WASHINGTON, March 7 (UPI) -- One of the curiously ignored incidents of President Bush's press conference of Thursday evening was the reporter's question which began "Millions of Americans can recall a time when leaders from both parties set this country on a mission of regime change in Vietnam" and further commented "that regime is still there in Hanoi." If millions of Americans can indeed recall such a time, the nation is faced with either a serious epidemic of mass delusion, or we have been subject to an Orwellian rewriting of history to which nobody in that room seems to have been immune.
In my recollection, one of the most consistent features of the Vietnam War was the constant assurances by three successive Presidents that the U.S. was not pursuing, and would never pursue regime change in Hanoi. It is true that the White House vigorously pursued regime change in Saigon, in vain hopes of creating a government sufficiently democratic to satisfy critics of American policy, but it is clear from the subsequent comment that the reporter was referring solely to regime change in Hanoi.
Looking further, in each of the three major wars America engaged in since 1945 -- Korea, Vietnam, and Gulf War I -- three characteristics stand out in contrast to most of the nation's previous conflicts: regime change was not directly pursued as a war goal; there was no formal declaration of war, and the conflict ended with a combination of military victory for the U.S. and its allies, and political defeat, to various degrees. Regime change was achieved in none of those cases, even when it was sought indirectly in the case of Iraq.
The interesting question, then, is whether these three elements have a more than coincidental relationship. Certainly the first and third elements have a clear relationship: if the actions of an opponent's regime lead you to make war, then a failure to achieve regime change is likely to diminish your chances of achieving political victory. In all three cases, the opposition regime was a totalitarian state dedicated to remaining in power, and as close to oblivious as possible to the sufferings and costs to its people. Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, and Saddam Hussein alike conform to the Leninist philosophy of seeing their regime as the omelet, and their people as the eggs that must be broken in the process.
In the Korean and Vietnamese cases, American policy makers felt constrained by the nuclear umbrella of the Soviet Union and the high price in American lives that the conventional war tactics of that era would have extracted had they pursued war to the point of regime change. In Gulf War I, America's coalition of the sort-of-willing acted as a constraint on rolling into Baghdad.
Additionally, America's military planners, especially Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara were subject to a machine paradigm in thinking about military force, along with much else in society. MacNamara had made a brilliant career in applying the then-new technique of systems analysis and management to problems such as bomber and automobile production. Unfortunately, most people in that era had only a dim understanding of which tasks were tractable by such methods and which ones weren't. Precise application of military force to political effect, particularly in circumstances where regime change was not an acceptable goal, turned out to be not one of those tasks.
It was the lack of readily measurable goals, such as progress in advancing toward the enemy's capital, that frustrated MacNamara's methods. This lack led to the adoption of far less appropriate metrics, such as the now-infamous body count. Every organization has a tendency to inflate good news going up the chain of command. It is rather hard to inflate the question of how many miles toward Berlin or Baghdad one has advanced, for that is readily measurable. It is extremely tempting to inflate body counts, or numbers of villages rated "secured", because those are fudgeable numbers.
Thus, despite the painful decades spent by the American military learning the lessons of Vietnam, they were not able to obtain in Gulf War I the final goal needed to clearly deliver political victory, which in that case was regime change. Although expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait was a measurable metric, it was not the dispositive one, as events have shown.
Marshal Foch, no surrender-monkey he, observed ruefully of the Versailles peace in 1919 that is was not a peace, but an armistice for twenty years -- an observation with precise predictive value. The failure of the application of military power to achieve precisely determined political goals by indirect means made the end of Gulf War I similarly merely an armistice, one whose life appears to be rapidly nearing its end.
Was the lack of a declaration of war in each of these three cases also a factor in the outcome? Given the Anglo-American military tradition as it has evolved over the centuries, there is a good case that it is so. Global maritime commercial powers, of which Britain and America are both exemplars, tend to fight two types of war. One is the small war, the "savage war of peace", fought by marines and long-term professionals, limited in scope, and usually undeclared.
The other is the major national mobilization against an all-out enemy, fought by reserves, volunteers and draftees raised for the occasion, and militia called into service. Such wars included the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars. As Britain and America have always had mechanisms (gradually growing stronger) for obtaining public consent for such large mobilizations, the declaration of war was historically the occasion for fixing the major objectives, including in most circumstances regime change. Major war has always been a deal between the executive and the people: the people will bear the burdens, and the executive will strive diligently, under the scrutiny of the legislature, to achieve the stated goals. The declaration of war, and the debate preceding it, form the contract between executive and people.
The Afghan war was envisioned as a short war with very limited involvement of allied ground troops, and a clear objective of regime change unambiguously pursued. Fortunately, that came to pass. As such, it was pulled off without a declaration of war. Gulf War II may be another such war, and we all hope it will be so. I suspect it will be more likely so than not, but I suspect that a few unpleasant surprises have been prepared for the allied forces. However, the uncertainty of war, the magnitude of the task, and the treachery of a totalitarian opponent with no innate constraints on what means they may deploy, all make it possible that such a war will be neither short nor easy.
On Thursday evening, George Bush made it clear that the United States will pursue regime change as a matter of national self-defense regardless of the outcome of United Nations processes. It would be appropriate to the Anglo-American constitutional traditions of war and peace, and serve to bind executive and nation to a compact to fight to win a meaningful and lasting victory, for both George Bush and Tony Blair to seek and obtain legislative support for a formal declaration of war against the Ba'athist regime of Iraq before launching the main assault.
Such a declaration would commit both nations to full victory, and also to commit themselves to a clear and definitive end to hostilities. It would mean that whatever internal security measures needed to deal with terrorist assaults in the course of the war would be done under the traditional and well-understood constitutional exceptions for time of war, which also have a logical stopping point.
If this is not done, it is likely that such measures will be taken by stretching the constitution. Such measures have a way of permanently stretching the constitution, for a war that is never formally declared can be difficult to end. The surrender of Japan at the end of World War Two was the signal for the termination of most wartime measures, as the citizens who had temporarily borne such burdens made it be known that such measures would no longer be tolerated. An undeclared war, however, tends to have an undeclared peace, and is less likely to serve as a spur to termination of powers that ought not be granted to a peacetime government.
Three major undeclared wars with unsatisfactory outcomes are surely enough for a half century. The apparent dedication to seek regime change as a war goal this time is a welcome change. A formal declaration of war would be an appropriate means of seeing this dedication through.