Commentary

Not the Best and Brightest

By Leon T. Hadar
September 20, 2003

Recognizing that the United States is gradually sinking into a military quagmire in Iraq, analysts have applied the historical analogy of the American intervention in Vietnam.

They have warned that US leaders are repeating today in the Middle East the policy mistakes that their predecessors made in Southeast Asia 50 years ago. Indeed, as they agonise over the failure of White House and Pentagon officials to anticipate the postwar predicament in Iraq, pundits have compared the architects of the military occupation of Iraq — including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and other members of the neo-conservative faction — to the managers of US national security during the 1960s that had steered Presidents Kennedy and Johnson into Vietnam.

Author David Halberstam, in the title of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, called those planners of the military intervention in Southeast Asia, “The Best and the Brightest.” That designation reflected the sense of tragedy that marked the conduct in Vietnam of officials like former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, his deputy William Bundy and his brother, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and other members of the liberal-internationalist foreign policy establishment of the Cold War.

Graduates of the best universities and men of great intellect and integrity, they were — indeed, the best and the brightest that America could offer. Yet they had drawn Americans into a costly war that ended in a strategic defeat and produced the terrible political divisions in the country. Of course, Iraq has yet to turn into a Vietnam. But it has all the makings of the same kind of quagmire, in which US leaders are being confronted with the horrible dilemma: If they ‘run away’ from the confrontation, they are perceived as losers, encouraging other ‘bad guys’ to test their will. If they ‘stay the course’, they end up expanding their commitments to a point where they lose public and international support. But as much as it is tempting and perhaps even useful to draw the lessons of Vietnam in order to reconsider American policy in Iraq, it is important to stress some of the differences between those two military interventions.

First, taking place during the height of the Cold War, in which America confronted a nuclear-armed Soviet Union leading a powerful communist bloc, the decision to come to the aid of the pro-American South Vietnamese made strategic sense. After all, North Vietnam was controlled by a group of ardent communists, many of whom, including Ho Chi Minh, had been trained in the Soviet Union and China, and had strong political and military ties to those regimes.

In retrospect, American critics of the US intervention insist that Washington should have recognized that Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were more nationalists than communists. But in the early 1960s, very few analysts had challenged the argument that South Vietnam’s collapse would strengthen the Soviet Union and its allies in the confrontation with the West. But contrary to some of the earlier suggestions by members of the current ‘war party’ in Washington, who have depicted the intervention in Iraq as an integral part of the war on terrorism, there were no ideological ties or military connection between President Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network and its Taleban backers.

In short, while backing South Vietnam was clearly an integral part of the rivalry between the US and the communist bloc, ousting Saddam and invading Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terrorism. In fact, as a result of the US occupation, Iraq has become a magnet for radical Islamic terrorists. Moreover, while the Americans in the 1960s could point to Japan and several other East Asian countries that were gradually moving in the direction of economic and political freedom and that could serve as models for Vietnam, the grand designs to democratise Iraq as part of an American-led crusade for freedom in the Middle East seem to be based on nothing more than wishful thinking.

And just compare the willingness of many elements in South Vietnamese society to ally themselves, and socialise with the Americans troops and civilians, to the attitude that most Iraqis are exhibiting today towards the Americans. Hence, let us not insult the Best and the Brightest of the 1960s with those who accused Saddam of supporting Osama, who had promised to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, and who were so sure that Americans would be welcomed as ‘liberators’ in Iraq and succeed in making the country a model of democracy for the entire Middle East. The Dumb and the Dumbest sounds a more appropriate title for the current crew.

Leon Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the Washington correspondent for the Business Times (Singapore).