Lessons From Agent Orange

When the U.S. charged into Vietnam, it made a series of tragic blunders motivated by a desire to never again face a Hitler-level threat. Let's hope Israel's leaders don't repeat the same mistake.

It's hard to disagree with Uzi Arad, who recently told Haaretz's Ari Shavit that at the highest echelon of Israeli politics sit some of the best and most capable men this country has ever seen.

The accumulated experience of Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya'alon, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin is worth its weight in gold, said Arad, former national security advisor.

Hopefully, before giving the order to attack Iran, these leaders will read David Halberstam's classic book "The Best and the Brightest" about a similar group of statesmen and generals. That group had the best of intentions, and they too were endowed with the impressive intelligence, education and experience that set them apart from the pack.

Nevertheless, they were responsible for the political and military catastrophe that was the Vietnam War.

Halberstam, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of that war for The New York Times, describes a modern-day Greek tragedy playing out in the jungles of Hanoi. He tells his readers how the U.S. intellectual and political elite, who managed foreign policy and American security during the Cold War (including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, General Maxwell Taylor, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, among others), acted according to what they saw as a clear American national interest – the defeat of the Communist regime in North Vietnam – despite the risks and high costs that implementing this policy entailed.

Today, "The Best and the Brightest" is required reading for every student of the United States Military Academy at West Point as well as the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

As Halberstam describes, these bright policy makers, some of them descendents of America's finest families, were convinced that they had what it took to make such weighty decisions. They were intellectually gifted (McNamara had a genius-level I.Q.), came to the job with rich military and political experience, and had unique information at their disposal. They felt that it was both their right and their duty to make decisions likely to determine the fate of the American people.

There were several political, intellectual and bureaucratic failures that led up to the decisions regarding the U.S. military's involvement in Vietnam, as well as the decision later on to expand its involvement. Among them, Halberstam writes, was the misuse of historical analogies, intellectual pretentiousness, and the manner in which Congress, the media and public all toed the line of national consensus.
America's best and brightest looked at Vietnam through the prism of historical trauma left behind by World War II, and what they saw was the risk of appeasing Ho Chi Minh in the same way England and France had tragically appeased Hitler after the 1938 Munich Conference.

In a climate where every ideological or national security challenge looked as if it could once again drag the world back to a Hitler-level threat, "Munich syndrome," as it came to be called, was invoked as a justification for resistance. They needed to let the world see them strike an immediate and decisive blow upon the enemy, which in the case of North Vietnam was the Communist leadership. Ho Chi Minh was the new Hitler.

But in resisting the U.S. military involvement in their country, the leaders of North Vietnam were mainly driven by an anti-colonialist and nationalist ideology. They weren't acting (as Washington mistakenly assumed) under orders from Moscow or Beijing.

Instead of bombing Hanoi and continuing to send military forces to Southeast Asia, the Americans could have reached a political agreement with Hanoi long before the war began, and spared hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides.

But the politicians, generals and advisors continued to cook up their own political stew, isolating and marginalizing the bureaucrats, diplomats and military personnel who raised questions over the policy on Vietnam. For far too long, most members of Congress, and the journalists – including Halberstam himself – covering the war took it for granted that McNamara, Taylor, Rusk and their cohorts knew what they were doing. They alarm bells didn't sound until it was already too late.

What unfolded in Washington and Southeast Asia four decades ago is not necessarily the same as what is occurring today in Jerusalem and across the Middle East. But the impulse to invoke the Holocaust as a basis for decisions on Iran, the declaration that Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler and the messianic urges that seem to be driving Netanyahu and Barak are, without a doubt, reminiscent of those American leaders' Munich syndrome.

They, like their Israeli counterparts today, demanded that the public put faith in their ability to make decisions. So it is good that the press, the public that it serves, is starting to take a cold, hard look at its leaders' assumptions.

Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting firm.