0115 966 7955 Today's Opening Times 10:00 - 20:00 (BST)
Place an Order
Instant price

Struggling with your work?

Get it right the first time & learn smarter today

Place an Order
Banner ad for Viper plagiarism checker

The Vietnam And Somalia Syndrome History Essay

Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional academic writers. You can view samples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Defining humanitarian intervention has become fraught with ambiguities since it has most recently been a veneer in interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan ex post facto. As Reiff asserts “Wars waged by developed countries all aspire on a certain level to humanitarian intervention” [1] The use of humanitarianism justification as veil for national interests has clouded the terminology and sustained perceptions that humanitarianism is a vehicle of Imperialism. [2] In order to frame the analysis, Holzgreffe qualifies humanitarian intervention as “The threat or use of force across state borders by a state (or group of states) aimed at preventing or ending widespread and grave violations of the fundamental human rights of individuals other than its own citizens.” [3] Although humanitarian intervention is rarely purely altruistic, the desire to address violations of human rights beyond national interests should be the driving force. [4] 

This analysis aims to explore the extent to which Vietnam and Somalia, two foreign policy interventions widely perceived as failures, have become synthesized into humanitarian intervention policy-making. As Robert Jervis argues, “No intervention is discreet and separate; each instance changes the political landscape in which the actors operate.” [5] Therefore the analysis will explore how these historical analogies interacted and informed policy-making consciousness. By evaluating the extent to which policy makers viewed humanitarian crises through the historical lens, it will examine how “every decision is partly a response to past outcome.” [6] The analysis will retrace political implications of Vietnam in the Carter and Reagan era, leading to examine if George H.W Bush’s assertion that the Gulf War successfully “kicked the Vietnam syndrome” held truth. Furthermore, it will argue that failures in Somalia can be linked to “Vietnam syndrome” thus shaping foreign policy in Rwanda. It will argue that historical legacy of Vietnam and Somalia had three key repercussions for US humanitarian interventions: it questioned the global US role, it altered strategy by insisting on clear objectives and end goals and heightened the need for garnering public consensus. However, that historical factors cannot be viewed in isolation, a confluence of system level factors in the post-cold war period and individual factors also moulded episodes of humanitarian engagement. Owing to the limited scope of the essay, the analysis will focus upon key case studies up until the Clinton era, although this is by no means an exhaustive list of humanitarian interventions.

The trope “Vietnam” has functioned as a metaphor for humiliation, exposing the limits of American power and capability on the international scene. Vietnam syndrome extended from a term to describe post traumatic stress experienced by veterans to encompass the political impact of the conflict on home soil, engendering “a belief that the United States should avoid military intervention abroad” [7] . Amid the rising causalities, the loss of public consensus raised questions about the US role in conflicts with limited national interest. [8] 

However, the way in which lessons from Vietnam were synthesized into foreign policy varied and often coalesced into different strategies. In his Notre Dame Speech Carter recognised the moral void left by Vietnam calling it: “the best example of intellectual and moral poverty.” [9] Across the left, Vietnam syndrome generally manifested itself in an aversion to military engagement fear in which the US would become bogged down in a similar quagmire. As a result, the Democratic majority in Congress enacted the 1973 War Powers Resolution, restricting the president from sending U.S. troops into combat for more than ninety days without congressional consent. [10] By reasserting congressional authority over foreign policy making, it aimed to avoid centralization of decisions in the hands of a presidency to prevent another Vietnam scenario. [11] 

Conversely, the failure of Vietnam was perceived largely across the right as self-inflicted owing to the absence of strong leadership and substantial force thus contributing to the post-war decline. Reagan’s revisionist interpretation of Vietnam attributed self-doubt to the failure in Vietnam: “There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and determination to prevail.” [12] Thus he aimed to restore the US role to its pre-war status quo and dispel the image of US decline on the world stage.

Congressional refusal to authorise military intervention in Central America despite Reagan’s attempt to link humanitarian and national security interests, showed that Vietnam syndrome had trumped the Reagan Doctrine. The proxy war bolstering anti-communist allies and the reluctance to commit boots on the ground demonstrated that Vietnam had left a profound imprint on US strategy. In view of a potential Vietnam re-run in Central America, the Weinberger doctrine codified collective lessons from the Vietnam. It consisted of six tests to be used before the United States intervened including that vital interests must be at stake and congressional and public support must be obtained. [13] The clearest enunciation of military policy since Vietnam reflected how Vietnam syndrome had become integrated in US strategy, later informing the Powell doctrine. [14] 

Reagan’s successor George H. W Bush, was acutely aware of the constraints Vietnam syndrome placed on foreign policy as referenced in his inauguration speech “The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can afford to be to be surrendered by memory.” [15] Bush asserted that Vietnam was a case in point of how not to use military force, voicing particular criticism of Johnson’s gradual escalation of firepower in Vietnam. [16] 

Bush’s chance to exorcise Vietnam Syndrome came when Saddam Hussein’s military repression of Kurdish and Shiite uprisings prompted a mass exodus of refugees into Turkey and Iran. This was compounded by the closure of Turkey’s borders, forcing thousands of Kurds to be trapped in the hostile mountain pass. Following international pressure, the US retracted its initial policy of non-intervention, founded on the fear it would “make the U.S responsible for the government that emerged in Iraq.” [17] Resolution 688 authorized military force to guarantee humanitarian organisations access to civilians in Iraq and was launched by declaring a no-fly zone and relief operation for the Kurds. [18] 

The intervention synthesized the lessons from Vietnam in two key ways. Firstly, the need to garner public support was met by Bush emphasising moral grounds, which were ambiguously delineated in Vietnam. Bush equated Saddam to “Hitler revisited” creating a good vs. evil frame through which public opinion could perceive the conflict. [19] He contended that “I think the humanitarian concern; the refugee concern is so overwhelming that there will be a lot of understanding about this.” [20] The moral impetus of the US role as an upholder of humanitarian values, coupled with the United Nation’s Security Council’s resolution appended legitimacy to intervention serving to reinforce public support.

Secondly, Vietnam syndrome had clear repercussions in Bush’s strategy. The conditions for the use of force, stipulated in the Weinberg doctrine were becoming institutionalized with the Powell doctrine. [21]  From an individual level of analysis Colin Powell’s beliefs sets were shaped by experiences as a Vietnam veteran , “I was appalled[…]fighting the war in Vietnam without ever pressing the political leaders to lay out clear objectives for them.” [22] The Powell doctrine called for overwhelming force, once diplomatic means are exhausted, and a clearly defined exit strategy. The doctrine’s tenets are reflected in Operation Provide Comfort given the US’s reluctance to persuade Turkey to meet its international humanitarian obligations and open its borders, grounded in the fear of “being sucked into a civil war.” [23] Bush’s advisers warned that broadening a U.S. mission to finding a solution to Kurdish identity could become a protracted business, ceding to mission creep analogous with Vietnam.

After the success of the Gulf war, Bush proclaimed: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all” demonstrating the degree to which Vietnam had shaped foreign policy. Operation Provide Comfort had no doubt raised the nation’s confidence in its foreign policy and military leadership. [24] However Bush’s eulogy of the syndrome was premature: the conduct of humanitarian intervention, emphasising air-power and avoiding mission creep complied with the Vietnam syndrome’s central canons of using maximum force with minimal casualties which effectively institutionalized the syndrome rather than kicking it. [25] Equally, the military success is more likely to have triumphed the Powell doctrine rather than exorcising Vietnam Syndrome and concerns with intervention abroad. [26] Informed by the lessons of Vietnam, the Powell Doctrine reinforced heavy reliance on fire-power, technology and a concrete exit strategy which blinded US policy makers to the complexity of the political terrain in Somalia. [27] 

Clinton inherited the Somalia intervention from the Bush’s administration’s involvement in UNISOM I which monitored the ceasefire in Mogadishu and escorted deliveries of humanitarian supplies. Making a clear distinction between his democratic engagement policy, Clinton stressed that intervention in Somalia was purely humanitarian: “The U.S. military mission is not now nor was it ever one of nation building. [28] However, the initial success was curtailed by the black-hawk down incident culminating in images of a dead US soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, rekindling the latent casualty aversion left by the Vietnam vestige. This was exacerbated by the belief that Somalia was a low-risk humanitarian intervention and by the “CNN effect” of real-time news reports eliciting a strong emotional response amongst public opinion. [29] Amid rapidly deteriorating public and congressional support for the mission, Clinton announced the end of U.S. involvement in Somalia.

The Somalia syndrome is inherently linked to Vietnam Syndrome as alluded to in diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s coining of “Vietmalia” syndrome [30] . The Powell Doctrine, stemming from the lessons of Vietnam, locked the US into a realist mindset that overwhelming force would reap success in combat operations, shifting the focus away from non-state actors. [31] Equally, limited objectives tethered by the avoidance of “mission creep” prevented the mission expanding into a tougher approach to peace-keeping. These factors were incoherent with the deeply rooted political factors of the humanitarian crisis. Bush’s assertion that “Our mission was humanitarian […] we do not plan to dictate political outcomes” [32] became untenable given that political reconstruction became intrinsic to humanitarian interests; this is evidenced when the purely humanitarian objective spiralled into pursuing a Somalia warlord.

In their “man-milieu” hypothesis, Sprout and Sprout argue the context in which decision makers operate is formed by a variety of factors including history, culture and political institutions. [33] Clinton’s lack of military experience attracting criticisms of incompetence, his personal anti-Vietnam stance [34] and the republican majority in congress all interacted to shape the Somalia strategy. [35] The reluctance to commit troops to Somalia highlighted not only how the spectre of Vietnam permeated the policy remit but also that the historical analogy coalesced with individual and domestic factors. This supports the initial argument that Vietnam syndrome was present amongst a confluence of other factors influencing foreign policy.

In the first framework of US peace-keeping role in the post- Cold War period, PDD 25 formally enshrined The “Somalia Syndrome” in US policy. It outlined specific criteria for US peacekeeping efforts and stipulated the US unwillingness to become involved in sub-national conflicts. [36] This precluded refusal to respond to the Rwandan genocide and supported the view that Somalia was a pivotal factor in influencing US policy making process. [37] 

The Somalia syndrome manifested itself in two key ways in US policy regarding Rwanda. Firstly, the public and political sphere viewed the unfolding violence misguidedly through the Somalia lens. As Klinghoffer sustains: “The Somalia image of a ‘failed state’ with random violence masked the actual premeditation and directing role of the Hutu extremists in the interim government.” [38] This demonstrates that the historical proximity of the Rwandan genocide to Somalia became an analogical referent through which the events were seen in the frame work of a common African schema. That is to say, characteristics of the Rwandan genocide such as a failed-state and mass violence etc. were seen as synonymous with Somalia. Des Forges argues the hopeless imagery created by Somalia, legitimized the policy inaction. [39] In this line of thought, congressional and public opinion perceived a repeat of the Somalia imbroglio as unacceptable to future peacekeeping operations. Secondly, Washington became wary of peacekeeping missions undertaken by other countries fearing a costly U.S entanglement and “crossing the Moghadishu line” from peacekeeping to combat operations. [40] This underscored a retreat from “assertive multilateralism” to a limited US role in peacekeeping g operations.

Non-intervention in Rwanda demonstrates that the Somalia syndrome had profound effects firstly in terms of defining the US role. As the sole superpower in the post-war era with leverage over United Nations, the unwillingness to demonstrate moral leadership in Rwanda restricted the parameters of US exceptionalism. Furthermore, policy makers responded to public casualty aversion in Somalia which consequently limited strategy options in Rwanda where national interests were not articulated. [41] 

Vietnam and Somalia have become increasingly institutionalized; ranging from the War powers act to PDD 25. [42] As outlined in the introduction, this has set a paradigm of redefining the US role in humanitarian interventions. By narrowing criteria for intervention, the Somalia Syndrome undermined the US’s special role in “New world Order” envisioned by Bush. [43] 

Furthermore, the strategies which have evolved from lessons of Vietnam and Somalia have not be homogenous; Reagan’s proxy wars, the Powell doctrine and non-intervention in Rwanda demonstrate how the historical milieu has interacted with system and individual level factors thus generating key differences between Vietnam and Somalia syndromes. Following Vietnam, the US wanted to avoid the Soviet Union capitalising on US entanglement in a Third World conflict. Conversely, as the world’s sole superpower in the post Cold-war era, in the aftermath of Somalia Washington downplayed the threat posed by failing states with no national interests. This is supported by the man milieu theory which shows that Individual factors such Clinton’s lack of experience in foreign policy and Powell’s Vietnam experience have interacted with the lessons of Vietnam to formulate humanitarian intervention policy.

Finally, public support became intrinsic to granting the moral legitimacy lacking from Vietnam. The polarization of public and congressional opinion constrained future presidential policy options and exemplified the need to link national interests with humanitarian crises. A significant drop in American tolerance for battlefield causalities no longer justifiable in the post Cold-War era by the struggle against communism, forced Clinton to retreat from an earlier multilateral humanitarian agenda. [44] 

Historical analogies continue to inform foreign policy. Parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan in terms of protracted insurgency, public hostility and scepticism of a moral justification raise questions about the legacy of “Afghanistan Syndrome” on future humanitarian crises.


To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.