In his magisterial work The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam makes clear that the essential tragedy of the Vietnam War was US decision-makers’ inability to see beyond the Potomac river in Washington, DC. Every policy debate concerned what would sell in the city’s foreign policy community, rather than what might make sense on the ground in faraway South East Asia.
This fundamental error – combined with the peculiar American disease of hyperbole, the endemic overselling of the miracle results a particular course of action is bound to lead to – has become the standard Washington waltz, a dreary series of dance steps that have lain behind foreign policy failures from Indochina to Iraq.
Horrifyingly, if predictably, they are being repeated today, as the Obama administration – much against its will – is dragged ever closer to mission creep in the devilishly complex Syrian conflict. The border town of Kobane is quickly becoming the Syrian Kurd’s equivalent of the Alamo, as brave, outgunned fighters try to head off annihilation at the hands of the barbaric Islamic State (IS).
Coming a mere month after the White House extended its air campaign against IS into Syria, even by Washington standards, this has to amount to some sort of speed record for failure. But if the timing is accelerated, the Washington minuet is all too familiar. For the dirty secret is that the policy initiatives designed to blunt the stunning advance of IS have always been primarily about a DC-designed bureaucratic political compromise, and almost nothing to do with what is going on in the rough and tumble world of the Middle East.
Indulging in the usual fatal overselling, Obama has expansively laid out an air campaign strategy he says is designed to lead to a rollback of IS in Iraq and a containment of the radical jihadists in Syria. A more accurate assessment of what is on offer would be that US airpower will at best contain IS in Iraq, while having a limited impact on what happens on the ground in Syria. As the ongoing tragedy in Kobane makes clear, Washington’s chronic over-confidence in the uses of air power has had little practical effect in quelling IS’s surge in Syria.
But for most of the Washington foreign policy community, this real world tragedy is largely beside the point. Muscular Wilsonians (think secretary of state John Kerry) and Republican neoconservatives (think senator John McCain) only grudgingly supported a bombing-only campaign in the first place, and then because they saw it as likely to fail, amounting to merely a first step towards a full-on US intervention against IS, complete with boots on the ground in both countries. Failure would thus lead to the desired mission creep.
Already, with Kobane on fire, and conveniently forgetting their horrendous record in the last Iraq war, the siren call of voices is – as always – for America to do ever more. As such, the gormless Kerry favours President Erdogan of Turkey’s call for a no-fly zone to be established around Kobane, and the training of Syrian rebel forces to take on IS and President Assad of Syria as well.
Likewise, doves in the Democratic party (senator Elizabeth Warren) and realists in the Republican camp (senator Rand Paul) initially (if also grudgingly) also favoured Obama’s bombing-only campaign against IS, but for diametrically-opposed reasons to their Wilsonian and neoconservative foes.
To their minds, such an initiative limits the extent of US intervention in a Syrian civil war where the West has few allies in-country. While keeping the Syrian disaster at arm’s length – and possibly helping the situation in Iraq, where the US does have the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi army as allies – the US could answer rising cries to “do something” without committing a war-weary country to another fruitless decade in the sands of Mesopotamia.
Bottom line, both foreign policy hawks and doves were always equally unenthusiastic about the Obama plan actually working, but could just about live with it politically, as a first step towards later and greater political battles about Syria down the road.
Utterly ignoring that wise corrective to Vietnam, the Powell Doctrine – that if the US engages in war, it should do so in a massive way or not at all – politicians in Washington have split the difference, half-heartedly engaging in an air campaign with absolutely no chance of really degrading IS. The tragedy of the Washington minuet is that it is always about the capital’s world, and not the real one.
Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again. He is president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy, and available for corporate speaking and private briefings at www.chartwellspeakers.com.