Hollow Victory

According to the Republicans, the United States is once again at the crossroads of losing another critical war because of feckless Democrats. Only this time it's Afghanistan.

The conventional wisdom among most Republicans is that while the United States had serious difficulty in Vietnam during the early years, by the early 1970s things were turning around, and victory was on the verge. Unfortunately, the craven Democrats in Congress bowed to widespread anti-war sentiment and forced the Ford administration to end almost all support to South Vietnam, allowing the North Vietnamese to win the war in 1975. In the GOP version of the story, this decision was a disastrous mistake. 

There has been a lot of talk lately about what the Vietnam War tells us about Afghanistan.  According to the Republicans, the United States is once again at the crossroads of losing another critical war because of feckless Democrats, only this time in Afghanistan. They contend that while, yes, the United States has mismanaged the war over the past eight years, Washington has now found a formidable military leader in General Stanley McChrystal. He knows how to defeat the Taliban and keep al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. However, the major obstacle he faces isn't in Afghanistan, it's here at home: the American public is war-weary and the Democrats -- who control both Congress and the White House -- have no enthusiasm for the greater sacrifices that General McChrystal recommends. 

This narrative is unconvincing for at least two reasons.  First, the United States was not close to victory in Vietnam by the early 1970s, because the South Vietnamese army could not stand on its own. This was manifestly apparent in 1971 when that army invaded Laos and was badly chewed up by North Vietnamese ground forces. To stand any chance of holding off Hanoi's offensives, the South Vietnamese army needed massive amounts of American airpower, which effectively meant that the U.S. military would have to continue fighting in Vietnam indefinitely just to maintain a stalemate. That hardly qualifies as being on "the brink" of victory.

In Afghanistan, there is little reason to think that the United States can decisively defeat the Taliban, mainly because they can melt into the countryside or go to Pakistan whenever they are outgunned, returning to fight another day (just as they did after the initial U.S. victory in 2001). Furthermore, the Karzai regime, corrupt and incompetent, stands little chance of ever truly being able to rule the country and keep the Taliban at bay, which means that the American military will have to stay there to do the job for many years to come.

But even if success was at hand in Vietnam and the United States could in the near future win quickly in Afghanistan, there is a second and more important flaw in the Republican narrative: Victory is inconsequential.

The United States suffered a clear defeat when South Vietnam collapsed in 1975, but it hardly affected America's position in the global balance of power. The domino theory proved unfounded; instead, communist Vietnam invaded communist Cambodia in 1978 and one year later Hanoi was at war with communist China. More importantly, losing in Vietnam had no adverse effects on America's competition with the Soviet Union. Indeed, 14 years after Saigon fell, the Cold War ended and the United States emerged as the most powerful state on the planet.

The real tragedy of Vietnam is not that the United States lost, but that it became involved in the first place. It pains me to say this as someone who served in the American military from 1965 to 1975, but the anti-war movement was right: It did not matter to U.S. security whether North Vietnam conquered the south and unified that country under communist rule. More than 58,000 American soldiers and more than 2 million Vietnamese died in an unnecessary and foolish war.

A similar logic applies today with regard to Afghanistan. The Republicans and General McChrystal claim that it is absolutely necessary to win the war in Afghanistan for the simple reason that a Taliban victory will allow al Qaeda to re-establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan. And we all know what happened the last time Osama bin Laden was free to scheme and plot against the United States from Afghanistan: September 11. The fatal flaw in this argument is that al Qaeda has a sanctuary next door in Pakistan from which it has been operating since it was driven out of Afghanistan in Dec. 2001. It does not need a sanctuary in Afghanistan. Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who helped General McChrystal formulate his strategy for Afghanistan, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Pakistan is "superior in important ways to Afghanistan" because it is "richer and far better connected to the outside world than is primitive, land-locked Afghanistan with its minimal communications and transportation systems." 

But what if the Pakistani army eliminates al Qaeda's sanctuary in western Pakistan? Isn't its current offensive in South Waziristan a major step toward that end? Unfortunately, no. Pakistan has no intention of rolling up al Qaeda, in good part because it does not have the capability to police those areas where the terrorists are hiding.  The offensive in South Waziristan is not even aimed at the Afghan Taliban, much less at al Qaeda. This means that al Qaeda will have a sanctuary in Pakistan no matter what happens in Afghanistan, which means that the American military cannot win a meaningful victory there.

In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, it simply does not matter whether the United States wins or loses. It makes no sense for the Obama administration to expend more blood and treasure to vanquish the Taliban. The United States should accept defeat and immediately begin to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.

Of course, President Obama will never do such a thing. Instead, he will increase the American commitment to Afghanistan, just as Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam in 1965. The driving force in both cases is domestic politics. Johnson felt that he had to escalate the fight in Vietnam because otherwise the Republicans would lambaste him for "losing Vietnam," the same way they accused President Harry Truman of "losing China" in the late 1940s. 

Obama and his fellow Democrats know full well that if the United States walks away from Afghanistan now, the Republicans will accuse them of capitulating to terrorism and undermining our security. And this charge will be leveled at them for decades to come, harming Democrats at the polls come election time. The Democrats have no intention of letting that happen.

The United States is in Afghanistan for the long haul. As was the case in Vietnam, more American soldiers and many more civilians are going to die in Afghanistan. And for no good reason.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images


The Velvet Hegemon

How soft power can help defeat terrorism.

When George Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, stood up at the 2003 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January and asked U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell why the United States seems to focus only on its hard power rather than its soft power, I was gratified and bemused. Gratified that a concept I had proposed in FOREIGN POLICY in 1990 has gained wide currency; bemused at how often that concept is misunderstood.

Power is the ability to produce the outcomes you want. When someone does something he would otherwise not do but for force or inducement, that's hard power -- the use of sticks and carrots. Soft power is the ability to secure those outcomes through attraction rather than coercion. It is the ability to shape what others want. Hard and soft power sometimes reinforce and sometimes substitute for each other. If you can produce the right outcomes by attracting others to want what you want, you can afford to spend less on carrots and sticks.

Hard and soft power can also limit each other. That may explain why some of the unilateralists in the Pentagon now seem to neglect soft power. Unfortunately, that neglect may have dangerous consequences for the successful prosecution of both the war on terrorism and a conflict with Iraq.

Soft power can rest on the attractiveness of one's culture, political ideals, and policies, or on one's ability to manipulate other countries' political agendas. But many people confuse the resources that can generate soft power with the essence of soft power itself. Writing in FOREIGN POLICY ("Think Again: Power," January/February 2003), the distinguished historian Niall Ferguson describes soft power as "nontraditional forces such as cultural and commercial goods" and then dismisses it on the grounds "that it's, well, soft." Of course, Coke and Big Macs do not necessarily encourage people in the Islamic world to love the United States. And Hollywood films that make the United States attractive in China or Latin America may have the opposite effect and actually diminish U.S. soft power in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Ferguson concludes that real power depends on "having credibility and legitimacy." Exactly! "Credibility and legitimacy” are what soft power is all about.

The attractiveness of the United States rests on resources such as its culture (sometimes), its political values of democracy and human rights (when it lives up to them), and its policies (when they are framed with some humility and awareness of others' interests). At Davos, Secretary Powell correctly replied to George Carey that the United States needed hard power to win World War II but followed up with the Marshall Plan and support for democracy. By providing tangible economic incentives and making the United States more attractive, the Marshall Plan was a source of both hard and soft power. And, of course, soft power was crucial to the U.S. victory in the Cold War. After all, the Soviet Union was still attractive in many parts of Western Europe after World War II, but it squandered its soft power with repressive policies at home and the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Some hard-line skeptics in the Bush administration might say that whatever the merits of soft power, it has little role to play in the current war on terrorism. Osama bin Laden and his followers are repelled, not attracted, by U.S. culture, values, and policies. Military power was essential in defeating the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; soft power will never convert fanatics. True, but the skeptics mistake half the answer for the whole answer.

Look again at Afghanistan. Precision bombing and U.S. Special Forces may have subdued the Taliban, but so far, U.S. agents have captured only a fraction of al Qaeda operatives, who form a transnational network with cells in 60 countries. The United States cannot bomb al Qaeda cells in Hamburg, Kuala Lumpur, or Detroit. Success against this network depends on close civilian cooperation across borders, whether that means sharing intelligence, coordinating police work across borders, or tracking global financial flows. U.S. allies and partners collaborate partly out of self-interest, but the inherent attractiveness of U.S. policies influences the degree of such collaboration. Equally important, the current war on terrorism is not a clash of civilizations but a struggle whose outcome is closely tied to a civil war between moderates and extremists within Islamic civilization. The United States will win only if moderate Muslims win, and the United States' ability to attract moderates is critical to victory. The United States must adopt policies that appeal to moderates and must use public diplomacy more effectively to explain common interests to would-be allies in the Muslim world.

How would a war in Iraq affect our soft power vis-à-vis moderate Muslims around the world? Hawks reply that the successful exercise of hard power can also attract, pointing to the rise of American prestige in the Middle East after the first Gulf War. But that war was fought by a broad coalition with the United Nations' blessing. The strength of U.S. soft power depends in part on the breadth of U.S. coalitions. For example, a multinational force and administration in Iraq may be less efficient than a U.S. force, but what the United States loses in efficiency it more than gains in legitimacy and in the protection of its soft power.

U.S. economic policies not directly linked to the war on terrorism also affect soft power. Skeptics correctly argue that development assistance cannot remove the roots of terrorism because most of the terrorists who have struck the United States and other targets are not poor. Yes, but terrorist movements are often led by people who claim to act in the name of the poor and then recruit them to violent causes. The United States can reduce such appeal and enhance its soft power by aligning its policies with the aspirations of ordinary citizens in poor countries. U.S. President George W. Bush's commitment to increase development assistance and to spend an additional $10 billion to combat aids in Africa and the Caribbean is not only right for humanitarian reasons -- it is also a wise investment in U.S. soft power. Equally important is the formulation of policies for the upcoming Doha round of trade negotiations that take the interests of poor countries into greater account.

Nearly five centuries ago, Niccolò Machiavelli advised princes in Italy that it was more important to be feared than to be loved. In today's world, it is best to be both. To defeat terrorism, the United States must learn to combine soft and hard power more effectively.