The Post-Powell Doctrine

By Benjamin Schwarz



Max Boot’s ”Savage Wars of Peace” purports to be a chronicle of America’s involvement in ”small wars.” Eliot A. Cohen’s ”Supreme Command” is ostensibly an examination, using historical case studies, of civilian-military relations. Actually, both books use potted histories to argue for a neoconservative, interventionist foreign policy. And both books target the same — and at first glance surprising — enemy: the United States military.

Foreign and defense policy commentators regularly rediscover the twin facts that although the United States military is trained, equipped and organized to fight almost exclusively against modern armies and navies, not all of America’s foes possess large, high-tech military establishments. Inevitably, those commentators call for a new doctrine and force structure to fight what in the 1930’s were called ”banana wars” (in the Caribbean and Nicaragua) or ”small wars” (Boot’s preferred term, taken from the Marine Corps’s 1940 training manual); ”limited wars” in the 1950’s (in the Philippines); ”brush-fire wars” and ”insurgencies” in the 1960’s (in Latin America and Vietnam); ”low-intensity conflicts” in the 1980’s (in El Salvador and, again, in Nicaragua) and ”military operations other than war” in the 1990’s (in Somalia and Haiti).

Max Boot, the editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal, devotes most of ”The Savage Wars of Peace” (the title is taken from Kipling’s poem ”The White Man’s Burden”) to chapter-length summaries of what he elastically defines as antiguerrilla wars fought in pursuit of ”limited objectives with limited means”: the United States’ role in quelling the Boxer rebellion of 1900 and the Philippines insurrection in the 1890’s; America’s ”constabulary” role in Cuba, Panama, Mexico and Nicaragua in the early years of the 20th century; and the Marines’ war against the first Sandinistas in the late 1920’s and 30’s.

Boot’s sometimes breathless, adventure-story approach to the histories of the small wars can be grating, and these chapters, which make up the bulk of his book, are unrevealing. Although he is at pains to portray American actions and motives in the best possible light (he’s particularly generous in his depiction of what can most charitably be described as America’s brutal conduct in the Philippines insurrection), these histories serve merely as the background for a quite controversial argument: Boot believes America has a moral — and what he characterizes as an imperial — duty to act as a global gendarme. He makes the case that America has had a long and successful history in playing that role — practicing ”nation building” and engaging in wars that lacked popular support, that offered no clear ”exit strategy,” and in which vital American interests were not at stake.

But, as Boot sees it, because the American public and its leaders are haunted by the specter of the disastrous ”small war” in Vietnam, the United States has recently failed to take up what he strongly suggests is its imperial burden. He therefore devotes the last section of his book to arguing that America has learned the wrong lessons from the Vietnam War.

Here he rehashes the arguments made by most perceptive military and civilian officials during the conflict (and by a host of analysts and historians since). To wit, that the United States and South Vietnamese armies should have waged the war using pacification and counterinsurgency techniques; they should have emphasized population security to win the allegiance of the South Vietnamese people, rather than using search-and-destroy operations against the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army.

But the question of whether the Vietnam War could have been ”won” involves issues far too complex to serve Boot’s purposes. Suffice it to say that American military and civilian leaders always recognized the vital importance of pacification — which a 1966 study by none other than the United States Army asserted ”must be designated unequivocally as the major U.S. effort.” The frustration lay in what Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara called the inability to find ”the formula, the catalyst for training and inspiring” the South Vietnamese government and military to pursue that strategy.

More important, by 1970, as Boot acknowledges, South Vietnam had been effectively ”pacified” — thanks to the profligate use of United States firepower, the failure of the Tet offensive and the success of the United States-run Phoenix program, designed to uproot the guerrillas’ leadership, all of which destroyed the Vietcong’s infrastructure. But that success was meaningless because, although more of the population was insulated from the Vietcong’s political control, Saigon failed to provide political control of its own — owing to low morale, poor leadership, cowardice, corruption and incompetence. Simply put, South Vietnam was not a nation that could be ”built” by United States efforts.

In fact, Boot’s argument breaks down nearly completely here, to the extent that he relies on the historical efficacy of nation building to contend that small wars are, in his term, ”doable.” Drawing on his previous case studies, Boot maintains that in Vietnam the United States military should have ”concentrated on . . . building up indigenous security structures modeled on the constabularies of Haiti, the Dominican Republic and so on.” In criticizing the Pentagon’s reluctance to bring ”order to Somalia’s chaotic political situation” in the early 1990’s, he contends that the military had ”long since forgotten U.S. interventions in the Philippines, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua,” while ”conveniently overlooking more recent experiences in Germany and Japan.” But Boot’s own minihistories of these attempts at nation building point to conclusions at odds with his own.

First, in the case of the Axis powers, the United States conducted not a small war but a total one, and only after subduing them utterly could it create a political order congenial to itself. In the cases of the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Nicaragua, the United States occupied those countries not once but repeatedly — and for many years at a time — belying the argument that it managed to impose lasting political order.

In contrasting what he regards as the successful nation-building effort in Haiti in 1915, for example, with what he characterizes as the pusillanimous 1994 intervention (thanks largely to what he sees as the United States military’s excessive concern for casualties), Boot argues that in the first intervention the Marines were able to ”pacify the entire country.” But, as he has previously acknowledged, when they withdrew after a 19-year rule ”the effects of occupation did not last long. . . . Thugs once again took control of the machinery of government.” As for the constabulary the United States built in the neighboring Dominican Republic, which Boot argues should have been a model for Vietnam, it was commanded by the unsavory Rafael Trujillo, who seized power soon after the American occupiers withdrew. And it proved, as Boot himself notes, ”indispensable to consolidating Trujillo’s rule.”

Boot is correct that the left usually exaggerates when criticizing the United States for fostering right-wing strongmen. But establishing an effective, let alone democratic, political order in the anarchic killing fields in which Boot would like to see the United States intervene would seem, from the very histories he recounts, a nearly impossible task. To blame the United States, after a 23-year occupation that ended in 1933, because it did not ”stick around long enough to cultivate” democracy in Nicaragua is to underestimate gravely the constraints that local social structures, cultures and histories impose on American ambitions in much of the world, a world that remains far less malleable than Boot assumes.

Although the defense analyst Eliot A. Cohen’s ”Supreme Command” seems to be devoted to a very different topic, it shares a remarkably similar polemical stance with ”The Savage Wars of Peace.” Both Cohen and Boot direct their strongest attacks against contemporary military leaders’ embrace of the ”Powell doctrine.” That doctrine, an outgrowth of the military’s bitter experience during the Vietnam war, holds that America should intervene in foreign conflicts only when its vital national interests are at stake; that such interventions must have the unqualified support of Congress and the public; and that the military force the United States then uses must be massive and decisive.

To Cohen such preconditions are ”extreme” and severely limit the use of armed force as an instrument of statecraft. He devotes most of his book to five historical case studies — of Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, Ben-Gurion and the ”leadership without genius” during the Vietnam War. The lesson of these, to simplify, is that civilian officials should not defer to military opinion regarding grand strategy and the use of force. Both authors are scornful of what Boot regards as the military leadership’s distaste for small wars and what Cohen characterizes as its ”reckless” emphasis on ”force protection” in such conflicts as the NATO war against Serbia. And both authors correctly identify the military leadership as the primary institutional barrier in the national security establishment to the interventionist policies they wish to see pursued.

But Boot and Cohen disguise their policy advocacy as objective history. It is simply wrong, for instance, to declare, as Cohen does, that it was Gen. William Westmoreland’s ”finicky” concern that the United States not act as a colonial power in Vietnam that led to the American refusal to take direct control of Saigon’s military. American military and civilian leaders were equally unhappy with the corruption and ineptitude of the South Vietnamese military, but both held firmly to the conviction that Saigon could never prove its legitimacy — the central issue in the war — if the United States were to assume command of the South’s armed forces. Cohen’s entire interpretation of American policy in Vietnam is flawed: although he ascribes the United States’ failure to the muddled thinking of the military and to the Johnson administration’s unwillingness to ask tough questions, military, intelligence and administration officials were in fact grimly realistic about the unlikely prospect of ”victory” in Vietnam. But given cold war imperatives and constraints, the vital goal was to avoid losing the Vietnam War, not to win it. A costly and indefinite stalemate was the inevitable result of what was actually a carefully considered and cleareyed policy.

And, while Boot’s criticism of Colin Powell’s opposition to American intervention in Bosnia is forceful, his assertion that ”it took remarkably few sorties by NATO, principally U.S. warplanes — combined with a Croation ground offensive — for the Serbs to agree to a peace treaty” is misleading. It neglects the atrocities — ethnic cleansing, summary executions, indiscriminate shelling of civilian populations — that the Croation Army committed against the Krajina Serbs, with the tacit blessing of Washington.

Cohen resurrects the old saw that war is too important to be left to the generals. But it’s equally true that history is too important to leave to policy advocates.


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