Obama’s Recycled National Security Strategy
My interest in Thailand has waned as it is now clear that the Kingdom is stuck with its current police state for the foreseeable future. I too mourn the passing of King Bhumiphon, but to the extent that it makes things any different it only makes them worse. It is somehow appropriate that such a backward looking regime has a 96-year-old Regent currently in the place of its widely unloved 64 year-old Crown Prince.
And so on to bigger things, like the national security strategy of the United States. I have read several articles recently regarding President Obama’s foreign policy legacy the gist of which seem strangely familiar. No more “boots on the ground” ala George W. Bush. A “low profile” in foreign trouble spots; sneakers and bush jackets in place of fatigues and steel pots; lots of the highest of high-tech intelligence gathering; spies, drones, smart bombs, Special Forces, discrete private contractors, and cash.
OMG! I know that game! Laos circa 1960-75…the “Secret War in Laos”…and I was there, for part of it. Sure the “high-tech” wasn’t so high in those days-we couldn’t hack anything but radio communications, but then that’s all there was to hack. No “boots on the ground”…check…at least none of ours, except for a few Special Forces jungle boots plus some Royal Thai Army boots in Royal Laotian Army uniforms. Some ‘contractors’ who might better be described as mercenaries-ex-military-US, Korean…you name it. Air America of course, a very specialized commercial airline run by the CIA, aka Central Administrative Services…CAS. No drones or smart bombs, but the color of the cash was the same then as it is now.
CAS ran the gritty part of the show while the State Department held the diplomatic high ground. The two often collaborated in the gray area between statesmanship and espionage. The number of Americans involved was in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands as it was next door in the Republic of South Vietnam.
Did it work in Laos? No, but it could have. And if it had only been Laos it would have. But the Vietnam War was too close and it was the controlling factor. The best we could do was to get some sort of shaky agreement to make Laos neutral territory. That would have suited all three Lao parties – Royalist, Neutralist and even Pathet Lao Communist, just fine. We brokered such an agreement in 1962 but it fell apart in 1965. We negotiated another in 1973 through a combination of diplomacy and the hard fighting of the CIA-backed army of Hmong General Vang Pao. But after Hanoi’s forces rolled into Saigon in 1975 they tore it up. They wanted control of Laos, not because it was worth anything to them, but because they didn’t want the Thais, or their devious Chinese Communist Allies to get hold of it. So poor Laos was caught in the middle of events it had no control over. And, having lost the big war in Vietnam, we had no control over them either.
It might surprise you to find that this is not an argument against the President’s national security strategy, far from it. Consider the alternative…boots on the ground. So tough! So decisive! So aggressive! So patriotic! “Send in the Marines!” Great stump speech material for many a bold politician. But when was the last time “boots on the ground” worked for us? The Korean War? Maybe, at least that ended in a draw and a free Republic of South Korea; and we had little choice in the matter at the time-it was fight, surrender or run, and there wasn’t even any good place to run to. The Vietnam War? Are you kidding! Iraq? Afghanistan? OK, Kuwait, the Gulf War, one small cheap victory and three big costly losses for “boots on the ground.”
It’s a messy, nasty, vicious, chaotic world out there…getting more so all the time. We often aren’t even fighting nation states these days but terrorist and extremist groups and armed factions and “failed states” that shape-shift from one month to the next. What we tried unsuccessfully in Laos is the model for what we are, and should be, doing now. It will not always be successful, but if we bat over .250 we’ll be doing better than “boots.” And the cost in blood, our own blood, and treasure, is relatively low. But more importantly we will not be committing ourselves to official involvements we are bound to continue even if they turn sour and as soon as the first official boot hits the ground we are committed. If we sneak in we can also sneak out if necessary-win, lose or draw.
“Boots” make us the target. With a low profile we are more likely to get them before they get us. It may not be the clean-cut, above-board “American Way” of doing things, but it is the only way that offers hope of success with the world in its current state. Let Obama’s recycled national security strategy live as long as necessary and prosper.