Fatal Flaws of Bush's 'Tough-Guy-ism'
The showdown over Iraq War funding will test the political appeal of George W. Bush’s dominant foreign policy approach – what might be called “tough-guy-ism” – the concept of picking fights and battling until “victory” whatever the ghastly cost.
“Tough-guy-ism” is a philosophy with its own historical narrative, which was put on display by Bush’s Republican defenders during the March 23 debate on a House bill to condition Iraq War funding on a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.
According to the "tough-guy" narrative, the Vietnam War was betrayed by liberals in Congress who prevented the U.S. military and its South Vietnamese allies from achieving "victory." The narrative also holds that U.S. forces should have fought on to "victory" after intervening in Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s and in Somalia in the 1990s.
Indeed, “tough-guy-ism” insists that all conflicts no matter how misguided must end in American "victory," even if military strategists conclude that "victory" is either impossible – as in Vietnam – or would far outweigh any value to U.S. national security – as in Lebanon and Somalia.
“Our enemies understand what happened in Vietnam,” declared House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, during the debate. “When this Congress voted to cut off funding, we left Vietnam. We left chaos and genocide in the streets of Vietnam because we pulled the troops out and didn’t have the will to win.”
More poignantly, the same argument was made by Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, who was held as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese.
“Just think back to the dark day in history when we saw visions of American Marines airlifting Vietnamese out of the U.S. Embassy,” Johnson said. “You remember that. That is what happens when America makes a commitment; Congress cuts the funding; and we go home with our tails between our legs.”
Boehner not only blamed Congress for losing Vietnam but he faulted Republican hero, President Ronald Reagan, for failure in Lebanon and Democratic President Bill Clinton for withdrawing U.S. forces from Somalia.
“Our enemies know what happened in 1983 after the Marine barracks were bombed in Lebanon, and we pulled out,” Boehner said. “What did we see? Chaos and genocide all through Lebanon, and continuing to this day. Then, in 1993, we decided to pull out of Somalia; left chaos and genocide in our wake that continues to this day.”
The appeal of “tough-guy-ism” to many Americans is that it offers a black-and-white answer to everything – just fight on to victory, kill the bad guys and then fix everything up. But the fatal flaw in the logic is that external violence often is not the answer to complex political and cultural challenges in many countries.
Even if the enemy military is defeated, that doesn’t mean the country’s social or religious divisions will heal. As happened in the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq, U.S. military conquests can unleash civil war and genocide, not prevent them. Likewise, U.S. intervention in Indochina has been blamed for killing millions.
There’s also the issue of practicality. As powerful as it is, the United States doesn’t have the manpower and the money to police the world. Eventually, the nation would face financial and military ruin if it tried
Take the Vietnam War, for example. Rather than proving the “tough-guy” point about fighting to “victory” regardless of cost, the Vietnam War actually demonstrates the opposite.
President Lyndon Johnson’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara concluded fairly early that the Vietnam War was not winnable in any normal sense of the word. He recognized that it would be essentially an endless conflict with an interminable roll of casualties and a continuous drain on the national treasury.
The war continued as long as it did because Johnson and other leaders lacked the political courage to bring it to a close. They were too afraid of the advocates of “tough-guy-ism” in the 1960s. Finally, President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reconciled themselves to the inevitable and withdrew American combat forces.
But George W. Bush and other current advocates of “tough-guy-ism” have revived the old canard that "victory" in Vietnam was within reach if only the United States had enough will and determination.
Yet, if “tough-guy-ism” had its way back then, the war might still be going on today and the Vietnam memorial wall with names of the dead might stretch the length of the Mall, from the Lincoln Memorial to Capitol Hill. It’s possible, too, that Sam Johnson, John McCain and other POWs would either still be captive in Hanoi or would have died there.
By contrast, ending the war turned out not to be the disaster to American foreign policy that the “tough guys” of the time predicted. Though the U.S. withdrawal was followed by some savage reprisals, eventually the violence subsided; the people of Indochina began rebuilding their countries; and they now are trading partners with the United States.
Lebanon Civil War
Similarly, the context of the Lebanese violence is also ignored by the “tough-guy” narrative. In Lebanon, President Reagan dispatched U.S. Marines to serve as peacekeepers in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and a multi-sided civil war raging among Lebanese factions.
However, the U.S. status gradually changed through “mission creep” that transformed the Marines into belligerents. Heeding the advice of then-national security adviser Robert McFarlane, Reagan authorized the USS New Jersey to fire long-distance shells into Muslim villages, killing civilians and convincing Shiite militants that the United States had joined the conflict.
On Oct. 23, 1983, Shiite militants struck back, sending a suicide truck bomber through U.S. security positions, demolishing the high-rise Marine barracks in Beirut and killing 241 American servicemen. Reagan soon repositioned U.S. forces offshore.
“When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides,” Gen. Colin Powell wrote in his memoir, My American Journey. In other words, Powell, who was then military adviser to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, recognized that the actions of the U.S. military had altered the status of the Marines in the eyes of the Shiites.
But Reagan’s redeployment of the Marines didn’t end U.S. intervention in Lebanon. The tit-for-tat violence in Beirut continued.
CIA Director William Casey ordered secret counterterrorism operations against Islamic radicals. As retaliation, the Shiites targeted more Americans. Another bomb destroyed the U.S. Embassy and killed most of the CIA station.
Casey dispatched veteran CIA officer William Buckley to fill the void. But on March 14, 1984, Buckley was spirited off the streets of Beirut to face torture and death.
In 1985, Casey targeted Hezbollah leader Sheikh Fadlallah in an operation that included hiring operatives who detonated a car bomb outside the Beirut apartment building where Fadlallah lived.
As described by Bob Woodward in Veil, “the car exploded, killing 80 people and wounding 200, leaving devastation, fires and collapsed buildings. Anyone who had happened to be in the immediate neighborhood was killed, hurt or terrorized, but Fadlallah escaped without injury. His followers strung a huge ‘Made in the USA’ banner in front of a building that had been blown out.”
Eventually, an Israeli withdrawal southward and negotiations among Lebanon’s warring parties brought the violence under control. Lebanon enjoyed a period of relative peace that lasted until summer 2006 when a new war broke out with Israel.
Under the rules of “tough-guy-ism,” however, President Reagan should have followed the Marine barracks attack by sending in a U.S. occupying army and slaughtering enough Shiite “bad guys” to declare “victory.” More likely, however, Islamic extremism would only have deepened and spread as it has since Bush invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003.
‘Black Hawk Down’
A similar “mission creep” problem occurred in Somalia where President George H.W. Bush sent U.S. forces ashore to cope with a famine, but eventually the operation morphed into the U.S. participation in another civil war under Clinton.
In 1993, following a “decapitation” strategy, U.S. Special Forces sought to capture or kill warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid and his top lieutenants. But the operation ended in disaster as American troops were trapped in the streets of Mogadishu and Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. Eighteen Americans and hundreds of Somalis died.
Under “tough-guy-ism,” the only answer would have been to commit another American army to somehow kill enough Somalis to bring law and order to that deeply divided society, likely another long-term commitment of U.S. forces.
If someone were to stretch “tough-guy-ism” back even further into the past, the U.S. military might be occupying Cuba after bailing out the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. On the Asian continent, U.S. and Chinese forces might still be fighting over Korea.
Of course, a more likely scenario if “tough-guy-ism” had prevailed back then would have been a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Instead of a peaceful end to the Cold War, civilization likely would have ended in a nuclear holocaust, all the better to have proved how tough we were.
As crazy as this “tough-guy” view of the world may seem, it is George W. Bush’s operational strategy for conducting the “war on terror.” According to Bush and his neoconservative aides, the United States must remain engaged indefinitely in a world war until “evil” and “terrorism” are eradicated.
So, there can be no military withdrawal from Iraq even if the war lasts decades, kills millions of Iraqis, costs the lives of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and drowns the federal budget in red ink; “tough-guy-ism” will permit only “victory.” And this endless war must be fought globally, far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The spread of radical Islamic terrorism is a threat to our nation and is a threat to the free world, not just in the Middle East,” said House Minority Leader Boehner in the March 23 debate. “They are in Asia, they are in Europe, they are in Africa. Cells are growing right here in America, people dedicated to killing Americans, killing our allies, and ending freedom and wanting to impose some radical Islamic law on the entire world.”
Adherents to “tough-guy-ism” understand that endless war everywhere is the only answer. That is the essence of Bush’s grim vision. Negotiating, compromising, recognizing legitimate complaints in the Islamic world, even trying to win hearts and minds are really all for sissies.
The congressional funding battle, which will play out over the next several weeks, will tell the tale of whether Bush and his political supporters can persuade enough Americans and enough members of Congress to, once again, give “tough-guy-ism” a blank check.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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