The Foreign Service Journal - December 2017

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | DECEMBER 2017 61 is directed to the 25 percent and nothing to the 75 percent,” Phil- lips quotes one Vietnamese observer as saying. If the South Vietnamese were not up to the task, Phillips comments, “we would do it ourselves by bombing the North and killing enough Viet Cong in the South to force the communist side to quit; then we would turn the country back over to the South Vietnamese.” Phillips continues: “We underesti- mated the motivating power of Viet- namese nationalism, and we failed to comprehend the fanatical determination of an enemy willing to sacrifice its entire people until only the Politburo was left. ... We thought in conventional World War II battlefield terms, when this conflict was at its heart a political one, a war of ideas and of the spirit.” Phillips believed that the natural inclination of human beings for a true say in how they were governed was an unstoppable force. He lamented the lost opportunity to “put Ho Chi Minh on the defensive by proposing truly free elec- tions” instead of adopting a constitution “primarily as a device to legalize and consolidate Diem’s power.” So strong is his belief that the essence of “nation-building-cum-counterinsur- gency” is political, not military, that Phil- lips ignores most of the fighting, focusing instead on the evolution of successive South Vietnamese regimes and the wildly gyrating American efforts to help them, which generally amounted to delivering ever-increasing levels of troops, resources and bombing. In a closing chapter, “Beyond Viet- A Vietnam Spoiler Alert Why VietnamMatters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned Rufus Phillips, Naval Institute Press, 2017, $24.95/paperback, $23.70/Kindle, 448 pages. Reviewed By KeithW. Mines The timing couldn’t be better for the paperback release of Rufus Phillips’ firsthand account of the VietnamWar, which was published in hardcover in 2008. It coincides with the release of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS series on the war (in which Phillips appears), and with recent decisions about how long we should stay in Afghanistan and to what end. Unique among observers of the Viet- namWar, Rufus Phillips arrived there in 1954 and remained involved to the end, alternating between high-level meetings (including with President John F. Ken- nedy) and on-the-ground work in the Vietnamese and Laotian countryside. He is still active in policy debates today. By 1956 Phillips had the spoiler alert for how the war would play out over the next two decades, and he watched help- lessly as the American juggernaut came and ultimately left in defeat. What Phillips realized early on—draw- ing from lessons his first boss, Edward Landsdale, had learned in the successful fight against the Huk insurgents in the Philippines—was that the conflict was political, not military, at its core, and that it centered on the ability of the South Viet- namese to marshal their forces for a cause that could stand up to the North Vietnam- ese nationalists. They never found it, and the U.S. strategy of simply fighting harder could not compensate for the void. “The anti-communist fight in Vietnam is 75 percent political and 25 percent military. Yet everything America is doing BOOKS nam: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Future,” Phillips laments the “Green Zone mindset” that undermined a successful transition to a “functioning Iraqi self-government.” After going to Afghanistan as an election observer, Phillips wrote a note to George Packer concluding that “the outcome of the Afghan struggle is ulti- mately going to be determined not by our unilateral actions or geopolitical moves, but by whom the Afghan people wind up supporting, even reluctantly.” The primacy of shepherding a political process for struggling states is not, to Phil- lips, a theoretical exercise. He recognized early in his career that the task of “politi- cal action,” as he came to call it, was not assigned to anyone in our government. He has written extensively since the publica- tion of the book on the need for the State Department to prepare to undertake political advisory efforts beyond tradi- tional diplomacy as part of a competitive contest with our adversaries. Nation-building is to Phillips a very human, personal and ultimately politi- cal struggle that, because of “our natural optimism, democratic ideals and lack of cynicism,” Americans are better suited for than we often give ourselves credit for. I amwith Phillips on 95 percent of the book, having experienced similar chal- lenges in Central America in the 1980s and in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. But I question whether he gives enough weight to the fact that while democracy is a far stronger force once it takes hold, in the consolidation phase it can often be swept aside by totalitarian forces that are simply more brutal and better organized. The primacy of shepherding a political process for struggling states is not, to Phillips, a theoretical exercise.