Global Policy Forum

Coercive Diplomacy and War: The Vietnam Precedent


By Gareth Porter

Huffington Post
November 1, 2007

The debate on Iran policy has yet to focus on the real problem: the strategy of diplomatic coercion which Hillary Clinton has made it clear she strongly supports. She believes it is an alternative to war, but in fact it is the main danger of war with Iran. Diplomatic coercion means using all forms of pressures available to force Iran to back down. That means the threat of war, as Clinton makes clear. Bush and Clinton obviously believe that Iran will eventually make concessions in the face of U.S. power, so it is safe to commit themselves by making such threats. After all, the United States is the most powerful nation in the history of the world.

In May 2006, 'Washington Post' columnist Jim Hoagland quoted Bush as saying to a White House visitor, "We are in a who-blinks-first game" with Iran. And last month, after meeting with "senior administration officials", David Ignatius of the 'Post', called the U.S.-Iranian confrontation "a game of chicken--two cars coming at each other on a narrow, poorly lit road." He also confirmed that the U.S. and Israel cooperated in Israel's strike against a still-unidentified target in Syria, which was a "message to Iran". Playing this kind of game with Iran requires that the United States moves closer and closer to the edge of war, finding new ways to convince Iran that it is really serious about going to war. If Iran refuses to budge, the pressures will inevitably grow for an actual demonstration of force against Iranian territory, even if it is only symbolic.

But the national security managers fail to understand that even if Iran becomes convinced that the United States is ready for war, it won't give in if the Bush administration is making demands that threaten a core national interest. That is exactly what the U.S. demand for Iran to end all uranium enrichment, regardless of conditions, does. After a demonstration of military force against Iran - presumably a small attack on Iranian soil, not only fails to budge Tehran but makes it even tougher, it may dawn on some Bush administration policymakers that it isn't working. But by then, they will already have committed their personal prestige to a point where they can't back down without looking really, really bad at home.

So they will be tempted to press ahead, using more force than they had intended in the desperate hope that the Iranian leaders will cave. Very quickly, the situation will be out of control. Then they have to claim that the war they provoked out of hubris and foolish overconfidence in their own power was unavoidable. We've actually been down this road before. It is exactly how the Lyndon Johnson administration stumbled into full-scale war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson's advisers - Robert S. McNamara, the Bundy brothers, Maxwell Taylor and Dean Rusk - believed that the enormous military superiority of the United States gave them inherent leverage which they could exploit to persuade the North Vietnamese to back off and reduce the level of fighting in the South. When they pressed Johnson hard to start the bombing of the North in 1964, they were reasonably confident that the North Vietnamese would choose not to challenge the United States once they began to demonstrate that the United States was really serious about using force. They didn't think seriously about the possibility that it would lead to sending large U.S. combat units into South Vietnam within a matter of months.

The first U.S. bombing of North Vietnam which followed an alleged attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 was not just an opportunity to hurt North Vietnam; it was part of a larger game of coercing Hanoi. It was supposed to a signal to the North Vietnamese that the United States was serious. The actual bombing campaign against North Vietnam that began in March 1965 was also aimed at nudging Hanoi into negotiating - only on U.S. terms, of course - or simply reducing the level of fighting in South Vietnam. When the bombing failed to bring any sign of readiness by North Vietnam to back down, Johnson's advisers quickly put even more chips on the table. They commited 50,000 ground combat troops to the war, again counting on the threat of much heavier U.S. punishment from the air to deter the North Vietnamese from responding. McNamara even went so far as to suggest in a press briefing that the United States might remove its existing "inhibitions" on using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

But coercion didn't work on the North Vietnamese, and Johnson's advisers had become too committed to admit their blunder, even though they knew the issue was not worth a major war. They began an open-ended commitment to war. They didn't seriously consider a diplomatic proposal that recognized that their adversaries had legitimate interests that would have to be accommodated. That's how the United States came to fight an unnecessary war in Vietnam which lasted eight years. I have detailed the effect of the overwhelming dominance of U.S. military power on the confidence of the national security specialists surrounding Johnson that they could face down the Vietnamese leaders and avoid a big war in Vietnam in Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War.

The thinking of the Bush administration about using its military superiority for coercive diplomacy represents a chilling parallel to that of the Johnson administration. Bush administration officials know they don't want a real war with Iran, but they also believe they can use U.S. dominance to gain the upper hand over Iran, and that they don't have to compromise. Coercive diplomacy is a seductive policy for national security managers - as well as for candidates. But Vietnam experience shows how that road leads to war by way of hubris and miscalculation.

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