Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Refusing to learn from Vietnam

The West still holds to the belief that its system can be imposed elsewhere to the benefit of itself and local peoples, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

I was on my way from Boston to Cairo when I started Bob Woodward’s latest book, The Last of the President’s Men, which revisits the period when he had first acquired international fame.

The Washington Post journalist soared into the world’s headlines when he, along with his colleague Carl Bernstein, exposed the Watergate scandal that led to President Nixon’s resignation. The two journalists subsequently co-authored All the President’s Men, which chronicles the story of their investigative reporting on that scandal.

 Woodward went on to specialise in writing the biographies of US presidents up to Obama, with an eye to revealing their secrets, great or small. However, in his latest book, he returns to his earlier career and, through a blend of investigative journalism and historiography, to the Richard Nixon administration (1969-1974).

Specifically, he writes about Alexander Butterfield, assistant White House chief of staff in Nixon’s administration. It was Butterfield who disclosed to Congress the secret of the Oval Office taping system, one of the main testimonies that led to Nixon’s condemnation.

In all events, any discussion of the Nixon administration must consider two subjects: the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. While the drama of the first attracted much attention, history will testify that the second was a pivotal point in the history of the West in general, and the US in particular. The many lessons it had to teach have, unfortunately, remained unlearned.

The Vietnam War, unlike the Korean War that preceded it, was the US’s first attempt since World War II to conduct a war that not only aimed to address strategic concerns related to the Cold War but also sought to serve as the military prelude to engineering the change of states and peoples.

When you read the abovementioned book and other similar works, especially the memoirs of US military and political leaders, you will find a “cognitive gap” between them and local leaders and their places in the maps of the social and value systems in their countries.

The American dilemma that emerges most clearly resides in, first, a fascination with the American self and, second, the Western self. This fascination is rooted in an unshakeable conviction in a historical evolution embodied in the Western course from the Middle Ages to the present, from feudalism to capitalism, from myth and superstition to rationalism, and from darkness to enlightenment.

This conviction comes with the equally firm belief that all of this can somehow be packaged into capsules and political schemes and then shoved down the throats of other governments and societies so that they, too, can change in what must only be the sole logical and acceptable direction.

Certainly, the US and Western experiences in engineering social and political change in such countries as Japan, Germany and Italy has reinforced that fascination to the extent of fostering the idea that the experiences can be duplicated elsewhere. True, some have cautioned against such attempts, not least of whom was Nixon himself, in No More Vietnam.

David Halberstam, in The Best and the Brightest, also discusses at length the nature of the mighty minds that were behind the decisions that brought the US intervention and, ultimately, failure in Vietnam. It is equally true that many of the lessons from Vietnam were of a military nature and were grasped by the US and Western military establishments.

However, other lessons touched upon the fact that it is impossible to impose specific political, social and economic systems on national and societies with different histories, value systems and ways of accommodating to the changes taking place in the world.

Neither the US nor the West as a whole learned from the Vietnam experience. It was repeated in Afghanistan and Iraq and, now, in spite of the modicum of humility acquired from drastic failure, US and Western military actions toward the Middle East are not inseparable from a belief in the attempt to change it.

The Western dilemma arises from the fact that, on the one hand, from its perspective and for purely practical necessities, the West must work together with regional allies; on the other hand, and perhaps due to this self-infatuation, it feels driven to pursue policies, approaches and relations with local political forces in those countries, the ultimate objective of which is to undermine the status quo in the region, and in Arab states in particular.

This contradiction surfaced powerfully in that state of excessive admiration for what is referred to in Western literature as the Arab Spring. Once the phenomenon culminated in a blend of religious fascism and anarchy, you get Steven Cook from the Council of Foreign Affairs tacking from “the revolution betrayed by the generals” to “the revolution that didn’t happen.”

Here, specifically, is where you find the failure to understand the change that took place in the region, and how people and their governments have begun to try to mould the change in a way that they can resume their course towards reform and progress as they see it.

Leo Strauss said that the essence of politics is “change” but that what counted was that we know whether the change will lead to the better or worse. If the former, we should pursue it. If the latter, we should try to preserve the status quo.

In this context, the difference is not over change — or reform — per se, but over whether the reform is “hostile”, which is to say it seeks to install political, economic and social systems that, elsewhere, took centuries to build and that will cause the society and the state to collapse, or whether the reform is “friendly”, or capable of given realities and moving forward though acceptable and, more importantly, feasible steps.

This wisdom was not applied in the Vietnam experience because there was no sensitivity to the notion of national dignity, and even less to the notion of local values, as the quantitatively and qualitatively “marginal” groups of liberals were convinced that other countries were ready and willing to welcome political engineering processes.

The experience was repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were projections for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, with respect to which the question of alliances is discussed, not entirely from the perspective of a regional and strategic outlook but also from the perspective of a vision for evolutionary change.

The Arab world is at a historical turning point in the fullest sense of the word. As much as we have grown alert to the need to address existential strategic necessities related to the use of religious extremism and, indeed, sectarian extremism, there is no escaping reform and change.

This is not just because it we need it and we are the only ones who can make it happen, but because the change we make will spring from our own circumstances, which we understand better than others. It is also because others, namely the West and now Russia, will come with solutions and approaches that seek to recreate us in their image.

Asian countries, with their particular cultures and value systems, changed themselves and thus saved themselves. They learned how to live with a world in which the West still has the larger say, which in turn probably contributed to the US’s failure to learn the lessons of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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