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Burying The 'vietnam Syndrome'

United States

new internationalist
issue 161 - July 1986

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Photo: Chor Yuthy / Camera Press
Burying the 'Vietnam syndrome'
More than twenty-five years ago American military experts unveiled the
'counter-insurgency doctrine' - a bit of military planning that sucked
the United States into the Vietnam war and changed the course of world
history. Michael T Klare discovers the latest military doctrine now sweeping
Washington and predicts that it may lead Americans down a similar path.

IN the corridors of the Pentagon, low-intensity conflict (or LIC as it's now commonly known) has become the hottest new military theory.

The old counter-insurgency doctrine stressed the threat to American interests posed by Third World revolution. But LIC shifts the focus of concern to another target paranoid fear of an international terrorist plot against the free world. This new doctrine manages to blend traditional American concern over Soviet expansionism with an emphasis on terrorism and political turmoil. And like counterinsurgency, the solution to this low-intensity conflict is to convince the American people to back the use of military force abroad.

Since vaulting to power the Reagan administration has been breathlessly searching for a formula that would justify US military involvement in the Third World. With LIC the White House thinks it has found the right approach. The name itself is reassuring. By stressing the limited nature of the combat, it suggests the United States will continue to avoid a Vietnam-style entanglement in the Third World.

The cornerstone of Washington's effort to gain public support for this new phase of foreign meddling is an active defence against international terrorism. Fighting terrorism can be portrayed as self-defence, a prudent and legitimate response to violence, political instability, anti-Americanism and Soviet aggression. US officials now believe in what they call 'proactive' military measures. These include attacks on suspected terrorist strongholds and retaliatory strikes on countries suspected of harbouring terrorists. The April strike against Libya was the test case.

Like counter-insurgency, such policy carries a built-in potential for escalation. Military strikes against suspected terrorist bases whether in Libya, Syria or Iran, however surgical in execution, would constitute an act of war. And it could provoke a military response. If that response were against American forces, say the aircraft carriers used to launch the strike, America could find itself drawn into a full-scale shooting war.

Surprisingly, the leading advocate of LIC doctrine is not Caspar Weinberger (long considered the principal hawk in the Reagan entourage) but George Shultz - who is generally viewed as a moderate. Shultz has campaigned vigorously against the 'Vietnam syndrome' - a widely felt belief that the US should avoid military intervention abroad. He has championed both the use of military force to combat terrorism and support for anti-Soviet forces in the Third World. More importantly, Shultz has perfected a sweeping thesis to justify US military intervention on a global scale.

His argument is based on two points:

· First - the forces of democracy are threatened by a global terrorist offensive launched by radical regimes or groups allied with the Soviet Union, Cuba, Libya or Iran

· And second - the US, as the leader of the democratic forces, has a responsibility to resist and destroy the terrorist threat.

Shultz begins with a highly politicized and distorted view of terrorism. 'What once may have seemed the random, senseless, violent acts of a few crazed individuals has come into clearer focus,' he says. 'We have learned that terrorism is, above all, a form of political violence.., wherever it takes place, it is in an important sense against us, the democracies - against our most basic values and often our fundamental strategic interest.'

Ignoring terrorism on the right (neo-fascist groups in Italy or right-wing death squads in Latin America) Shultz claims that most terrorism originates with leftist groups supported by the USSR and its allies. Faced with this challenge the US can no longer afford to remain passive. Shultz calls for an active military response to 'state-supported terrorism' - which he claims is being used as a 'modern tool of warfare' against US strategic interests around the world. 'We must understand that terrorism is aggression and, like all aggression, must be forcefully resisted,' Shultz argues.

Shultz: forceful resistance and military might to crush terrorism.
Paul Conklin / Camera Press

The other leg of the Reagan Administration's LIC doctrine (the provision of US aid for anti-Soviet insurgents in the Third World) was first described by Mr Shultz in February 1985:

'Where once the Soviets may have thought all discontent was ripe for turning into Communist insurgencies, today we see a new and different kind of struggle. People around the world (are) risking their lives against Communist despotism.' This 'democratic revolution,' according to Shultz, is most apparent in Afghanistan, Kampuchea, Angola and Nicaragua.

Shultz also says the US has a 'moral responsibility' to support these 'freedom fighters' in their struggle against totalitarianism. And that support should include material and even military aid.

There are numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in Shultz's thesis. But it should be obvious to anyone with even the barest grasp of history that many of the regimes that have fallen to leftist guerrillas (including Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola and Mozambique) lacked even the slightest pretension to democratic rule. It is also clear that the anti-Sandinista contras and many of the other forces championed by the Reagan Administration have brutal, bloody records that belie any claim of their being democratic.

Shultz's argument is simple: a nation or movement allied with Moscow is, by definition, an instrument of terrorism and totalitarianism. By extension, the opponents of these nations or forces are the guardians of democracy (and US national security) and are worthy recipients of US military aid.

This simple summary constitutes the ideological rationale for US aid to the contras and other right-wing insurgents, and is being used to justify direct US military action against Libya and perhaps Nicaragua and Cuba. Unless repudiated, it will govern US foreign policy for a generation, or longer.

After Libya, the possibility of repudiation looks slim. The Shultz view is attracting growing support. The 'strike-back-against-terrorism' line has already received widespread Congressional approval. Opposition to aiding contra rebels in Nicaragua has begun to melt away. Congress has also increased funding for the Special Operation Forces committed to LIC actions.

These events pose an enormous challenge for those trying to stop American military intervention in Central America and elsewhere in the Third World. Unless we can introduce a credible non-interventionist response to terrorism and other Third World perils, we will lose the support and sympathy of more and more Americans. If that happens the White House will be able to claim to speak for the majority. And then there will be pitifully few domestic restraints against another round of American troops abroad.

The acceptance of the Shultz line will also distort the domestic political atmosphere. If US intervention in the Third World is defined as a necessary defence of freedom and democracy, those who oppose it will be enemies too. And by extension, legitimate targets of government repression

Indeed, perhaps the most frightening aspect of Washington's explanation of its LIC doctrine is the degree to which language is distorted to justify a policy that is the opposite of the pro-democratic one the Administration claims to be pursuing. If that distortion is allowed to continue unchallenged Americans could face a serious threat to their own rights and liberties.

Michael T Klare teaches Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. This is an edited version of an article from The Nation (Jan 4 1986).

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Pumping out propaganda is a full-time job in
the world of superpower politics. And terrorism
receives the full treatment. Allan Clark reports.

Put down your John Le Carré novel. Truth is stranger than fiction. Do you remember the Plot to Kill the Pope? In May 1981 Mehmet Ali Agca, a 28-year-old Turk, shot Pope John Paul II in St Peters Square in Rome. Terrorism struck the heart of the Roman Catholic Church; the world was stunned. For Western intelligence agencies it was a golden opportunity to smear Moscow and score big points in the global propaganda war.

At first Agca's motives were unclear and his past vague. The Italian government's investigation dragged on. Then the 'disinformation' experts waded in. Articles in the Wall Street Journal and Reader's Digest suggested that Agca was linked to the Bulgarian secret service and by extension to the KGB and the Kremlin. The commies were after the Pope.

[image, unknown] The first story was written by Paul Henze, a former CIA station chief in Turkey and according to the New York Times, 'the National Security Council specialist on US propaganda'. The second was by journalist Claire Sterling, an expert on terrorism and a close friend of the Reagan Administration. Sterling also authored The Terror Network - the book that popularized the theme of 'Moscow-as-the-root-of-all-evil' and set the tone for Ronald Reagan's anti-terrorist campaign.

The Pope Plot was swallowed whole by the credulous, scandal-hungry Western media But as Agca's trial limped on the evidence became more fabulous and his testimony more confused 'For someone like me, forming a union with the truth is, to say the (east arduous,' he admitted to an interviewer. A few months later he declared himself Jesus Christ and announced the end of the world.

The alleged KGB link soon fell apart. And the Agca case was quietly shuffled to the back pages. But not before another conspiracy began to take shape. New evidence implicated the Italian intelligence service (SISMI) in the smear, along with another right-wing journalist Michael Ledeen (then Special Advisor on Terrorism to Secretary of State Alexander Haig).

Eventually, the New York Times admitted there was no 'credible independent corroboration' of Agca's link to the Soviets. And by August 1985 investigative writer Alexander Cockburn concluded 'it is increasingly clear that the "terror network" was essentially the rumour mill of a few Western propagandists talking to one another about a fantasy concocted by the CIA.' But by then of course the damage was done - the disinformationists had carried the day.

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New Internationalist issue 161 magazine cover This article is from the July 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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