By David Wearing
Arpil 3, 2012
Every so often, a memorable phrase enters the discourse, providing a telling insight into some of the deeper assumptions held in our political culture. One such term, now mostly forgotten, is the "Vietnam syndrome".
The Vietnam war claimed the lives of 58,000 US soldiers, seriously damaged Washington's prestige as an imperial power and caused untold hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Indochina, which had been subjected by America's forces of liberation to levels of aerial bombing last seen in the second world war.
Over subsequent years, those keen to see the US again exert its military might in the world lamented the stubborn persistence of a "Vietnam syndrome" among the public and many policymakers. The latter were increasingly unconvinced of the practical feasibility of military action, while the former saw the potential human costs as intolerable and, in many cases, were resolved to actively oppose a repeat of the Vietnam experience.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that a widespread popular aversion to the horrors of war – something one might regard as quite healthy – should come to be repeatedly described as a "syndrome"; a collective psychological defect that would hopefully be overcome at some future date. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that state violence has long been a highly valued policy tool, as indicated by the vast resources devoted to it, out of all proportion to genuine needs of "defence".
After the comprehensive defeat of a disobedient former ally, Saddam Hussein, in the 1991 Gulf war, George HW Bush declared euphorically, "by God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" Many senior Republicans spent the next few years cultivating various fantasiesabout what could be achieved the next time an opportunity arose to let US forces off the leash. Such an opportunity was presented to them on 11 September 2001.
Subsequent military defeats sustained by the US and its allies have arguably been worse, from their point of view, than that in Vietnam. In Iraq, where the geo-strategic stakes are considerably higher than in south-east Asia, the US failed both to install a reliably friendly government in Baghdad and to secure long-term military bases in the heart of the world's major energy producing region.
In Afghanistan, the most powerful armed forces in human history were also fought to a humiliating standstill by local insurgents armed with light weapons and improvised explosive devices. Again, thousands of western troops and hundreds of thousands of civilians have lost their lives in conflicts increasingly resented by the general public. State violence has been exposed, to those who wield it, as a blunt and often ineffective instrument. So are we now set to witness the emergence of a new "Iraq syndrome", with a sharp increase in scepticism and distaste for armed conflict? If so, there are sure to be those who find such a development problematic. The emergence of such voices from the political right would not surprise us. Those in the liberal tradition, however, are somewhat more interesting.
Writing at the time of the prime minister's recent visit to Washington,Martin Kettle detected a distinct lack of appetite for new military engagements from David Cameron and Barack Obama. Kettle reflected that, while "it's not wrong to want a quiet life", the new war-weariness raises the question of how the likes of "Mullah Omar, Ayatollah Khamenei and Bashar al-Assad" would be dealt with in the future. In an earlier piece, Jonathan Freedland criticised anti-war activists for apparently drawing the conclusion, from the bloodbath in Iraq, that western military action should never be supported. The problem, in Freedland's view, is that there are still times when humanitarian crises require military intervention.
The common assumption here is that the west is essentially a benevolent force in the world. Mistakes have no doubt been made (some may call them crimes, Kettle admits), but this merely underlines the need to take proper care when riding to the rescue on the next occasion. Clearly the acknowledgement that wars can be extremely ugly affairs, which do not always go to plan, is both welcome and necessary. However, what is being missed is the opportunity to go a little further, and reflect on some of the deeper lessons of recent years.
It is instructive, for example, that Kettle's list includes "Mullah Omar, Ayatollah Khamenei and Bashar al-Assad", but not certain other tyrannies in the region, such as those in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, or the occupation regime in the Palestinian territories. The latter three canexpect to enjoy continued support, tacit or de facto, from those western states presented elsewhere as potential agents of humanitarianism, dedicated to "the active promotion of democracy and liberal institutions".
It is insufficient here for us to speak merely of double standards or hypocrisy. When Britain and the US arm states – Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – that are involved in the violent crushing of a broad-based pro-democracy movement, this strongly indicates that liberal values, however sincerely held by some individuals, are not the operative factors shaping policy. Similarly, the assumption that states engaged in or supporting brutal military assaults on places such as Gaza, Lebanon or Fallujah can be trusted with the task of humanitarian intervention is just as problematic – putting it mildly – as the claim that the armed forcesdrenching Vietnamese peasant communities with toxic weapons were engaged, in some obscure sense, in a noble fight for freedom.
Rather than double standards, one can perhaps identify a single standard, namely that states pursue what they perceive to be their interests in a way that renders their claimed values functionally irrelevant. In the case of official enemies, such as Bashar al-Assad, or even unreliable allies such as Muammar Gaddafi, concerns over democracy and human rights can be raised when it is strategically expedient to do so. Elsewhere, lip-service is paid to such matters, while material support continues to those regimes that would be roundly condemned for their crimes, were they not our allies.
The neoliberal era rested on two articles of quasi-religious faith: the efficiency of free markets and the benign power of western military might. The last decade has provided ample reason for scepticism of both doctrines. It shouldn't take a further round of disasters for us to learn the appropriate lessons.