The other night I watched the film “The Deer Hunter.” Afterward, I remembered why it took me so many years to be able to watch Vietnam movies.
It all came tumbling back — the tragedy, the innocent victims, the waste. Too often in Washington we tend to see foreign policy as an abstraction, with little understanding of what we are committing our country to: the complications and consequences of endeavors. It is easy to get into war, not so easy to get out. Vietnam lasted more than 10 years; soon, we will slip into our ninth year in Afghanistan. We have been in Iraq for almost seven years.
When I came to the Senate in 1997, the world was being redefined by forces no single country controlled or understood. The implosion of the Soviet Union and a historic diffusion of economic and geopolitical power created new influences and established new global power centers — and new threats. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, shocked America into this reality. The Sept. 11 commission pointed out that the attacks were as much about failures of our intelligence and security systems as about the terrorists’ success.
The U.S. response, engaging in two wars, was a 20th-century reaction to 21st-century realities. These wars have cost more than 5,100 American lives; more than 35,000 have been wounded; a trillion dollars has been spent, with billions more departing our Treasury each month. We forgot all the lessons of Vietnam and the preceding history.
No country today has the power to impose its will and values on other nations. As the new world order takes shape, America must lead by building coalitions of common interests, as we did after World War II. Then, international organizations such as the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and GATT (now the World Trade Organization) — while flawed — established boundaries for human and government conduct and expectations that helped keep the world from drifting into World War III and generally made life better for most people worldwide during the second half of the 20th century.
Our greatest threats today come from the regions left behind after World War II. Addressing these threats will require a foreign policy underpinned by engagement — in other words, active diplomacy but not appeasement. We need a clearly defined strategy that accounts for the interconnectedness and the shared interests of all nations. Every great threat to the United States — whether economic, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, health pandemics, environmental degradation, energy, or water and food shortages — also threatens our global partners and rivals. Accordingly, we cannot view U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lens that sees only “winning” or “losing.” Iraq and Afghanistan are not America’s to win or lose. Win what? We can help them buy time or develop, but we cannot control their fates. There are too many cultural, ethnic and religious dynamics at play in these regions for any one nation to control. For example, the future of Afghanistan is linked directly to Pakistan and what happens in the mountains along their border. Political accommodation and reconciliation in this region will determine the outcome.
Bogging down large armies in historically complex, dangerous areas ends in disaster. In Vietnam, we kept feeding more men, material and money into a corrupt Vietnamese government as our own leaders continued to deceive themselves and the American people. Today’s wars are quite different from Vietnam. But the Obama administration, Congress and the Pentagon must get this right because it will frame the global architecture for the next generation. We must put forward fresh thinking. We can no longer hold ourselves to narrow “single issue” engagement when dealing with nations such as China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey or South Korea. The United States needs all these countries and many more if we are to engage the most dangerous challenges — not one at a time but all together. Our relationships with these nations have matured since World War II, as these nations have matured. Does anyone believe we will get to a responsible resolution on Iran without Russia? There’s a reason we are part of a Group of 20 rather than a G-8. Even the world’s largest economies cannot handle today’s problems alone.
Global collaboration does not mean retreating from our standards, values or sovereignty. Development of seamless networks of intelligence gathering and sharing, and strengthening alliances, diplomatic cooperation, trade and development can make the biggest long-term difference and have the most lasting impact on building a more stable and secure world. There really are people and organizations committed to destroying America, and we need an agile, flexible and strong military to face these threats. How, when and where we use force are as important as the decision to use it. Relying on the use of force as a centerpiece of our global strategy, as we have in recent years, is economically, strategically and politically unsustainable and will result in unnecessary tragedy — especially for the men and women, and their families, who serve our country.
Are our policies worthy of these Americans’ great sacrifices? That question must always be at the fore of our leaders’ decisions. Threats to America come from more than Afghanistan. Consider Yemen and Somalia. Are we prepared to put U.S. ground troops there? I doubt we would seriously consider putting forces in Pakistan, yet its vast Federally Administered Tribal Areas and mountainous western border harbor our most dangerous enemies today. We must shift our thinking, now, to pursue wiser courses of action and sharper, more relevant policies.
The president and his national security team should listen to recordings of conversations that President Lyndon B. Johnson had with Sen. Richard Russell about Vietnam, especially those in which LBJ told Russell that we could not win in Vietnam but that he did not want to pull out and be the first American president to lose a war. Difficult decisions with historic consequences are coming soon for President Obama.
Senator Chuck Hagel is Chairman of the Atlantic Council. This editorial appeared in the Washington Post as “The Limits Of Force – Iraq and Afghanistan Aren’t Ours to Win or Lose.”