Reed Magazine February

2003

Failing Grade title

Is there “realist” evidence from historical experience that casts fundamental doubt on the Bush foreign policy? One striking criticism comes from Robert McNamara, secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and for most of that time a leading Vietnam War “hawk.” McNamara’s 1995 memoir In Retrospect provoked sharp controversy by condemning that war, and his own part in it, and the decision-making process that led into it, as “wrong, terribly wrong.” At the end of that memoir McNamara spelled out a number of “lessons of Vietnam” intended to apply to future as well as to past foreign policy. Juxtaposed against the record of Bush foreign policy, some of these “lessons” positively leap off the page as a devastating critique:

“We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience …. We totally misjudged the political forces within the country …. “We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people …. and we continue to do so today in many parts of the world ….

“Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders ….

“We failed then — as we have since — to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people’s movements. We failed as well to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture ….

“We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale U.S. military involvement ….

“We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. . . . We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose ….

“We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action—other than in response to direct threats to our own security — should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.”

If the Bush foreign policy is found wanting, it is not so much because it fails some utopian moral standard, but rather because, in single-minded pursuit of its own moralized vision, it has failed to recognize and learn from the sometimes bitter experience of Realpolitik.

Edward B. Segel has been a member of the Reed College faculty since 1973. He has frequently served as a commentator to the media on matters of war and diplomacy.

Steve Katagiri is a freelance illustrator living in Portland. His illustration is on page one.

Rachel Perkins ’00 is a freelance illustrator living in New York City. Her illustration is on page two.

 

Reed Magazine February
2003