Wed May 22, 2024
May 22, 2024

The “Democratic Reaction”: From Vietnam To Iraq Syndrome

In 1975, the United States suffered a severe military defeat in the Vietnam War (the first in its history). This defeat limited the capacity for direct military intervention by U.S. imperialism and led to a policy adapted to this reality that we have called “democratic reaction”.
By Alejandro Iturbe.
Originally published @ International Courier 16.
In 1954, French imperialism had been defeated and had to withdraw from its old colonial possession of Indochina. One of the consequences of this defeat was the emergence of the workers’ state of North Vietnam, while imperialism in the southern part of the country attempted to maintain a capitalist state with a puppet government (South Vietnam).
The South Vietnamese government was barely able to stand on its own in the face of the North’s military offensive and the guerrillas led by the Communist Party (the Vietcong). Within this framework, since the early 1960’s the United States began to increase its military presence in the country. First, it did so in a limited way during John Kennedy administration (16,000 soldiers). His successor, the Democrat Lyndon Johnson, officially declared war on North Vietnam and increased U.S. military presence to 300,000. Finally, the Republican Richard Nixon (president between 1969-1974) increased the bet to more than 500,000 U.S. soldiers in combat, with the back-then most modern weaponry.
Intervention in Vietnam was not isolated but rather the most salient expression of a whole series of events that since the end of World War II expressed a policy by the U.S. imperialist bourgeoisie, who considered themselves to have the right to intervene worldwide (both by means of coup détats or invasions), with the excuse of “fighting Communism”. These include: the Korean War (1950-1953); the coups against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala (1954), Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina (1955) and João Goulart in Brazil (1964); the invasion of the Dominican Republic (1965) and the coup against Sukarno in Indonesia (1967).
In the case of Vietnam, the military effort was strengthened by the use of highly cruel methods such as murdering all the villagers on the ground that were sympathetic to the Vietcong (for example, the infamous My Lai Massacre, in March 1968), or the use of napalm (liquid phosphorus) to burn fields and people.
But none of this prevented the hard defeat that was already irreversible by the end of 1973. A defeat that was symbolized by the images of the hasty flight of U.S. helicopters (with officers and employees), and the desperation of their agents in South Vietnam (who were not contemplated in the evacuation plan) who hung from the helicopters to try to flee.
The defeat in Vietnam showed, very clearly, two realities combined. The first was that the U.S. military was very effective if it involved rapid military intervention and support for a military coup, but when that intervention turned into a war of occupation things became much more complicated: the U.S. military itself left Vietnam not only defeated as deeply demoralized and divided.
The second reality is that, with heroism and determination of the masses, it is possible to defeat imperialism in a war of national liberation, particularly if as in the case with the Vietnam War it is combined with a strong solidarity movement worldwide, and especially within the United States.
The Carter Administration
The defeat in Vietnam limited the capacity for direct military intervention by U.S. imperialism (and imperialism in general). The so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” was the difficulty of imperialism in intervening militarily across the world (as it did in the past) because of the fear that this intervention would lead to a long and costly war as in Vietnam.
Combined with this, a political crisis broke out within the country: in 1974, Nixon was removed from office by a process of parliamentary impeachment and was replaced by his vice-president, Gerald Ford.
In late 1976, a second-rate Democrat won the presidential election: the back-then Georgia governor James “Jimmy” Carter. During the electoral campaign, with a friendly and humble image, Carter turned the “new times” of the electorate and always began his speeches stating that he was not a politician nor part of the establishment.
It was his Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (Polish-American) who elaborated the policy of “democratic reaction”. He was well aware of the unfavorable conditions in the world, and that for that reason the military aspect had to become secondary and be at the service of a new central tactic. According to his vision, winning does not mean the ability to defeat an adversary militarily anymore but to prevail patiently in the long run.
This did not mean that imperialism had become “pacifist” or “humanitarian” but that the situation forced it to limit its military actions for those to serve other tactical mechanisms (pacts, negotiations, bourgeois elections) that allowed to stop and deflect the revolutionary processes and to advance in the most strategic objectives. Making a parallel with the “carrot and stick policy”, the use of the “stick” was limited and put as an auxiliary to the “carrot”. To this end, it had the collaboration of the Stalinist apparatus and its policy (“peaceful coexistence”), as well as from the treacherous leaderships.
It is important to note that on top of the defeat in Vietnam, the revolutions of 1979 that toppled the Shah in Iran and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, with subsequent revolutionary processes in Central America (which U.S. imperialism considered its backyard) built momentum for the new policy of “democratic reaction”, which proved to be very useful.
Brzezinski is also considered to be the intellectual author of a strategic blueprint for the restoration of capitalism in the USSR and other bureaucratic workers’ states. The election of the Polish Pope John Paul II (1978) and the CIA operation in Afghanistan against the Soviet military occupation led Stalinism to a crisis (even if later the Taliban ended up being a new thorn for imperialism after taking power in the 1990’s).
Reagan And The Contadora Agreements
The Carter administration was seen weak and lost popular prestige due to the failure of two special operations to rescue diplomats and officials from the U.S. Embassy in Iran held hostages for a long period by Iranian “revolutionary guards”. These failures were critical for his defeat to the Republican Ronald Reagan in his bid for re-election, in 1980.
Reagan is remembered as a right-winger who “hardened” U.S. foreign policy. The fact is that, although Reagan used the “stick” more frequently, it maintained the core of “democratic reaction”: to use the “stick” serving pacts and negotiations because the relation of forces imposed his administration to do so.
For that reason, he only made one direct military intervention: the invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada to overthrow the government of Hudson Austin (1983). In the Falklands [Malvinas] War between Britain and Argentina (1982), Reagan clearly supported Margaret Thatcher but, militarily, this support was expressed only through the supply of a provisions basis (the Ascension Island). At the time, the IWL-FI Congress pointed out that “Imperialism is not doing what it wants but what it can”.
The litmus test of this policy a whole was the Central American revolutionary process, which began in 1979 in Nicaragua and extended to El Salvador (where there was a powerful guerrilla movement, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front – FMLN) and, to a lesser extent, to other countries.
In Nicaragua, it promoted, funded and armed the “contras” guerrillas to fight and weaken the Sandinista regime (the “contras” ranged from Sandinistas splinter sectors to Somocistas, including dissident bourgeois, peasants, and indigenous leaders). In El Salvador, Reagan supported the fascist military offensive of the Military Junta to control San Salvador [the capital] and expel the guerrillas and their supporters from there.
But this hardening was at the service of pacts and negotiations. In 1983 the governments of Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, and Colombia formed the Contadora Group to seek a “peaceful solution” to the “Central American conflicts”. Subsequently, the “Contadora Support Group” (the governments of Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay) and the Costa Rican president Oscar Arias presented the “peace plan” that bears its name. It was a delicate blow against revolutionary processes: while Reagan played the role of “bad guy”, Latin American bourgeois-democratic governments were the “friends” that stifled by embracing “peace”.
The maneuver worked. In Nicaragua, the war finished after the Agreement of Esquipulas II (1987): the guerrilla “contras” was disarmed but at the same time the Sandinista regime delivered important concessions, including to isolate the Salvadorean guerrillas. In El Salvador, it took a little longer: in 1992, through Chapultepec agreements, the FMLN abandoned the armed struggle for power, surrendered the weapons and became a “normal” political party. The Central American revolution had been halted and diverted by the “democratic reaction” policy.
The Struggle Against South American Dictatorships
Since early 1980’s in several South American countries (such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile) there was a strong rise of masses against the dictatorships in power since previous decades.
That was another challenge for the policy of “democratic reaction” directed to avoid the fall of those dictatorships by mass actions, model taken from the successful Spanish “transition since 1976, after the death of Francisco Franco (1975) -meaning a transition controlled by the outgoing regime itself (thus avoiding being “judged” and violently destroyed). This had basis on the capitulation of the treacherous leaders (in the case of Spain, the PSOE and the PCE) and expressed in the so-called “Pactos de la Moncloa”. It was a preemptive policy against the democratic revolution, as well as a mechanism to avoid it.
In Chile, after the defeat of Pinochet through the plebiscite of 1988, in midst of a very strong anti-dictatorial rise, the Chilean bourgeoisie together with imperialism were able to apply this policy thanks to the capitulation of the CP [Communist Party] and the SP [Socialist Party]. The dictatorship left the scene to be replaced by a regime of elections and parliament. But the armed and repressive forces were left intact and many laws of Pinochetismo were maintained.
This policy to avoid the fall of dictatorships was not always successful. But even when dictatorships fell by the action of the masses the “democratic reaction” sought to ensure the control of revolutionary processes in the framework of capitalist states through bourgeois democracy.
In Argentina, the defeat in the Falkland [Malvinas] War (June 1982) accelerated the process of fall of the dictatorship by the combination between its self-collapse and the revolutionary action of the masses. The democratic revolution had triumphed. The masses took the streets to take advantage of the space gained and to fight for their many demands. If revolution could not be avoided, it was a question of channeling and curbing its development through mechanisms of bourgeois democracy. In this case, the essential role of containment was played by the two traditional bourgeois parties with mass support: Peronism (Justicialist Party – PJ) and Radicalism (Radical Civic Union – UCR).
In order to do that, they relied on the illusions of the masses on democracy to solve all their problems. Something that Raúl Alfonsín (who would be elected president in 1983) took advantage of in its electoral campaign: “Democracy feeds, heals and educates“. The revolution was not defeated on the streets but it was stalled by several tricky mechanisms that included trial and jail of the main military figures of the dictatorship.
The main forces behind the implementation of this policy in different parts of the world were the ones mentioned and voted in the documents of the II World Congress of the IWL-FI (1984), called the World Counter-Revolutionary Front for “Peace and Democracy”. Imperialism, the Stalinist bureaucracy, the majority of the national bourgeoisies and their parties, the Church, the Western Communist Parties, and Social-Democracy were part of it.
The Interregnum Of Bill Clinton
Reagan’s two terms were followed by one led by his vice-president, George Bush Sr. (1989-1993). The elections of late 1992 once again tipped the balance to the Democrats with the triumph of back-then Arkansas state governor, Bill Clinton.
Capturing his youthful image and smile (which reminded of John Kennedy) he defeated the “old” Bush. Clinton had a “rebellious” past: he and his wife Hillary had participated in, and encouraged, demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and in 1969 he avoided being draft into the army and sent to war. A few years later he joined bourgeois politics and made a quick race within the Democratic Party. It took advantage of a good international and national economic situation, derived from the benefits that imperialism obtained of capitalist restoration in the former workers’ states (especially China). He was then comfortably re-elected in 1996.
During his government, he maintained the foreign policy of “democratic reaction”, whose objectives he extended to other fields. For example, he gave the initial impetus for what would become the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S, Canada, and Mexico. This and other similar agreements made later were a sign that imperialist interests could be defended without invasions or military coups but through agreements with the national bourgeoisies instead.
Let’s not delude ourselves: Clinton also resorted to the “stick”. In 1998, he carried out the first attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with similar excuses to the ones Bush would later use: the alleged possession of “weapons of mass destruction”. This military action, supported by the British government, was known as Operation Desert Fox. It was a limited action to put pressure but whose foundation would later be used by Bush. Within the United States, in 1994, he sanctioned the so-called “Three-Strikes” Law which we address in another article in this magazine.
Due to the absence of major conflicts in the United States, Clinton ended his two constitutional mandates with the highest popular approval rating a president had since World War II. After that, he became one of the main leaders of the Democratic Party and he carried out campaigns that him to do very good business, such as the Haarlem Real Estate recovery in New York, or the boost for maquilas in the free zones of Haiti.
Bush: A Defeated Change Of Direction
The Republican candidate for the late 2000 elections, George Bush Jr., represented a sector of leaders of this party grouped around the project called New American Century. That sector considered the dispute over natural resources control across nations (essentially oil) the decisive factor of the 21st century. In case the U.S. could not ensure its hegemony on these fields, it was destined to fall as a world power.
In order to ensure such control, aggressive and warlike methods against other countries were valid and necessary. Foreign policy by Clinton and the Democrats was characterized as “insufficient” and “timid” because it led to the weakening of the U.S. and therefore changes were demanded. That is to say, Bush and his team proposed to turn the rudder around: to put an end to Vietnam syndrome and the defensive policy of “democratic reaction”. Instead, Bush wanted to take the offensive making the “stick” the central element of his policies.
However, the Bush administration was born weak and under question: he obtained less popular votes than the Democratic candidate Al Gore and became president thanks to a controversial Supreme Court definition to his benefit.
In order to carry out his project, Bush took advantage of the political effect of the attack to the Twin Towers in New York, on September 11, 2001. Many analysts even raise the possibility that the Bush administration was aware of the attacks and let them happen to carry out the backlash.
Beyond this controversy, after 9/11 Bush received the support from both imperialist bourgeoisie and working people as his hawkish approach looked like legitimate actions. He proposed to launch the “war on terror” against what he called “the axis of evil”: among others, the governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, North Korea and Iran.
The first episode of that war was the invasion of Afghanistan to topple Taliban regime (accused of supporting the 9/11 perpetrators) in October 2001, with minority participation of troops from Britain and other countries. The next step was the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein regime for possession of “weapons of mass destruction”. Both regimes were overthrown but imperialism was forced to maintain military occupations that had to face increasingly unfavorable national liberation wars that ended up objectively with its defeat.
Occupation troops have already withdrawn from Iraq, but instead of achieving stability they left a country divided (at least in three) plunged into permanent military conflicts, and the need to rely on the Iranian regime (until recently, an “enemy”) to place a central government in Baghdad and try to prevent the situation from getting even worse. In Afghanistan, troops are still on the ground but the U.S. Military leaders recognize they have been defeated. These troops only serve to maintain control of the central areas of Kabul (the capital) while the rest of the country is dominated by Taliban forces or regional tribal chiefs. Meanwhile, a negotiation with the rebels is sought to achieve a slightly more dignified withdrawal. A collateral damage is the spread of instability (in fact, war itself) to neighboring Pakistan (a strong U.S. ally until a few years ago).
It is true that these defeats do not appear, at first glance, as clear and evident as Vietnam. For example, they did not give rise to a workers’ state as in Vietnam. They were also somewhat obscured by the chaos left in Iraq or by the fact that they still control Kabul in Afghanistan. But they are not minor defeats. Imperialist bourgeoisie and its media were not deceived: they developed the concept of “Iraq syndrome” (in analogy with that of Vietnam) to characterize the resulting situation and the need to go back to the “democratic reaction” policy.
Iraq and Afghanistan were not the only defeats of Bush’s project. We must consider, as part of these defeats, the failure of the coup against Chávez in Venezuela in 2002 and the clear defeat of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.
The invasion of Haiti in 2004 -and subsequent military occupation- deserves special consideration. Today Haiti is objectively a colony of the United States. But imperialism managed to “outsource” this occupation through the U.N. and the Minustah, led by Brazilian troops with the collaboration of other countries, and thus avoid the direct political cost. The occupation is maintained, at the service of Clinton’s maquilas plan, but it is going through a deep crisis.
A New Face For A New Turn Of Rudder
Bush left a “heavy inheritance”: unfavorable relationship of forces around the world and a deep economic crisis. In this context, the most lucid sectors of the U.S. imperialist bourgeoisie launched a new turn of rudder aiming to resume the implementation of the “democratic reaction” policy fully and Obama as the best figure to implement such change in 2008.
In another article of this magazine, we discussed how Obama addressed this double “storm” and what were the results. In spite of some important achievements (made possible by the crisis of revolutionary leadership and the capitulation of treacherous leaders), his administration failed to bring stability to the world. That is the current situation for U.S. imperialism.
In an analysis of the current world situation, Zbigniew Brzezinski once again shows his imperialist lucidity. In an interview in 2014 for a Brazilian magazine, he said: “We are experiencing an unprecedented period of instability. There are huge fringes of world territory dominated by turmoil, revolutions, rage, and loss of state control… It is a global political awakening based on an awareness of injustices, inequalities, and exploitation… The United States is still dominant but now not capable of exercising hegemonic power… American fragility is evident in its inability to provide stability to the dynamic and unpredictable situation of Middle East… “.[1] So the concept of “imperialism is not doing what it wants but what it can” maintains full currency – even more than in the 80’s.
Our first conclusion is that the policy of “democratic reaction” adresses this concrete and deep reality. Nevertheless, it brings back the lessons from Vietnam where military actions that turned into occupations and extended wars end up being very negative for imperialism. Whereas, in the context of a world convulsed by revolutions, the “democratic reaction” has proven to be more successful and give greater margin to maneuver. It also achieved a complementary success: to co-opt the majority of the left-wing forces to the “benefits” of bourgeois democracy, turning them into new components of the “world order”.
The question now is, however, what will the Trump administration do. His campaign speeches and several of the members appointed to his cabinet go in the direction of ending or reducing the policy of “democratic reaction”. If it comes true, it might have a disastrous effect that increases mass reaction combined with cracks within imperialist bourgeoisie. Revolutionaries must promote struggles in repudiation to Trump in order to take advantage of those cracks of the ruling classes.
Translation: Fabio Bosco.
[1] Época Magazine, issue 863, December 15, 2014.

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