Sam Seitz

I am in the middle of reading a fascinating new book on military force organization in authoritarian regimes called The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes. It’s written by Caitlin Talmadge, a professor at GWU, and its core argument is that regimes organize their militaries based on internal and external threats. States that fear possible coups organize their forces in Byzantine ways that make it difficult for different commanders and units to coordinate amongst themselves. This is called coup-proofing. Basically, the idea is that vertically hierarchical command systems make it challenging for officers to plot amongst themselves because all communications and orders must go through the leader. However, this also impedes decision-making by limiting the flow of information, thus decreasing battlefield effectiveness. In contrast, regimes that are more concerned about external threats organize their forces in a way that is more integrated and thus more effective at waging high-intensity conventional war. The book is quite enjoyable, developing a fascinating new approach to thinking about regime type and organizational practices while also providing incredibly detailed case studies. However, it is not what I am writing about today. Instead, I’m writing about one case study in particular: Vietnam.

Talmadge explains that South Vietnam was basically a corrupt dictatorship full of infighting and mistrust. Its military forces were particularly ineffective because they were organized primarily around coup-proofing practices, making them comically ineffective against the PAVN (the North Vietnamese Army). Talmadge argues that without American assistance, South Vietnam would likely have been forced to adopt more conventional organizational practices to counter the North Vietnamese threat. In other words, South Vietnam would have prioritized military effectiveness over coup-proofing because even though a coup was likely, the external threat posed by the communists would be more existential. However, since South Vietnam knew that the U.S. would always backstop them, they never had an incentive to modernize their military doctrine. This poor organization is what ultimately allowed the North to steamroll them after the American withdrawal. In short, America’s singular focus on stopping North Vietnam ended up propping up a corrupt leader while simultaneously enabling the complete breakdown of the South Vietnamese Army.

This is a common theme throughout many American interventions, and I think it’s a theme that reemerged during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. American foreign policy always seems to prioritize the tactical victory at the expense of the strategic success. In Iraq, for example, the U.S. was able to ensure relative security and stability while it had vast numbers of soldiers deployed. However, it never worked to create a stable civil society that bridged across groups, instead allowing it to reinforce sectarian cleavages. Thus, when the U.S. eventually pulled out, the corrupt Maliki government discriminated against Sunnis, directly contributing to the rise of ISIS. Indeed, the entire war in Iraq was poorly planned and focused almost entirely on the immediate invasion plans while neglecting all of the important questions regarding nation-building and post-conflict stability. The aptly titled Fiasco pretty much sums it up. From disbanding Saddam’s army to enabling a corrupt and divisive Maliki, the U.S. all but guaranteed the implosion of the Iraqi state.

The priority of quick military success over long-term stability is even evident in the U.S. budget where the DoD receives 25-30x what State does. Of course, military procurement and operations are decidedly more expensive than most State Department activities. But still, it would be nice to see more funding go towards programs such as USAID or democracy promotion that generate greater long-term stability in conflict-prone countries. The U.S. really must be more cognizant of the moral hazards and perverse incentives it creates through its interventions. Sometimes, I think the public and U.S. policymakers are so myopic that they never stop to consider the spillover effects of their actions. Of course, every war involves choosing between multiple bad options and dealing with less than savory actors. There is no avoiding that. Nevertheless, history demonstrates that mindless interventions that worry exclusively about short-term problems often create even worse outcomes down the road. From Libya to Iraq to Vietnam, U.S. interventions have inevitably and obliviously created environments which enable unsavory, self-interested actors to benefit at the expense of long-term stability. So the next time you here Ted Cruz call for the carpet bombing of ISIS or Hillary call for a no-fly zone in Syria, make sure you know their entire strategy. Too often politicians with short time horizons create strategic quagmires in their quest to secure quick, tactical successes.