Friday, February 13, 2009

Stupid People In High Places

This edition - Max Boot from the Council on Foreign Relations, writing an op-ed in The Washington Post.

Let's start with his bungling of an important piece of history.
Newsweek's editors may have performed a public service by bringing up one of the biggest mistakes the United States made in Vietnam: backing the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam, in 1963. President John F. Kennedy and his aides thought Diem was a divisive, ineffective leader, and they feared that the war could never succeed with him in power.

Now, why would anyone have thought Diem was ineffective, or divisive?
Believing that the central highlands may be of strategic importance to the Vietcong or in a potential invasion by North Vietnam, Diem decided to construct a Maginot Line of settlements. The area, inhabited by Montagnard indigenous people, had been largely allowed local autonomy in previous times, and the locals distrusted ethnic Vietnamese. Diem initiated a program of internal migration where 210,000 Vietnamese, mainly Catholics, were moved to Montagnard land in fortified settlements.[28] When the Montagnards protested, Diem's forces confiscated their spears and bows, which they used to hunt for daily sustenance.[29] Since then, and to the present day, Vietnam has been faced with a Montagnard insurgent separatist movement.


In a country where surveys of the religious composition estimated the Buddhist majority to be between 70 and 90 percent,[31][32][33][34][35][36][37] Diem's policies generated claims of religious bias. As a member of the Catholic Vietnamese minority, he is widely regarded by historians as having pursued pro-Catholic policies that antagonized many Buddhists. Specifically, the government was regarded as being biased towards Catholics in public service and military promotions, as well as the allocation of land, business favors and tax concessions.[38] Diem also once told a high-ranking officer, forgetting that he was a Buddhist, "Put your Catholic officers in sensitive places. They can be trusted." Many officers in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam converted to Catholicism in the belief that their military prospects depended on it.[39] Additionally, the distribution of firearms to village self-defense militias intended to repel Vietcong guerrillas saw weapons only given to Catholics, with Buddhists in the army being denied promotion if they refused to convert to Catholicism.[40] Some Catholic priests ran their own private armies,[41] and in some areas forced conversions, looting, shelling and demolition of pagodas occurred.[42] Some Buddhist villages converted en masse in order to receive aid or avoid being forcibly resettled by Diem's regime.[43] The Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country, and the "private" status that was imposed on Buddhism by the French, which required official permission to conduct public Buddhist activities, was not repealed by Diem.[44] The land owned by the Catholic Church was exempt from land reform.[45] Catholics were also de facto exempt from the corvée labor that the government obliged all citizens to perform; U.S. aid was disproportionately distributed to Catholic majority villages. Under Diem, the Catholic church enjoyed special exemptions in property acquisition, and in 1959, Diem dedicated his country to the Virgin Mary.[46]

The white and gold Vatican flag was regularly flown at all major public events in South Vietnam.[47] U.S. Aid supplies tended to go to Catholics, and the newly constructed Hue and Dalat universities were placed under Catholic authority to foster a Catholic-skewed academic environment.


The regime's relations with the U.S. worsened during 1963, as well as heightening discontent among South Vietnam's Buddhist majority.

In May, in the central city of Huế, where Diem's elder brother was the archbishop, Buddhists were prohibited from displaying Buddhist flags during Vesak celebrations commemorating the birth of Gautama Buddha when the government cited a regulation prohibiting the display of non-government flags.[49]. A few days later, Catholics were allowed to fly religious flags at another celebration where the regulation was not enforced. This led to a protest led by Thich Tri Quang against the government, which was suppressed by Diem's forces, killing nine unarmed civilians. Diem and his supporters blamed the Vietcong for the deaths and claimed that the protesters were responsible for the violence.[50][51] Although the provincial chief expressed sorrow for the killings and offered to compensate the victims' families, they resolutely denied that government forces were responsible for the killings and blamed the Vietcong.[52]

The Buddhists pushed for a five point agreement: freedom to fly religious flags, an end to arbitrary arrests, compensation for the Hue victims, punishment for the officials responsible and religious equality. Diem labeled the Buddhists as "damn fools" for demanding something that, according to him, they already enjoyed.

Diem banned demonstrations, and ordered his forces to arrest those who engaged in civil disobedience. On June 3, 1500 protesters attempted to march towards Tu Dam Pagoda. Six waves of ARVN tear gas and attack dogs failed to disperse the crowds, and finally brownish-red liquid chemicals were doused on praying protesters, resulting in 67 being hospitalised for chemical injuries. A curfew was subsequently enacted.

Now, this is just a sample of Diem's excellent qualifications as a leader. Never mind the US had no business there in the first place; never mind the illegality of the coup, and the US role in the coup. Right now, I am focusing on Boot's notion that it was US policy planners who thought that Diem was a bad guy, hinting that this was either untrue or irrelevant. It was most definitely true, and entirely relevant.

Fast forward to another stupid, illegal war of choice that has left a nation desolated: Iraq. Boot, attempting to show the differences between the American stupidity in Vietnam and our choices in Afghanistan, uses the example of Iraq under Nouri al-Maliki to show that we might have learned a lesson. Except, of course, he gets some stuff wrong.
The [surge] strategy developed by Gen. David Petraeus was to use U.S. reinforcements to target al-Qaeda in Iraq first because he knew that this group of hardened terrorists was the primary "accelerant" of violence. The sense of menace induced by al-Qaeda provided a justification for the thuggish activities of the Mahdi Army, which claimed to be protecting the Shiites. Reduce Sunni terrorism, Petraeus reasoned, and you also reduce Shiite support for the Sadrists. And that's exactly what happened. With al-Qaeda in Iraq all but defeated, Maliki felt free to move against the Mahdi Army.

This may have been what happened, but it was not the strategic plan behind the "surge". The entire premise behind the surge was not to allow Maliki to move militarily against the Mahdi Army, al Qaeda in Iraq, or any other quasi-military force. The introduction of additional American forces was to create breathing room for political reconciliation between the various political factions in Iraq. Constitutional questions were to be settled; agreements on how to disperse Iraq's oil wealth; the status of the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions of the north - this was the strategy behind the tactic known as the surge. Militarily, like Vietnam, it was a success. Politically, it failed miserably. Boot doesn't mention that - nor does anyone else - because to do so would be to make liars out of generals like Petraeus.

Back to the main point for all this sentimentality - what to do about Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan?
Karzai has many shortcomings, particularly his inability or unwillingness to battle corruption and the drug trade in which his brother is implicated. But is there any reason to think someone else would be more effective? U.S. officials eyeing elections scheduled for August are high on possible candidates such as former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah. Yes, those men have impressive credentials. But at one time, U.S. officials also saw Ayad Allawi as the savior of Iraq. Next they settled on Ibrahim al-Jafari, only to push him out and wind up with Maliki, whose reputation has yo-yoed. The American record in picking leaders for foreign countries seems spotty at best.

So instead of obsessing about Karzai's faults, perhaps we should focus on the real problem: lack of security. Efforts to improve the security situation cannot be held hostage to efforts to improve governance. As in Iraq, the solution in Afghanistan should come from sending reinforcements to implement a classic counterinsurgency strategy that focuses on protecting the people. Only when the security situation improves will Afghanistan's president, whoever that person is, be able to function with any degree of effectiveness.

There is so much gobbledygook in these two paragraphs, I think the editors probably just threw up their hands and said, "Fine! Whatever!" Why should we obsess over the handpicked leader of a country implicated in massive corruption? Why should we care that Afghanistan's only major export, and largest cash crop, is opium? It seems Boot's one factually correct statement comes at the end of the first paragraph above concerning our "spotty record" on picking those to rule other countries.

While "lack of security" may be a gross understatement (a nascent civil war is much more like it), that is, indeed the major threat to Afghanistan. It has its roots in the Bush Administration's decision to leave a small contingency force in Afghanistan and focus on Iraq. The reason we were in Afghanistan was because the Taliban created a safe haven for terrorists who attacked our country. So, "lack of security" can be directly related to a conscious policy decision, one Boot supported whole-heartedly. Lord knows why he thinks anyone should listen to him now . . .

The money-shot, however, is the following sentence: "Efforts to improve the security situation cannot be held hostage to efforts to improve governance." I don't know if a dumber sentence has been written by someone who is supposed to be an "expert".

(Warning: Expletives to follow)
How else do we improve security unless we help the Afghan government improve their ability to govern? Are you that fucking stupid, Max Boot, that you believe that the internal security of a state is not directly linked to their ability to govern effectively and with a perception of legitimacy?

Sorry. Lost my cool there.

Anyway, I think it's safe to say that if we keep listening to the Max Boot's of the world, we will continue to fail as miserably as we have been doing.

Virtual Tin Cup

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