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Heres How We Should Think about Intervention

When should the United States intervene? Intervention can be advocated, approved and implemented for a variety of reasons: to repel an invasion (Korea), to assist in countering an insurgency (Vietnam), to stabilize a region (Bosnia), to restore and preserve international boundaries (First War in Iraq), to support humanitarian relief (Somalia), to punish (2001 Afghanistan), or to change regimes (1953 Iran, Second War in Iraq).

Intervention can also take different forms: military, diplomatic covert, unilateral, unilateral with a multilateral veneer, multilateral, limited, or general. Once underway, the form and intensity may change in response to opposition or unanticipated problems. Coping with internal violence is arguably the most complex challenge, and intervention for any purpose may morph into insurgency/counterinsurgency.

It is imperative when considering an intervention, particularly a military intervention, to calculate the relevance of that proposed action to national security. This is ,without exception, absolutely the most basic question. Following this, our own security requires the consideration of other nations, and the calculus cannot be only about what is least difficult or painful for us. Any adverse development that threatens the freedom of Europe, Japan, or other allied nations is a threat to our own.

Is a proposed military intervention so absolutely necessary that not to proceed would be a threat to the survival of the United States of America? That is the bottom line. But beyond this question we must also ask ourselves whether if engaged and subsequently stalemated, would we be willing to escalate and risk wider conflict or, alternatively, negotiate a withdrawal that abandons the people to whom we had made commitment?

Would we have the lack of principle, the stomach, for the latter?

Let us be clear right now: We are not newly minted advocates for isolationism, but we do urge judicious argumentation, detailed consideration and critique, of proposals for every intervention.

Discussants should not be limited to a small circle of policymakers who may paint themselves into a political or emotional corner. Critical questions and experience-based opinions need to be expressed by commanders and civil team leaders who bear the burden of leading American citizens into difficult situations. This need to question, let’s say politely but with determination, is not easily accepted. Our military is accustomed to elected constitutional authority through an appointed Secretary of Defense commanding a corps of responsible commissioned and non-commissioned officers. Our civil departments and agencies, particularly the State Department and CIA, have structural discipline that can mute a determined query.

But asking the tough questions, aggravatingly if necessary, is not insurrection, and definitely not unconstitutional. Moreover, if well-informed civilian and military personnel will not ask those questions, who will?  The discussion should not be hierarchal. There are situations wherein a mid-level officer or non-commissioned officer, a junior Foreign Service officer or intelligence analyst, has special insight. Every commander or civilian team leader should know member qualifications, speak with those having unique relevant background, and then boost them to the table where their special knowledge ought to be available. This is especially important because too often the highest levels lack even basic understanding of the problem that is tabled for discussion. This pushing from below is necessary because information, even in this age, usually “trickles up” a bureaucratic chain. Field operators will have relevant input not available or understood by policy formulators who frequently believe there is sufficient information in hand and so are satisfied to not question more deeply. Consequently, and unfortunately, discussion is usually exclusive, narrowly focused and inadequate, whereas it really should be inclusive, broad, and imaginative.

We must distinguish between possibilities and probabilities. We should begin by describing the problem that intervention is supposed to resolve. That means defining all the operative actors and elements, even in relationship to each other. If we cannot describe a problem in almost clinical detail, then the problem is not understood. Analysis requires objective self-description of our own strengths and weaknesses. And the same requirement should be applied with respect to potential allies and anticipated opponents.

Consequently, and unfortunately, discussion over interventions is usually exclusive, narrowly focused and inadequate, whereas it really should be inclusive, broad, and imaginative.

It is absolutely essential that the highest level of government, the President and his closest advisors, understand the nature of the problem and attendant difficulties that intervention is proposed to resolve. If understanding at the presidential level is deficient, explanation for the American public will be inadequate and citizens will become disenchanted because an intervention has not unrolled the way and within a timeframe that they were led to expect.

Hard questions and deliberate calculation should be integral to decision-making even when a proposed intervention has a humanitarian rationale, because although altruistic and limited (as we see it), a deployment can energize insurgency within the recipient country, or stimulate a third country to intervene in opposition to our policy and presence. Even a training and advisory/liaison mission will entail risk because application of a “force protection/no casualties” policy, although expected by politicians, is dishonorable, self-defeating, and unworkable. When we make the calculus for intervention we need to carefully consider the probability of unintended consequences (and the corollary is that the unintended consequences are almost always unfavorable).

We should not ignore history. It is essential to examine interventions conducted by other countries, not just for technique, but also for results, cost and benefit. Can anything be learned from the French strategy in Algeria, Madagascar, Morocco or Indo-China? Should we have been attentive to British and Russian experiences in a land of cruel mountains and harsh tribes and consequently understood that our own entry into Afghanistan would require decades of consistent effort to assist in developing a changed governance?

We need to consider which interventions foundered on misconception or even obsession. Was the objective of an intervention, at best, simply something desirable, “nice if you can get it,” or was it absolutely necessary? Were there negative outcomes stemming from intervention, and if any, how do they weigh in balance against presumed consequence for non-intervention? Our invasion of Iraq, some advocated, might inspire a mushrooming of trans-national civil/democratic governance in the region and it would be all paid for by resources of the recipient country. Those who so spoke were dreaming, and pursuing their dream laid the foundations for a nightmare.

If there is a decision for intervention, our planning absolutely must extend beyond just inserting military forces and civilian personnel. The psychological and political impact of entering someone else’s house and telling that person what must be done is enormous. Pre-intervention planning needs to be more than military, and the planning effort has to be supported at the highest level of our government. It will be useful, maybe necessary, for those who expressed gravest doubt in an intervention to be the fulcrum for critiquing the plans. In addition to having a plan, just as critical to prospects for success is having trained and experienced people ready to participate. This certainly was not the case for entry to Afghanistan and Iraq. If we do not get ourselves correctly organized in the first place, inevitable course corrections will be difficult and time begins to be a major hindrance.

Lessons in Disaster

We two authors are most familiar with the American experience in Vietnam,  and so lets consider the preceding paragraphs as litmus for evaluating the 1954 – 1975 American intervention in that country.

Was intervention in Vietnam so absolutely necessary to US national security that to not intervene would have constituted a threat? Perhaps not. However, at that time, in the context of a newly established communist government in China, coping with Chinese military in Korea and the Taiwan Straits, and surveying the the French military/political failure in Vietnam and lacking appreciation of Vietnam, it is understandable that “drawing a line” in Southeast Asia was advocated as a desirable American foreign policy goal. Deciding where to establish the line is always as important as the decision to defend a line. It might be argued that the line in this case could have been at the borders of Thailand. But in 1954 that country was not as cohesive as today. And so the decision to try and shore up an independent republic in the south of Vietnam made contemporary sense.

Was there a crossroads where reconsideration might have allowed for departure less ignominiously than what transpired in 1975? Some may assert that in late 1963 we could have made the case for ourselves, and other interested nations, that we had made good-faith advisory (plus) effort; but South Vietnam internal inconsistencies precluded success. However, it would have been tortuous to make that case with circumstantial blood on our hands following the murder of President Diem and his brother. And, in truth, we had not really done all that we should have in an advisory and supportive role, but the further down a rabbit hole the more difficult it is to back out. Instead, we believe, rather than upping the ante to avoid immediate defeat, the U.S. should have applied resources to win by blocking opponent replacement and re-supply.

That was the measure that could have been adopted (once committed to 1965-1967 multi-division strength intervention) and which would have achieved the desired policy objective: securing the survival of a non-communist government in the southern half of Vietnam. Clausewitz tells practitioners to determine your enemy’s center of gravity, his most vital point, and attack that vulnerability in order to deny him victory. The most vital point for the Vietnam Communist Party, while it waged war to unify the country, was the preservation of (relative) freedom of transit for personnel and supply through Laos to the southern battleground. By the spring of 1965 the Communist party had basically won their sponsored and organized insurgency phase. Introduction of regular units from the north (by the communist party to hasten the process) and placing opposing regular units into Vietnam (by America trying to preserve a southern entity) changed the nature and dimension of the war. Cutting the Laos corridor from Lao Bao to Savannakhet is the one step that would have denied the Vietnam Communist Party victory. Fearing international criticism and potentially a wider war, the U.S. limited its continuing intervention to a flawed whack-a-mole strategy within the part of Vietnam that we were attempting to preserve non-communist. Several years later we negotiated a withdrawal that sickeningly vitiated our original commitment.

Were there instances of speaking truth to authority that changes to strategy were desperately needed? Departments and agencies all contained in-house critics, but the experience of John Paul Vann and ourselves demonstrates that dissent was not encouraged, and when put forth it would either be ignored or provided grim lip service at best.

Did we make the kind of disciplined problem analysis advocated in this paper? Did we adequately define the multi-faceted problem (a deeply rooted national communist party-directed insurgency) that intervention was supposed to solve? Did we identify and sufficiently, even barely adequately, describe the various actors, their characteristics and motivations? We think readers will agree that with respect to both Vietnamese allies and Vietnamese opponents, we did not. But were we even self-aware?

Did we have a post-intervention multi-faceted psychological, political, and civil operations plan for application in Vietnam? No, we did not. Long after the choice for war was already made, and after the insurgency was eclipsed by big unit maneuver war, the Department of Defense issued PROVN in mid-1966. Later in the same year the US Embassy completed an equally highly classified Roles and Missions Report, but both efforts were late and constrained within existing policy. In the case of Roles and Missions, the analytical team was warned that some subject areas, especially the impact of US maneuver units and supporting firepower on civilian population, were out of bounds.

And the preceding sentence reminds us that unintended consequences can be pretty bloody. Our maneuver unit intervention followed by the decision two years later to not strike the opponent’s center of gravity meant that application of enormous fire/and bomb power,“the American way of war”, fell heavily on the rural Vietnamese of south and central Vietnam, the very people who we were there to assist and protect.

What were the alarm bells, the canaries in the mineshaft, which finally compelled withdrawal from an honorable-by-intent, but imprecisely conceived and poorly executed Vietnam intervention? First of all, during the period when selective serving young Americans were dying in large numbers, American citizens protested in the streets. Secondly, we finally realized that even after years of punishing air attack and ground combat, there was no definitive indicator of reduced commitment or will on the part of the Vietnam Communist Party.

Its almost too easy to point a finger at our government’s delusion during the run-up to toppling Saddam Hussein. How about Vietnam? Well, to begin with (1812 and stalemated Korean experiences aside), we had a sort of folk belief that Americans would always win. We thought that we could apply French colonial (Gallieni and Lyoutey) technique but with greater success because we were pure of heart and had vastly more resources. So tache d’huile became the 1964 MACV “oil spot” planning for area pacification, and where area pacification was not attempted rattisage became 1965 MACV “search and destroy.” What was required to fill the expanding oil spot was not really addressed until mid-1966 through 1968, and by then we were actually oil spotting a war-ravaged countryside rather than conducting counterinsurgency. We never asked ourselves whether measures developed to conquer people for a 19th century European empire would work for us in 1964 and 1965. We never looked hard at senior officers who served the French and later betrayed their own President. We did not ask ourselves whether they were sufficiently able and determined to defeat the communist opposition that had beat the French; and so, most importantly, we did not commit to developing an overarching positive political cause that could have rallied the majority of the non-communist political and military leaders. We lumbered about, insensitive interventionists, rarely speaking Vietnamese, introducing our own terminology that didn’t make sense and insisting that any promising local initiative be modified to fit an American template.

Were there any lessons learned, even one? The U.S. Government decided to eliminate Selective Service, so breaking the American tradition of a citizen based armed force in time of need. It is now rather easier for any administration to deploy abroad for intervention absent fear of public protest on the scale seen fifty years ago. “Thank you for your service,” people will say, smiling: because they and their loved ones do not risk having to serve.

The 20th century can be characterized, in discussion of national security challenges, by nation-state political extremism and aggression. The beginning of the 21st century appears to be a period of some bellicose nations pursuing ancient goals (think Crimea and South China Sea), complicated by distinctly amorphous trans-border terrorism, either religious or ethnic/tribal. The similarity in both cases is that narrowly focused or even manic leaders have a skewed view of history, local or general, and believe their own world-view justifies violence. Confronting these new problems may still require us to make careful interventions which take care to not promise too much. “Make haste slowly (deliberately) and make interventions carefully.”

[Photo: Flickr Commons]

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1 comment

  1. Arnold Isaacs 29 June, 2015 at 13:57 Reply

    The author’s brief bio here is far too modest in describing Frank Scotton’s credentials for this commentary. Scotton arrived in Vietnam in 1962, in the very early stage of U.S. involvement. He served there, not continuously but most of the time, for more than a decade, spanning the entire course of the American war. Fluent in Vietnamese, his principal effort during that time was to promote a more effective strategy to contest the Communist presence and influence in South Vietnam’s villages. Of several million U.S. soldiers and civilians who served in Vietnam, it is possible — even likely — that Frank Scotton was the one with the longest experience and the deepest understanding of Vietnamese life in the countryside and the nature of the war as it was fought there. At the same time, over those years he came to know a remarkable range of South Vietnamese military commanders and other significant figures. He is thus a truly authoritative voice on the issues discussed in this essay.

    Tran Ngoc Chau also writes with great authority on this subject. As his bio notes, he experienced the war on both sides, and was intimately involved with pacification efforts as a province chief in the Mekong delta. Later, as a member of the National Assembly, he was an advocate for reform in the incompetent and corrupt South Vietnamese government. The bio mentions that he was imprisoned under both the anti-Communist and Communist regimes. It could have added that that is a pretty strong indication that his principles were honorable and that his real loyalty was to justice and a better life for the South Vietnamese people.

    In a world full of uninformed babble, these are two writers who know what they’re talking about. Their words should be listened to.

    — Arnold R. Isaacs

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