Watching the Escalation Tables

William Pfaff

December 06, 1990|By William Pfaff

PARIS — Paris.

ONCE AGAIN it's the last war that is being prepared in the guise of the next war. This is why President George Bush is in so much trouble. He has listened uncritically to the military people who have said to him that the United States failed in Vietnam because it did not go in massively at the very start.

As a result Mr. Bush has gone massively into the Persian Gulf. Belatedly he is awakening to the fact that massive engagement produces massive commitments, which have to be redeemed. He is discovering that if commitments have not been constrained by a sound political judgment about what can reasonably be gained, as against what the costs may be, the scale of the commitment defines the scale of the possible disaster. The downside of a demand for unconditional surrender is unconditional failure.

Mr. Bush did not understand the fallacy in the military argument. The American army went into Vietnam in 1961-62 under the influence of a decade and a half of strategic theory which seemed validated by the experience of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union and by the Cuban missile crisis in particular.

The theory was that of bargaining through threats. It was even set forth in ''escalation tables.'' Measured levels of rising threats were supposed to compel an opponent to make rational assessments of gain and loss, and eventually to yield when the risk or cost to him became intolerably large. Such bargaining did take place in the Berlin crises of 1958 and 1961, and in the Cuban missile confrontation in 1962. These had all ended in a manner satisfactory to the United States.

In Vietnam it was tried again. American planners were convinced that the Vietnamese communist leaders would have to acknowledge that the capacity of the United States to escalate was virtually unlimited; hence, at some point the Vietnamese were expected to draw the rational conclusion that their war was no longer worth the costs, and would call it off.

This never happened. The American Army and Air Force, humiliated by the experience, subsequently drew from this the conclusion that an opposite course of action -- a huge build-up of force and immediate infliction of great pain at the very start -- would make an enemy behave ''rationally'' and quit. However, there is no evidence to substantiate such a theory. It ignores the same thing the earlier application of escalation theory to Vietnam had ignored.

War is a political contest as well as a military one. Intensified and concentrated violence could have delayed or distorted the political upheaval in Vietnam at the source of that war, which was essentially a convulsive effort by the Vietnamese to expel foreign influences from their country after a century and a half of foreign domination.

It was a struggle conducted with the mobilizing rationale of Marxist revolution because Marxism was the intellectually fashionable ideology of the time. It suited the purposes of the young nationalists creating the revolutionary parties of the period. It reassured them that they represented the integrity of their nations and were a force of the future.

No amount of violence, however applied, would have won the Vietnam war for the U.S. -- short of killing off the politically active population of the country. Escalation for the Vietnamese communists was unlimited. It went up and up.

For the United States there was a top rung, beyond which Americans would not go. Some people in the U.S. wanted to use nuclear weapons against the Vietnamese communists. Washington drew the line at that. It was virtually the only line it had drawn by the time the war was over. But even nuclear bombing might not have worked.

The gulf is not Vietnam. War this time would be between conventional armies and air forces. The real political support Saddam Hussein enjoys in Iraq and the rest of the Islamic Middle East is untested. Nonetheless there is a political contest behind the display of force that force alone cannot resolve. Mr. Bush until now has failed to deal with this.

His deployment of massive American force is based on the identical logic, or logical fallacy, as that which underlay the use of graduated escalation in Vietnam in the 1960s. Force is supposed to compel the enemy to make the rational judgment that he can go so far and no further, and that at such a point he must preemptively surrender. We have been waiting for that surrender since August.

James Baker, a deal-maker, may understand the situation better than Mr. Bush. Mr. Baker also wants to be American president after George Bush. He understands that if the Bush administration is destroyed by a war for which there is no deep American public support, he is finished too.

Thus the forthcoming talks in Washington and Baghdad between the Mr. Baker and Mr. Bush, and Saddam Hussein and his foreign minister, almost certainly have behind them an idea about how this situation might be defused.

It may also be too late for that. Saddam Hussein may be too caught up in his own rhetorical universe to grasp how to deal with Washington. If the meetings fail, the war that follows will at least have more substantial public support in the U.S. and among the allies than otherwise would have been the case.

However, the stakes are immense and have been made so by the administration's naivete in accepting the abstract and politically innocent logic of military intimidation. If war now comes, and is anything but a brilliant success for the allied forces, the U.S., its world position and its national morale, all risk devastation. Mr. Bush has bet the lot. We will see if luck is with him.

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