should've given them a real democracy (and minimized civilian casualties). After all, how much of a reason did the Vietnamese have to favor our reactionary dictatorship over Hanoi's Communist one?

This argument fits very well with Beinart's principles. The problem isn't that hawkish liberalism got us into Vietnam, it's that the war wasn't fought according to the principles that made it necessary.

Instead, Beinart prefers to concede that:
In one sense, antitotalitarian liberalism did lead to Vietnam: it provided the intellectual building blocks that arrogant, blinkered men -- who had forgotten their creed's emphasis on restraint -- assembled in disastrous fashion. But other antitotalitarian liberals -- including Niebuhr and, after 1965, [Arthur] Schlesigner as well -- drew on the same tradition to critique America's Vietnam disaster. (p.41)
But if restraint is the great message of Beinart's liberalism, then how is it any different from the liberalism of those now to his left?
(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

I can think of three post-WW II-split countries; Germany, Korea, and Viet Nam.
To the extent that any of the six pieces were actually, legitimately sovereign countries with their right to be left alone by others, surely South Viet Nam qualified.

If it did not, if the libs' excuses for Hanoi's aggression was principled instead of opportunistic, it would have justified Saigon trying to take over North Viet Nam, and either Germany and either Korea trying to take over the other.

So, Mr. SDS person, you'd approve of West Germany with US help invading East Germany. Reunification, justice, ending an artificial barrier, et tedious cetera.

No? Please explain.
How could LBJ "give" Vietnam democracy, real or otherwise? The whole policy first of the French and then of US was to deprive Vietnam of self-determination, in the certain knowledge that the vast majority given the choice would pick Ho Chi Minh.
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