Why Rufus Phillips Matters
Hat tip: Trish
Rufus Phillips, raised in rural Virginia and educated at Yale, was a young C.I.A. officer in Saigon in the nineteen-fifties, a protege of the legendary Colonel Edward Lansdale. Over the next decade, Phillips became that rare thing in American foreign policy—an expert in the politics of another country. (Leslie Gelb, the former Times columnist and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, once told me, “American foreign-policy experts don’t know anything about countries. That is a fundamental and tragic problem in our policymaking process.”) Phillips got to know South Vietnamese politicians and military officers better than any other American. He ran the U.S. civilian counterinsurgency program in the early sixties and traveled all over rural South Vietnam (he was Richard Holbrooke’s first boss). When the Saigon government started to collapse, in 1963, Phillips returned to Washington and, though he was far down the bureaucratic pecking order, was asked to brief President Kennedy. Phillips was one of the few officials in a position to know how badly the war was going, and he and a blithely optimistic Marine general argued it out in front of Kennedy, in a scene that made Phillips’s reputation as a fearless straight-talker (David Halberstam recorded it in “The Best and the Brightest”)..
After 1963, Phillips ended his official work in Vietnam. But he was one of those young men who never got over it, never again found anything else as interesting and important. A couple of decades ago, Phillips started to write a memoir, but he put it aside when publishers told him that no one wanted to read another Vietnam book. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused him to take it up again, and last year, at the age of seventy-nine, Phillips published “Why Vietnam Matters.”
It is, among other things, a wonderful read, full of detail and drama. It tells you what it felt like to live and work in Saigon before the Americans arrived by the hundreds of thousands—the Saigon of the French hangover and the American operatives who met their Vietnamese contacts at colonial hotels—where Ngo Dinh Diem seemed for awhile like the best hope of stopping Communism, and Americans had a sunny confidence in their own democratic faith. Phillips might have been the prototype for Graham Greene’s “quiet American,” except that through the lens of Greene’s Catholic-and-Communist loathing for liberalism, Phillips would have been caricatured, his idealism turned to dangerous arrogance, his kindness to naïvete.
Last week, I wrote about two Vietnam books making the rounds of the Obama Administration, one on White House decision-making early in the war, the other on military counterinsurgency near its end. I’d suggest “Why Vietnam Matters” as a third. To my mind, it’s the most useful of the three—the only book that recounts in detail, from the inside, the failure of America’s effort to reform the government of South Vietnam. Today’s Times makes its relevance pretty clear.
Phillips is tall, though not as tall as he used to be, with an open, blue-eyed face, and when I met him over the summer in his condominium in Arlington, Virginia (the side table in his living room came from a Saigon market circa 1955), it wasn’t hard to identify him as the young man in the black-and-white pictures taken half a century ago, towering over Vietnamese counterparts amid banana trees and thatch roofs. About to turn eighty, Phillips was contemplating a trip halfway around the world to Kabul. He was worried about the war in Afghanistan and thought that the presidential election, set for August 20th, would be a critical event. An independent Afghan group, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, had invited him to come over as an unpaid adviser. Having seen America try and fail to win a war without a political strategy once before, he thought he had something to contribute in Afghanistan. He asked me for advice on what to wear, what kind of cell phone to bring, how to get into the city from the airport. I asked him why he was going to put himself through it, and he replied that he believed in putting your money where your mouth is. “I’ve still got the fire,” he said as he walked me to the elevator.
A few weeks later, at the end of July, I saw Phillips again, in Kabul. He had just arrived, jetlagged and exhausted; without the right clothes for an embassy dinner, he was wearing a tan safari jacket. Holbrooke introduced him to the guests and alluded to their long-ago connection in “a war that was completely different from and remarkably similar to this one.” Phillips stayed on in Kabul through the election. He worked with an inspiring group of Afghans, including many women, who were risking their lives for a fair vote. And he saw the beginnings of the overwhelming tide of fraud, in evidence gathered by the group’s twenty-four hundred workers from around the country. Phillips spent his eightieth birthday in Kabul and then came home to celebrate it with his wife, distressed that the U.S. had relied so heavily on the U.N. to keep the elections reasonably honest, and that both had clearly failed. International officials seemed prepared to accept that, one way or another, Karzai would remain president, regardless of legitimacy. All the current Washington talk of military strategy and troop numbers missed the main point: wars like this are ultimately won or lost through politics, and there are no short cuts. It was all too familiar.
This past weekend, Phillips wrote me:
I’m afraid the President, who seems like a supremely rational being, is trying to find the most rational policy option on Afghanistan, without thinking about whether it is feasible given political conditions on the ground, as well as who is going to implement it and how. What seems the most rational option here could be likely unworkable over there.
This is part of what happened to President Johnson during Vietnam. He relied exclusively on policy ‘experts’ who understood military and geopolitical strategy in the light of World War II and Korea, but who had no direct experience combating a ‘people’s war,’ while underestimating the North Vietnamese and misunderstanding the importance of the South Vietnamese, who were treated as bystanders. His advisers constructed strategies whose feasibility never got tested by those who knew Vietnam first hand. Pure reliance on the chain-of-command was disastrous in Vietnam because much of the most relevant information, the nuances which counted, could not be fully described in writing and were strained out as information flowed to the top. At a minimum, [General Stanley] McChrystal and [Ambassador Karl] Eikenberry, who have that first-hand knowledge, should be sitting in these strategy sessions.
I don’t see evidence of any real political thinking about how to deal with Karzai and the local political scene, no matter what option is selected. As we swing between counterproductive table pounding and passive non-interference, we must muster the will to interfere quietly but firmly when we are on solid moral ground—standing up for the Afghan people and for principles of honest governance.
My Afghan friends tell me as soon as he is confirmed, Karzai is going to launch a big initiative on talks with the Taliban, which are not likely to go anywhere if he leads them. Are we thinking that if we cede territory to the Taliban because they promise not to let Al Qaeda back, we will be able to hold an imaginary line, including Kabul, with the Afghan and international forces we will have? What will that tell the Afghan people, except to signal ultimate abandonment? And how will that affect their support for the Taliban to avoid being killed or severely punished?
I just have an uneasy feeling that this is too similar to the policy discussions Johnson went through, except those were mainly out of public view and these are not. The whole notion that we can speed up the training of the Afghan armed forces and this will do the job is unrealistic—another numbers game. I guess not being in the meetings puncturing balloons is what is really frustrating me. That and the fact that nobody seems to factor in our moral obligation to the Afghan people. We abandoned them twice. Will this be the third time? What does that say about us? It seems more convenient to equate Karzai with the Afghan people. Maybe it will all come out for the best—but the process, and what I see from the outside being discussed so far, doesn’t pass my gut check.
The outcome of the Afghan struggle is ultimately going to be determined not by our unilateral actions or geopolitical moves, but by whom the Afghan people wind up supporting, even reluctantly. Vietnam—Lesson One