There are two Ss in the lesson of Iraq and Vietnam and both of them stand for what has been sorely lacking in the American foreign policy establishment for at least two generations: subtlety.
The dictionary phrases that I have in mind for defining subtlety are "acuteness or penetration of mind" and "delicacy of discrimination." We Americans are not famous for either one.
We can come up with something remarkably big, such as the notion of and resources for constructing a harbor so we can invade a France beach, then bring the port for supplies along with us. This was done 63 years ago this month.
We can push each other hard -- often too hard -- creating a dynamism of sweat and anxiety that keeps us all going at a pace unmatched elsewhere. Hence U.S. dominance in terms of average annual work hours over all OECD nations, our socioeconomic peers -- the declining quality (and more recently quantity) of output be damned.
We really believe in our beloved Constitution -- except when we don't or don't even know it (go read it here).
We really want to trust people enough to leave our doors open, although we haven't now for some time.
We were really at our best in the world when we were lumbering hulks handing out Hershey bars to scrawny European children in bombed out cities. Ours is the only empire whose most decisive war did not result in territorial expansion, enslavement of others, plunder -- even if, in neo-colonial terms, some version of all those things took place under U.S. aegis.
The fundamental fact of the American era is that our country has been so remarkably necessary to the world economically, militarily and even politically, for so long, that there has been little need for the traditional historical harshness of empires.
Why goose-step, purge your satellites or enslave vassals when you can seduce them with Coca-Cola, Marlboros and blue jeans (at a profit)?
This is what makes Vietnam and Iraq such crass errors on the part of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. We had the wind on our backs at the beginning of each of these misadventures.
Ngo Dihn Diem, the Vietnamese president the CIA helped assassinate just 20 days before our own president was killed in Dallas, was a nationalist, an aristocrat, a traditional Catholic (his brother was an archbishop) and somewhat of an autocrat.
He was not a saint, by any means; a politician in serious conflict with an important segment of his population (Buddhists). No Jefferson, but certainly no Castro.
"I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid," Ho Chi Minh is reported to have said upon learning of the assassination.
There is absolutely no question in my mind that had Diem lived, had South Vietnam been allowed to evolve on its own terms, without a U.S. occupation, today it might be comparable to South Korea: corrupt for many years but slowly democratizing as a byproduct of prosperity.
Much the same is true of Iraq. For all the propaganda, now taken on blind faith, that Saddam Hussein was a monster, he was really a relatively pedestrian Third World dictator.
Hussein was a classic modernizer of the type who believes in breaking a few eggs to make omelette. He won UNESCO prizes in the 1970s for programs to raise the literacy of his country. The Baathists were mildly left-leaning secularizers who believed in technology and learning to develop their country.
Had Hussein been left to live and die in power, Iraq might have found its own way to a modern future with some facsimile of a democracy; again, as a byproduct of prosperity. The foundations had been laid by Hussein himself.
I've lived in dictatorships, I've known people who died in them. I'm no friend of dictatorship. But I understand the distinction that Reagan U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, no darling of mine, was trying to make when she compared dictatorships with totalitarian regimes.
The problem is she used the wrong terms. The opposite of dictatorship is not totalitarianism, as Kirkpatrick put it, but tyranny.
A dictator, Latin for "one who issues commands," was in ancient republican Rome a figure chosen by the Senate to take all powers needed to overcome an emergency. When the crisis was over, the Roman principle went (although not always the history), the dictator stepped down and the Senate, the gathering of the senex or elderly (and supposedly wise) men, retook the reins of State.
In the limited Roman sense, both Presidents Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt could be seen as American dictators. Both assumed extraordinary powers at times of grave national crises; although both died in office, there is little question that they would have handed their powers back to the polity, had they lived.
In contrast, a tyrant (from the Greek tyrannos, meaning "lord, master, sovereign, absolute ruler"), is a despotic ruler, often harsh and cruel, who serves only his own interests or those of a small oligarchy, and most often seizes power by force or deceit.
Greece's Thirty Tyrants were a pro-Spartan clique that installed itself to rule Athens; among other things, they condemned Socrates to death. Stalin, Hitler and Cromwell were tyrants.
Hussein was edging toward tyranny when the world rightly showed him the cost of acting bigger than his britches by invading Kuwait. Diem was thought to be headed in that direction, too, but his society had enough corrective institutions without U.S. intervention.
This is what the U.S. foreign policymakers have refused to understand for about two generations.
The world's not ours to play with; our country has not been chosen to act godlike with national histories and societies much older and more complex than our own. Sometimes it is better to leave things that are not perfect to work themselves out by themselves -- without the 500-pound gorilla of the CIA and the U.S. military.
The lesson of Vietnam and Iraq comes from ancient Greece.
The Gordian Knot, according to legend the one that fastened the cart of King Midas to a post, was so complex that he who untied it was destined to be king of Asia. Alexander the Great, in the year 333 BCE, cut the knot with his sword. In the next decade, Alexander built an empire that stretched all the way to India, then he died suddenly and the empire collapsed.
Cutting, while expedient, is far less effective than untying.