In nominating John Kerry for Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel for Defense, Barack Obama has highlighted both men’s combat service in Vietnam. In doing so Obama repeats the common fallacy that combat experience necessarily qualifies someone to make decisions about when, why, and how to conduct a war, decisions that in our political system are reserved for citizens and their representatives whether veterans or not. In fact, though, often those same experiences––whatever they teach about the horrors of combat, or reveal about the bravery and character of those who experience it––can distort someone’s judgment about the larger aims and purposes war serves, leading to dangerous policies.
A dramatic example of how combat experience can distort foreign affairs can be found in England’s disastrous foreign policy after World War I. The gruesome carnage of that conflict obsessed the British in the Twenties and Thirties. Numerous novels and “trench reminiscences” written by veterans, as historian Corelli Barnett writes, “had an immediate relevance to the present and the future. What began as an epitaph ended as a warning. As a warning, the war books seemed to say that war was so terrible and futile that the British ought to keep out of another one at any cost.” The result was the pacifism, reckless disarmament, and misplaced faith in diplomacy to forestall conflict that emboldened Germany and lead to World War II.
Vietnam has often played a similar role in American foreign policy over the last 40 years, as can be seen in Obama’s picks for defense and Secretary of State. Hagel’s more egregious and frequently discussed track record of blunders will no doubt raise more questions and invite more scrutiny during his confirmation hearings. But the Senate’s clubby bonhomie that often sacrifices principle for amity will probably make Kerry a shoo-in. A closer look at his foreign policy record, however, reveals that his Vietnam-shaped vision of American power will ensure he carries out Obama’s program to change America from a global leader to a “partner mindful of his own imperfections,” as candidate Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs, one more comfortable with “leading from behind.”
The politicized history of Vietnam, which many veterans legitimized with their personal wartime experiences, has frequently distorted U.S. foreign policy. The narrative that America had “lost” the war because it was an unjust, neo-colonial interference in a civil war in which we backed the corrupt side, and a mismanaged conflict marked with unprecedented brutality and atrocities against civilians, created a “never again” mentality redolent of many British politicians in the 1920s and 1930s. The “lessons” of Vietnam taught that given our unjust conduct of the war, we should avoid such adventurism by raising the bar so high for American intervention that in effect the U.S would never respond militarily except to a direct attack on the homeland. Instead, multilateral diplomacy, non-lethal sanctions, a focus on human rights, and trusting the U.N. and other multinational institutions became the only legitimate means for protecting our national security and pursuing our interests. As a result, during the 70s when Jimmy Carter endorsed this philosophy, the Soviet Union went on a geopolitical rampage that didn’t end until Ronald Reagan was elected and for a time restored our nerve.
That narrative, of course, was in the main a left-wing fable. The brutality of Vietnam was not exceptionally excessive, the Soviet Union and China were indeed aggressively attacking the West and its allies through proxies in order to extend communism’s reach, and in fact the war was not lost militarily, but thrown away politically. The true lesson of Vietnam is that a conflict won on the field of battle can still be un-won by feckless politicians.
Which brings us to John Kerry, who has pursued and endorsed policies that follow from that erroneous “lesson” of Vietnam. Kerry, of course, notoriously began his public career by slandering his fellow veterans in his April 1971 Senate testimony. There he decried the “war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” He went on to catalogue these crimes in which U.S. soldiers “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”
Kerry then went on to recycle the false left-wing “lesson” of Vietnam: that “there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse, is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy.” Rather than a pushback against communist aggression in the defense of freedom, the conflict was “a civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial influence.” He then placed Vietnam in the larger context of the leftist view of the Cold War currently being recycled in Oliver Stones’ Showtime series: the “United States is still reacting in very much the 1945 mood and postwar cold-war period when we reacted to the forces which were at work in World War II and came out of it with this paranoia about the Russians and how the world was going to be divided up between the super powers.” Thus in Vietnam “right now we are reacting with paranoia to this question of peace and the people taking over the world,” and the “so-called Communist monolith.”
Influenced by this narrative, Kerry’s subsequent foreign policy career in the Senate has been marked in the main by being on the wrong side of just about every issue. He voted against the authorization of force for the 1991 Persian Gulf War, arguing instead for sanctions as Hussein’s troops brutally plundered Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia. Despite his initial vote authorizing the 2003 war in Iraq, he later called the liberation of Iraqis from a psychopathic mass-murderer the result of “the most inept, reckless, arrogant and ideological foreign policy in modern history.” Like then Senator Obama, he opposed the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, calling it “a tragic mistake” that “won’t end the violence; it won’t provide security; … it won’t turn back the clock and avoid the civil war that is already underway; it won’t deter terrorists, who have a completely different agenda; it won’t rein in the militias,” predictions all falsified by the success of the surge. Later in 2007, he voted in favor of a Senate resolution to withdraw all U.S. troops within 90 days. Here too he agreed with Senator Obama, who also opposed the surge, which he called “a mistake” and a “reckless escalation.” In his Foreign Affairs article of the same year, he called the war in Iraq a “civil war” and Vietnam-like “morass.” As for Afghanistan, last June Kerry called that conflict “unsustainable” and prodded Obama to hasten our withdrawal, something the president just announced he intends to do. The result will be a repeat of the failure of Vietnam: hard-won military success will likely be squandered as Iraq falls under the influence of Iran, and Afghanistan once again provides a haven for the jihadist Taliban.
On other issues Kerry’s aversion to military force and preference for diplomatic outreach, symptoms of the “Vietnam syndrome,” have led to foreign policy blunders. He called Bashar al-Assad’s Syria “an essential player in bringing peace and stability to the region” and made 6 visits to woo that thug regime even as it was hosting and arming terrorist outfits like Hezbollah, cozying up to Iran, and facilitating the transit of terrorists into Iraq, during one period over 90% of jihadists travelling to Iraq to kill our troops. He’s endorsed the received wisdom on Israel, obsessing over settlements as obstacles to a two-state solution, calling Israel’s defensive fence that has dramatically reduced terrorist attacks a “barrier to peace,” and telling Middle Eastern leaders that Israel should return the Golan Heights to Syria. During the 90s, when al Qaeda launched its series of attacks on U.S. interests that culminated on 9⁄11, Kerry was supporting massive cuts in the intelligence budgets and pledged to “almost eliminate CIA activity.” When he ran for president in 2004, he called terrorism a “nuisance” like prostitution, and just recently asserted that a dubious global warming is as dangerous as 9⁄11 or Iran getting nukes.
As Kerry’s record of flip-flopping statements shows, much of his behavior can be explained by political opportunism. But his foreign policy vision is one reflecting the so-called “lessons” of Vietnam forged by the left 40 years ago. It is a vision that doubts America’s rightness to be the dominant global power, that distrusts America’s military power, and that privileges multilateral diplomacy and unaccountable multinational coalitions over the will of the American people as expressed through their elected representatives. In short, as America’s chief diplomat Kerry will be a faithful servant of Barack Obama’s foreign policy of American retreat and decline.
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