Covering Up Failure: Ignoring the Record of Regime-Changing Interventions


Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

6 Dec 2021 – Modified text of a keynote presentation at Fifth International Conference in Public Administration, Sofia University, Kliment Ohridski: “Public Governance after 2020: What We Know When We Know Nothing?” The title of my remarks was “The Record of American Military Intervention Since Vietnam: Why Knowledge Rarely Matters.” My central claim is that the militarized U.S. political class rejects the record of failure with respect to regime-changing interventions since suffering defeat in the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.


My remarks may seem somewhat almost irrelevant to the conference theme of “public governance.” In actuality, I think this inquiry is uncomfortably on point, provided we treat law, morality, knowledge as vital components of public governance. The central question being asked is ‘why American foreign policy persists in carrying out regime-changing interventions in countries of the Global South when the performative record has been so consistently dismal since 1975. These interventions have proved to be costly failures ever since Vietnam, and include Iraq and indirectly Libya, and most recently Afghanistan. With such a record surely the members of the U.S. political class, generally intelligent and well-educated, can be assumed to have become aware that under 21st century conditions such political/military undertakings do not work. This was not a welcome message in Washington, and was not allowed to influence American foreign policy, excepts in marginal respects.

It would seem that knowledge of failure doesn’t fundamentally reshape policy when strong bureaucratic and private special interests oppose a major substantive adjustment that challenges entrenched power. The negative assessment by the public of the lost war was dubbed in establishment circles as the ‘the Vietnam syndrome,’ suggesting a medical disorder in the body politic that was having the effect of irrationally constraining U.S. threats and uses of military force in light of the Vietnam experience. At first, some tactical adjustments were made by strategic planners in Washington that were hoped to serve as a cure for what had gone wrong in Vietnam without rejecting the viability of military intervention if future geopolitical challenges arise.

These adjustments included professionalizing the U.S. armed forces (and eliminating the draft of ordinary citizens that sparked the anti-war movement as casualties accumulated), embedding media representative with combat units as well as not showing on TV returning servicemen and women in coffins, and refashioning counterinsurgency doctrine to stress bonding with the national population. Such changes helped restore the viability of regime-change, quickly restoring credibility of such undertakings in elite circles.

These adjustments while well received in government circles, but were not sufficient to convince the American public that it was desirable for the country to get back in the intervention business. It took the First Gulf War of 1991 to achieve this result, a quick battlefield victory in a war with widespread regional and international support, which showed to advantage American superior weaponry and had the added of largely being financed by allies of the US. It was left to President George H.W. Bush to run the victory lap: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” Sadly, Bush’s comment was vindicated by revived U.S. militarism and foreign intervention, especially in the Middle East.

The victory achieved against Iraq’s inferior military forces was projected as an impressive instance of the decisive relevance of military superiority, but its relevance to the Vietnam-type experience was misinterpreted, possibly deliberately. The First Gulf War in 1991 was essentially a conventional war, a typical undertaking of collective self-defense resolved by encounters between opposed military force, and having the single goal of reversing Iraq’s prior conquest, occupation, and annexation of Kuwait.

The war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not involve intervention for regime-change or interference with the post-war political orientation of Kuwait. In fact, regime change in Baghdad was explicitly rejected as a goal by the American president. On the contrary, Kuwait’s sovereignty and independence was restored, while Iraq’s sovereignty and independence was respected, although the Iraqi people were seriously victimized by the imposition of post-war sanctions.

Despite the character of the First Gulf War, it proved possible to sell the victory to the American people as providing renewed confidence in U.S. capabilities to wage again cost effective warfare, especially on missions calling for regime change and occupation. In effect, the bad memories of Vietnam were erased prematurely. This shift in strategic outlook and the public mood paved the way to the notable  failures of subsequent years in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.

True these failures were politically mild as compared to Vietnam largely by the political effect of shifting battlefield tactics away from land warfare, by relying on weapons and tactical innovations that produced many fewer American casualties and what deaths did occur were those of professional soldiers that assumed such risk by their own volition, and by privatizing war-making through contract arrangements with new commercial undertakings of a mercenary nature. These features of subsequent interventions in the Global South had the net effect of weakening anti-war activism in the United States despite the fact that the Iraq War of 2003 replicated the experience of the Vietnam, completely failing in its political objectives, including securing a friendly reception from the targeted society.

The larger dynamic involves the public management of unwelcome knowledge. An awkward challenge faced the foreign policy elite in the U.S.–What should we do when we know something we would rather not know? A condition of radical uncertainty pertains to the future of international relations. Governments are confronting increasingly problematic relations of knowledge, policy, and behavior with respect to public governance.

I believe this reflects the pressures exerted by an unprecedented bio-ethical-political-ecological crisis for which there is no diagnosis—as in the Asian acknowledgement of helplessness: ‘disease unknown, cure unknown.’ The knowledge foundations of modernity resting on science, rationality, empirical observation, open debate has been subverted. ‘Why do nothing when we know something’ (versus What We Know When We Know Nothing) With a mobilized political will governments have the tools, know-how, and capability to address climate change even if unable to reach consensus as to the underlying malaise

Why intervention has not been a successful policy option for militarily strong states seeking to retain entrenched colonial possessions or pursue hegemonic/geopolitical ambitions in the world since the end of WW II? During the Cold War this observation applied to both the Soviet Union and the U.S.? The Soviet experience in Eastern Europe and later in Afghanistan strengthened impression of widespread illegitimacy and impotence of these forms of militarist geopolitics, inducing persevering forms of national resistance and leading to an eventual successful assertion of national self-determination that produced political failure for the intervening side of the struggle.

The U.S. experience was somewhat more ambiguous but also bloodier than that of its closest allies, the main European colonial powers were encountering historical forces that were part of a worldwide decolonizing momentum. Israel was the most important exception to such a transformative global trend. For distinctive reasons the Zionist movement managed to establish a settler colonial state in Palestine at a time when the historical flow was strongly favorable to anti-colonial aspirations due to the weakening of Europe by the two world wars, rising nationalism elsewhere, a favorable normative climate for European decolonization associated with Soviet opposition to colonialism and US ambivalence.

The American War in Vietnam was a sequel to the lost French colonial war in Indochina. It was a war fought at the interface between the colonial era and the Cold War epoch. signaling the hazards of large-scale external military intervention seeking to control the political future of a formerly colonized country in the Global South. The outcome exhibited the failure of intervention despite being backed by overwhelming military superiority. This bewildering reality was confirmed over and over again in subsequent years. It should have demonstrated to the political class in the Global North that enjoying an edge on the battlefield was no match for determined resistance especially if bolstered by external assistance, skilled tactics of resistance, and sustained by the deep roots of nationalism.

We are left with some questions. Why has this repeated experience of defeat insufficiently convincing to discourage intervention? How was China able to learn to satisfy its geopolitical ambitions outside its immediate region and border areas by non-military means? Is this learning disparity the key factor that explains U.S. decline and China’s rise? Or is it more a matter of state-guided capitalism being superior to market-driven capitalism, at least against the background of Asian political culture? Or are the economistic benefits of authoritarian order, including the distribution of material benefits, a large part of the story of the rise and fall of great powers under contemporary conditions?

What we should know by now is that imperial reliance by the Global North on hard power to control societies in the Global South is a costly, prolonged undertaking, prone to failure and is a major reason for the power shifts from West to East during the last half century. Whether the West, led by the U.S. will continue to rely on militarist geopolitics to confront the challenge of China, and the East, still remains an open question.

As does the complementary question as to how China and others will respond, whether by geopolitical realignment or by a reflexive geopolitics that confronts Western militarization with its own versions of militarized postures in foreign policy and at home. Not far in the background are the ecological challenges associated with climate change that may make traditional geopolitics, including the diversion of energies and resources associated with arms races and war, a fatal indulgence for the human species.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).

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