The Poor, Put-Upon Foreign Policy Establishment
The foreign policy establishment more than deserves the criticism it receives.
Yes, post-1945 policymakers got it catastrophically wrong in Vietnam. But they got it right by containing the Soviet Union while building security alliances and promoting free trade. Those policies set the stage for the greatest expansion of freedom and prosperity in history, made the United States the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, and eventually led to the peaceful end of the Cold War.
It is common for defenders of the foreign policy establishment to invoke the policies adopted at the creation of the modern national security state as proof that the establishment can get things right, but this is a selective and sanitized history that requires us to forget a lot of what the U.S. did in the name of containment. It requires a great deal of whitewashing of the U.S. record during the Cold War to conclude simply that American policymakers “got it right.” It also tries to give the U.S. credit for developments that its policies did not cause, since the peaceful end of the Cold War was almost entirely the result of internal changes in the USSR and eastern Europe driven by the peoples of these countries. What a lot of all these defenses have in common is that they can’t identify any great successes of U.S. foreign policy in the last 20 or 25 years. In order to defend foreign policy elites today, they usually have to go back to the 1950s or earlier.
Defenders of the foreign policy establishment’s record are now usually willing to acknowledge that the Vietnam War was wrong, but they don’t have much to say about a lot of other similarly horrible policies. Did policymakers get things right when the U.S. cooperated in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians in the name of anticommunism? Did they get things right when the U.S. sided with a Pakistani government committing genocide in Bangladesh? Did they get it right when they were cozying up to the Khmer Rouge in an effort to oppose Vietnamese influence?
Paul Thomas Chamberlin recounts this last episode in The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace:
However, none of this precluded a rapprochement between the Khmer Rouge and Washington—at least as far as U.S. policymakers were concerned. Officials in the Ford administration worried about the potential for Hanoi to expand Vietnam’s influence. To block Hanoi’s bid for regional power, the Ford administration hoped to reconcile with the Khmer Rouge and support a greater Chinese presence in Southeast Asia.
Chamberlin then quotes Kissinger: “You should also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them.”1
I mention these gruesome episodes because we need to remember the cost of the Cold War-era policies that contemporary foreign policy elites are so quick to applaud now. We need to remember just how many ghastly decisions U.S. policymakers made along the way.
The U.S. successfully contained the Soviet Union, but how important was containment to the prevention of great power war after 1945? If the policymakers got things right with respect to containment in Europe, it is fair to say that they were pretty consistently wrong in applying that policy to other parts of the world. You can draw a straight line from the decision to apply containment doctrine in Korea and the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Policymakers got it so wrong in Vietnam because they wrongly believed that propping up South Vietnam mattered greatly to the credibility of U.S. alliances and thought that it was essential to the outcome of the Cold War. In the end, it didn’t matter at all for either one. As John Mueller notes in The Stupidity of War, “the policy [containment] itself was logically flawed, and it was to impel the United States into a costly “test-case” war in Vietnam against an enemy that proved to be essentially undefeatable.”2
A foreign policy establishment that repeatedly endorses and then defends unnecessary and illegal wars gets major, life-or-death questions wrong often enough that we have to conclude that its collective judgment is not very good. When you add to this the long record of imposing cruel economic sanctions on whole nations for years or decades, uncritically backing abusive client states to the hilt, fueling civil wars, and supporting covert regime change to bring friendly despots to power, the foreign policy establishment more than deserves the criticism it receives.
Chamberlin, The Cold War’s Killing Fields: p.343.
Mueller, The Stupidity of War: p.47.