Making life bearable
October 31, 2020
When America was caught unawares
November 4, 2020

Leaving Vietnam syndrome behind

Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend… by H. R. McMaster, Harper, US 35.00, Pp 544, September 2020, ISBN 9780062899460

Should America go out and fight totalitarian regimes and defend democracies and open societies? The question has also been put differently: Can or should American play the role of a global policeman? The question has divided the nation since America’s not so graceful exit from Vietnam in the 1970s. The question became a central issue in the military-strategic debates after US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In Battlegrounds, H. R. McMaster argues that we should stop looking at American’s military role in the world through the Vietnam prism. He argues that simplistic interpretations of the American experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq obscure the differences in the character of those conflicts. Some interpretations point to American pursuit of armed domination or an effort to remake the world in America’s image. These interpretations overlook the fact that the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan after the most devastating terrorist attack in history.

The majority of Americans might now argue that the invasion of Iraq was unwise – or, that at least it was unwise to think regime change in Baghdad would be easy. McMaster argues that the argument for retrenchment do not acknowledge the consequences of America’s precipitate disengagement from Iraq in 2011 as giving rise to ISIS, or the US halting withdrawal from Syria in 2019 as setting conditions for an intensification of that multiparty conflict and complicating efforts to bring about ISIS’s enduring defeating. He writes, “We should be aware that simplistic interpretations of the American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq cloud understanding and can be used to justify flawed policies and bad decisions. Just as the memory of America’s divisive military intervention in Vietnam, and the strong emotions that tainted many early interpretations of that war, clouded understanding and left plenty of room for manipulating the historical record. America’s understanding of more recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have become more symbolic than historical; as with the Vietnam syndrome, the wars of 9/11 are used to evoke emotion rather than promote understanding.”

McMaster says that many who are deeply skeptical of US military engagement abroad self-identify as part of a realistic school of international relations. But realist is the wrong word. They get the world wrong because they start from an ideologically driven approach to US engagement with the world. They are against any form of military intervention abroad and for the withdrawal of US forces not only from the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, but also from the preponderance of other military commitments overseas. Rather than viewing the Vietnam syndrome and the overconfidence in American military technology of the 1990s as setting  the United States up for the difficulties experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq, many who adhere to this school of thought argue that America’s conceit is to pursue “liberal hegemony,” an effort to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies. One of the school’s proponents, Professor John Mearsheimer, alleges that America’s “crusader mentality” drives a misguided, costly, and self-defeating foreign policy designed to “remake the world in its own image.”

McMaster argues that the existence of free and open societies abroad benefits international and American security because such societies are natural defenses against hostile, aggressive, authoritarian powers. Support for democracy and rule of law is the best means of promoting peace and competing with those who promote authoritarian, close societies. The United States and other nations should also continue to promote basic and unalienable rights as captured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the UN General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948, while recognizing that America and its allies cannot be the  guarantor of those rights. However, McMaster says that those who self-identify as realists are right to be skeptical about the ability of international organizations to promote peace, justice, and prosperity across the globe. Because authoritarian and hostile regimes do their best to coopt organizations like the UNO, strong nations governed under the principle of popular sovereignty are the best advocates for the oppressed.

Battlegrounds is a very important addition to the always-growing literature on America’s national and strategic security. It is an attempt to understand and look at the world through the American military-strategic prism. It focuses on America’s key foreign policy regions – Russia, China, North Korea – and stresses the need for national consensus. McMaster argues that it is important to support democracy around the world because totalitarian and closed societies pose threats to American security. Two years after he left the White House where he worked as a National Security Adviser for 13 months, he neither criticizes nor praises President Trump but tries to put Trump’s presidency in a new perspective. He stresses the need for Americans to learn more about the rest of the world. This volume has several new perspectives. It is a must read to understand America’s security and strategic options.



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