Precise narrative connects the dots between Vietnam and Gulf War II, primarily from a political and diplomatic perspective.
Gardner (History/Rutgers Univ.; Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam, 1995, etc.) combines a keen grasp of sprawling subject matter with a non-ideological stance (though he’s impatient with foolish politicians) and a controlled, accessible writing style that’s sometimes even droll. While many observers claimed the Cold War’s end also meant “the end of history,” he takes a more jaundiced, long-term view: “Despite the shock of 9/11…both Gulf Wars were long in the making.” Gardner argues that the architecture for America’s current situation derives from the Vietnam era, in terms of the elevated goals our government often has for armed interventions relative to what actually transpires. He bolsters this claim by examining the careers of key statesmen, including national-security advisors Walt Rostow, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. The author tracks how these individuals responded to their presidents, the military and other factors in translating passionately held views into policies with unpredictable ramifications. Rostow, progressive in many ways, saw the communist threat in Asia as paramount and yearned for a conventional war (instead of a counterinsurgency) to deliver an emphatic “knockout blow” to this ideology. Brzezinski correctly predicted that Afghanistan would be the USSR’s Vietnam, but he misjudged the devastating blowback from the Carter administration’s support for Iran’s hated shah. Scowcroft and the first President Bush, foreign policy “realists,” judiciously addressed the first Gulf War yet set the stage for America’s current disastrous involvement. Throughout, Gardner weighs how the historical bogeyman of the Cold War conflicted with domestic political concerns to cause perpetual shortsightedness regarding the Middle East in general and the threat of non-state terrorism in particular. He gradually builds to a devastating conclusion: that the second Iraq war transformed the military, “with consequences that changed the very conception of a citizen army in a democracy, raising questions about whether the new military could be controlled by civilian authority.”
A vital primer to the slow-motion conflagration of American foreign policy.