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The Vietnam moment in the Middle East
Like the Buddhist uprising in Vietnam, the war in Gaza has been a mask-off moment for U.S. officials who believed that U.S. policy was for the locals' own good.
Josh Paul, a senior U.S. State Department official overseeing arms sales, has resigned over the U.S. involvement in Gaza. He stated in his resignation letter that he had been able to accept the “moral complexities” and “moral compromises” of the job for eleven years “because the harm I might do could be outweighed by the good I do,” but implied that there was no room to push back on U.S. support for a blind Israeli vengeance campaign.
It may seem strange to see sudden ethical qualms from an official who had overseen arms sales to Saudi Arabia when the Saudi military was blowing up Yemeni schoolchildren with American bombs. However, taking Paul at his word makes sense. There was space for an American official to restrain, or at least imagine he was restraining, the Saudi military. With the Israeli government openly calling for vengeance, and the Biden administration standing behind it, there is no room for illusions.
The memoirs of Daniel Ellsberg, which I wrote about last week, may provide a framework for understanding why Paul had a sudden change of heart. Ellsberg, a self-described liberal hawk, had been as a military adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam during the war there. He grew increasingly uneasy with U.S. military involvement, and eventually became a whistleblower, exposing the secret internal history of the Vietnam War at great personal risk.
Although witnessing bloodshed was part of Ellsberg’s conversion, what really seemed to push him over the edge was the suggestion that Vietnamese people did not want the United States in Vietnam, and that U.S. leaders did not really care about Vietnamese suffering. Some of the most memorable moments from Ellsberg’s memoir were not about violence but hypocrisy.
The current Israeli-Palestinian war has laid bare similar dynamics. American politicians normally pretend to want peace and reconciliation, even when U.S. policy feeds one side of the conflict. This time, the Biden administration is shouting down calls for a ceasefire. And many mid-level American policymakers, who genuinely believed that were helping the Middle Eastern masses foster democracy, now see enraged street protests against U.S. policy across the region.
The same type of American idealists had been involved in running the Vietnam War. Ellsberg spoke of meeting “old Vietnam hands” who “mostly spoke Vietnamese, and they had close Vietnamese friends.” (In other words, Ellsberg’s circles were closer to Full Metal Jacket than Apocalypse Now.) Those Americans were quite jaded about the war effort, because they had seen its violence up close. But they believed that the Communists were responsible for the killing, and that U.S. involvement was necessary to protect America’s South Vietnamese friends.
Ellsberg most looked up to Lieutenant Colonel Tran Ngoc Chau, whose Vietnamese nationalism had led him to oppose French colonialism and whose devout Buddhist belief had led him to oppose Communism. And his turning point was the Buddhist uprising of 1966. South Vietnamese forces, with direct U.S. backing, crushed Buddhist altars with tanks and tortured protesters. Although it was by far not the bloodiest incident of the war, it had the heaviest impact on Chau. Ellsberg wrote:
It seemed to me that by this point [Chau] had clearly lost hope that the [South Vietnamese republic] could be reformed. With Chau’s disillusionment, my own hopes received a grave blow. Many of my closest associates and I had retained a sense of the legitimacy of this effort because of knowing a few Vietnamese like Chau, who had seemed to have faith in our mutual efforts. From then on I believed that we were just going through the motions. The most we could hope for was to moderate the worst atrocities of the war effort. We concentrated on trying to stop indiscriminate bombing and artillery shelling. We continued to give advice, but with less hope that it would be followed or would make all the difference if it were.
During that uprising, Ellsberg toured a road between Da Nang and Hoi An littered with the ruins of past empires. He saw U.S.-funded guard stations, French colonial outposts, Imperial Japanese pillboxes, and an ancient Chinese fort. Along the road, Vietnamese children greeted the American visitors with smiles and broken English, a sight that had often warmed Ellsberg’s heart.
A Vietnamese lieutenant reminisced about greeting “foreign soldiers” in much the same way. Ellsberg assumed that he was talking about French colonists — until the lieutenant recited a Japanese greeting. “I knew we were following the French in Vietnam, who for all their colonialism were our allies in two world wars,” Ellsberg later wrote. “But as someone who had grown up on movies of the war in the Pacific, and then on war stories in the Marines, I found it eerie to hear I was walking in the footsteps of Japanese invaders.”
If that incident made Ellsberg doubt whether the Americans were really as wanted in Vietnam as they believed, another incident confirmed that even the anticommunists resented their American patrons. At a Christmas Eve party on a military base, a South Vietnamese major got too drunk for his own good, ranted about his hatred for the Americans, and began shooting into the air.
“Why are you Americans here? What do you think you have to teach the Vietnamese, in Vietnam?” the major shouted, according to Ellsberg’s memoir. “Do you think we are not brave enough to fight the Communists?”
The bombardment of the Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza this week has provoked a similar mask-off moment. Although the evidence is still inconclusive and the United States has blamed an errant Palestinian rocket, U.S. partners like Saudi Arabia immediately condemned Israel for the attack, and Jordan cancelled U.S. President Joe Biden’s planned visit. Street demonstrations broke out across the region, including in countries like Egypt that had not seen public protests in years.
It was a clear sign that, while some Arab states were willing to accept the United States as a partner of convenience, neither the elites nor the people can really stomach the American vision for Israel and Palestine. Last week, an Omani man cursed out a group of British soldiers in a cafeteria over Western support for Israel, much like the South Vietnamese major from Ellsberg’s memoirs. Many mid-level American officials are probably learning that the Arabs they “protect” from Iran actually resent this “protection.”
And for good reason. The U.S. reaction laid bare Washington’s disregard for Arab life. Immediately upon hearing that a hospital had been bombed, Pentagon spokesman Sabrina Singh blamed Palestinian guerrillas for placing a “command center” inside. Before settling on the assessment that Israel did not bomb that hospital, U.S. officials’ first instinct was to come up with reasons why Israel was justified bombing hospitals.
Like Ellsberg, those officials who oppose U.S. support for Israel will be a lonely minority. Most U.S. policymakers, still reeling from the genuine horror of the Hamas attacks on October 7, are convinced that Israel is fighting a just war. But for both sides, the mask is off. The notion that America is a great liberator of the Muslim masses cannot hold. The question is whether those policymakers will adjust their position — or simply blame the Muslims.
Geoffrey Cain, an expert on China’s suppression of Uyghur Muslims, has been publicly trying to sabotage his refugee friends’ asylum applications. Cain was apparently so shocked by some Uyghurs believing in Palestine “from the river to the sea” that he reported the “terrorist” sympathizers to the FBI “for special review and deportation proceedings” and denounced them on social media. Ellsberg and Paul realized that America was not helping the natives; Cain tried to punish the natives for resenting America.
“I find that my generation (USA millennials, especially those in the professional class) is far too optimistic about ‘mask off’ moments,” the journalist Vincent Bevins had quipped several years ago. “Traditionally what happens when a murderer's mask falls off is that he continues to kill you.”
HuffPost, the newspaper that had broken the news of Paul’s resignation from the State Department, reports that many other U.S. officials — especially Muslim-Americans — are increasingly uneasy themselves. There is a “mutiny brewing” among State Department officials, and hundreds of congressional staffers have also signed a secret petition to call for a ceasefire. These voices may yet prove Bevins wrong.
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