Saturday, February 12, 2011

Learned And Unlearned

I just read the most fascinating, recently declassified, memo to the SecState written by a former U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East. It includes a digression on the historical parallels between the crisis of that moment and the lessons we - should have - learned from our experience in Vietnam regarding the problems and limitations of U.S. intervention:

Lessons So Recently Learned. I can't help but note some parallels [between our involvement with a Middle Eastern nation in conflict and] the U.S. role in Vietnam. While certainly not on all fours, there are some similarities, including:

-- The degree of influence and investment (people, money, prestige) we have in a country about which we know little;

-- A commitment in an area where our clients, their friends, and their enemies know we don't live and suspect we may not stay;

-- Like Vietnam, few would honestly question our intentions, but the U.S. ability to bring about our desired outcome is limited;

-- There is a question of whether the U.S. may be training and equipping the [local military forces] to fight the wrong war. I don't have a conclusion, but I will look into it;

-- Continuous infiltration from neighboring nations;

-- Frequent changes in U.S. players (SecState, NSC advisors, ME envoys, Ambassadors, Military personnel, etc.), with all the reeducation required, opportunities lost, errors repeated and slippage, as well as, understandably, the sense that it conveys here of a lack of U.S. seriousness and consistency;

-- A key local military leader quite intimate with the U.S. raising the question of who is in whose pocket, and, inevitably, questions by some as to whether he might become a threat or an alternative;

-- Sense that if we pull out, our client will go under and the U.S. interests in the region with it;

-- A "Catch 22" relationship between the necessity for military success to achieve popular support for the government and visa versa;

-- The desirability of changing the balance of forces on the ground to have sufficient stability to achieve political cohesion and to change the enemy's mind, yet with political constraints against doing so (Congress, our MNF [Multinational Force] allies, etc.)

-- A skittish Congress sending out mixed signals as to our staying power and an un-unified Executive Branch sending out multiple signals, privately and publicly, by word and action;

-- A secret desire on both sides to have a U.S. "Proconsul" with the inevitable weakness and crippling that regulation and control cause to those regulated;

-- Complex and overlapping lines of authority and chains of command, both military and civilian, with all the risks inherent therein;

-- Numerous (too many) visiting codels [Congressional Delegations];

-- A skimpy quiver of arrows, some too blunt, some too mild, and far too few in between; it is a bit like trying to build a house with a hammer and a saw instead of a full set of tools;

-- Facing an unscrupulous opponent who has endless patience and steel and no internal restraints (Congress, press, etc.) as to the means he selects (war, terrorism, assassination, etc.).

The analogy should not be overdone, but it may be worth some reflection, not because of risk of our being drawn into a land war, but because of the many opportunities to do harm to ourselves and others through error, inattention or miscalculation.

American goodwill, intuition and logic in an area that is non-intuitive and hardly logical in our context is a formula for trouble. In the one case, the damage was sizable. My nose tells me that the odds are strongly stacked against us here. I wish we hadn't gone in. We need to be looking for a reasonably graceful way to get out.

Does all that remind you of a current Middle Eastern intervention or two?

It is perplexing. It seem this sort of cautionary advise never sinks into the historical memory of Official Washington, and we end up learning and then unlearning the same lessons over and over again.

The problem might be a lack of continuity in our leadership over time. After all, the senior officials who were around during Vietnam, and in the two or three decades after, aren't the same ones who have been making the decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade.

Well, maybe some of them were. The U.S. Special Envoy who offered this excellent advise was none other than Donald Rumsfeld. You can read the whole memo at The Rumsfeld Papers, a website set up in conjunction with the publication of his memoir, Known and Unknown.

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