The world is pushing back in the South China Sea


July 4, 2018

The world is pushing back in the South China Sea

Tuan N Pham, Yokosuka

 

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/06/29/the-world-is-pushing-back-in-the-south-china-sea/

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In recent weeks, there have been several commentaries reporting a temporary new norm in the South China Sea (SCS) — realpolitik’s triumph over moralpolitik and the rapid decline of regional US soft power. But current developments suggest otherwise. Years of ill-advised US acquiescence and accommodation (strategic patience and wishful thinking) in the SCS appear to be over for now.

There indeed seems to be a new norm emerging in the SCS. But it is more reflective of the new muscular US National Security Strategy and US National Defense Strategy that call for an embrace of strategic great power competition with China than of a decline of US influence in the region.

Many countries are now firmly pushing back against Chinese unilateral expansionism in the SCS. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly declared that he was ready and willing to go to war with China over SCS resources. A prominent Taiwanese think tank has proposed leasing Taiwan-occupied Taiping Island to the US military. And at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, the United States, India, Vietnam, France and the United Kingdom all spoke strongly against China’s assertive and destabilising actions in the SCS.

These words are being backed up by actions.

Washington disinvited Beijing to the 2018 Rim of the Pacific naval exercise on the grounds that Chinese actions in the SCS run counter to international norms and the pursuit of free and open seas. US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and presence operations in the SCS continue, and US defence officials are reportedly considering a more assertive program that could include longer patrols, more ships and closer surveillance of Chinese facilities.

London and Paris have joined Washington to challenge Beijing in the SCS. Both have conducted naval operations in the SCS to put pressure on China’s increased militarization of the disputed and contested waters.

Vietnam continues the modest expansion of its outposts in the Spratly Islands. With the latest construction at Ladd Reef, Hanoi has made small and incremental upgrades to 21 of its 49 outposts in recent years. The construction work also underscores a new facet of Vietnam’s military doctrine in the SCS — the employment of a maritime militia that will emulate China’s maritime militia, which China uses to enhance its presence and operations in the contested waters without provoking a military response from other countries.

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Layang Layang–Malaysia

Malaysia — like Vietnam and the Philippines — is embarking on a military buildup to better protect its maritime claims and interests in the SCS. Kuala Lumpur recently announced that it would upgrade its naval aircraft as well as purchase ship-based naval helicopters. The enhanced naval aviation capabilities are intended to support an ongoing comprehensive modernization of its surface fleet.

The aforementioned commentaries on the SCS also repeat some familiar Chinese perspectives on US FONOPs and US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations that require some US perspectives for a more balanced understanding of the issues.

US FONOPs are an important expression of and are recognised by international law. The purpose and intent of US FONOPs are clearly laid out in US policy, and all operations are meticulously documented and published every year. On the whole, US FONOPs challenge excessive maritime claims in the SCS, not competing sovereignty claims; do not discriminate against particular states, but rather focus on the claims that individual states assert; are deliberate in nature, but are not deliberate provocations; and contest unilateral restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight rather than accept rhetoric.

US ISR operations — which are conducted inside other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) — are lawful under customary international law and Article 58 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

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The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning steaming forward the South China Sea.

The Chinese argument on the permissibility of military activities in EEZs is counter to the US position. The United States believes that while coastal states under UNCLOS have the right to regulate economic activities in their EEZs, they do not have the right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZs.

Beijing contends that military activities — such as ISR flights, maritime survey operations and military exercises — on the high seas and in EEZs are unlawful according to UNCLOS, and that it is a requirement under UNCLOS that the high seas are used only for peaceful purposes, despite itself doing exactly the opposite.

Beijing’s interpretation of UNCLOS is a minority position held by 27 states, while the vast majority of states (over 100, including all permanent United Nations Security Council members other than China) do not hold this position.

The region and the world have come to the realisation that Beijing’s actions in the SCS are dangerously undermining the extant global order that China itself has benefited from. Other countries must now be more assertive to encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, Beijing will be further emboldened to expand and accelerate its campaign to control the disputed and contested strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year.

Tuan N Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Government.

Dien Bien Phu–A Battle That Changed the World


May 8, 2018

Analysis

Dien Bien Phu–A Battle That Changed the World

 by Mike Minehan

http://www.ideaschannel.com/index.php/analysis/2798-a-battle-that-changed-the-world

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In the rest of the world, May 7 may have passed as just another day. But in Vietnam, May 7 is the anniversary of a great victory. This is the victory of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, when in 1954, the French garrison surrendered to the Vietminh, a communist-led nationalist movement headed by a former London pastry cook, Ho Chi Minh.

The book, Battles That Changed History (Regfan, Geoffrey, 2002, Carlton Books) includes the Battle of Dien Bien Phu because this was the battle that ended French colonial rule in Indo China, leading to a resurgent North Vietnam that eventually prevailed against the might of the world’s greatest fighting machine, the US military.

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The USA stil likes to believe that its retreat from Vietnam was not a military defeat, and that it retreated its forces from Indo China only as the result of domestic pressure from home. But as anyone trying to escape from Saigon in 1975 as the North Vietnamese approached the outskirts of the city will testify, this retreat was a rout that not only led to the victory of the North Vietnamese, but also changed the face of South East Asia and led to far reaching changes in how war is waged and how information about war is managed.

The Vietminh general who led the communist forces at Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap, was a former history teacher with a law degree. He was motivated at least in part by the death of his wife, who had died in a French prison. Giap was a self-taught soldier who learned the art of war first by fighting against the Japanese occupation of Vietnam and later, by reading Mao Zedong’s writings on guerrilla warfare.

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Giap was helped by the arrogance of the French. The French rationale was to create an outpost that would act as a lure to entice the Vietminh into an open battle, where French artillery and tanks would annihilate the communists. Navarre believed erroneously that poorly trained and badly supplied Vietminh forces would not be a match for 13,000 professional French soldiers and the air power supporting them.

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But because the choice of the site had been based on out-of-date French maps, the terrain ended up favoring the Vietminh instead of the French.

In preparations for the battle, Giap managed to not only outnumber the French, he outgunned them by having heavy artillery manhandled up mountains and into commanding positions dug into the surrounding heights.

The Giap supply line consisted of thousands of peasants who used Peugeot bicycles purchased from prewar French shops. Each bicycle could carry up to 500 pounds of supplies and equipment.

Eventually, the French were completely surrounded and could only be supplied by air – that is, when the monsoon weather permitted. Also, the surrounding jungle and the soft ground rendered the tanks useless and they were sometimes abandoned in the mud.

The French artillery commander, Charles Pirot, had boasted that the Vietminh artillery would be destroyed by his own after they had fired only three rounds. Navarre also believed that most of the Vietminh’s artillery rounds were defective and would fail to explode. But the Vietminh had been supplied by China, and these new artillery rounds not only exploded, but devastated the French positions.

The battle itself was a bloodbath that ended with the Vietminh finally using tunnels and tranches to breach the defenses. The artillery commander Piroth killed himself by pulling the pin on a hand grenade in his quarters. Finally, the French were forced to surrender.

The following video was produced by Russia:

Of the 10,863 prisoners taken, including Vietnamese fighting for the French, only 3,290 were officially repatriated four months later.

 

According to the book Jump Up, Victorious Insurgencies: Four Rebellions that Shaped Our World (Jones, Anthony James, 2010. University Press of Kentucky), France’s defeat in Indo China seriously damaged its prestige elsewhere in its colonial empire, as well as with its NATO allies, most importantly, the United States.

Within the remaining French empire, the French defeat in Indo China served to accelerate independence movements in other colonies, notably the North African territories which had been a recruiting ground for many of the troops who fought at Dien Bien Phu (Ibid.)

Dien Bien Phu was also a springboard for a resurgent South East Asia, and the 7th May 1954 victory ended the misconception that the military might of the west was unassailable.

The lessons from Dien Bien Phu are studied today in military  academies around the world.

Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism


April 12, 2018

Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism

A survey by Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living in ASEAN (HILL ASEAN) found that the middle class has been expanding rapidly in  ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

In 1848, Karl Marx opened his manifesto with an eloquent sentence: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” One hundred and seventy years later, Laos,Cambodia, and Vietnam are among the fastest growing economies of twenty-first century capitalism and the Chinese Communist Party plans to abandon the post-Mao doctrine of putting its assembly above any individual leader. Communism, which once materialised so prominently in East Asia, is little more than a faded ghost, haunting no one. Yet another spectre has taken its place in Asia—the spectre of authoritarianism.

Whether in terms of China’s attempts to establish a life-long chairmanship, Philippine’s systematic dismissal of habeas corpus or—as my work Owners of the Map analyses—Thailand’s new forms of constitutional dictatorship, a new wind of authoritarianism is blowing over East Asia. Contrary to existing theories of the “end of history” or of “democratic transition” this wind does not waft against the wish of the middle classes, but rather with their support, and it is not a temporary breeze, destined to died out, but rather a stable wind, one that carries forward an alternative system of governance.

Much has been written on this trend as the result of geo-political, military, and economic push and pull between the patronage of the United States and that of China. These explanations, while important, miss a central element evident to anyone who spends time with office managers, business executives, and traditional elites in Thailand: the growing popularity of authoritarian ideology among local middle class, a popularity that finds its roots in the shifting local meaning of words like corruption, good governance, and rule of law.

During the last decade, the understanding of corruption among Thai middle classes underwent a radical transformation. Corruption today does no longer refer to someone misusing public office for private gain. The word’s semantic universe has expanded to include three major components. Firstly, a traditional understanding of corruption as taking advantage of your position to steal money or gain. Secondly, an idea of moral corruption, related to the intrinsic immoral nature of one’s personality. And, thirdly, a vision of electoral corruption that reframes any redistributive policy favouring the working masses as a form of vote-buying. Under these new meanings, elections themselves become a corrupt practice, one that favours populist leaders who, through policies, gain popular support without necessarily producing “good governance.”

The discourse of good governance itself has become central to Thai middle classes’ ideological flirtations with authoritarianism. This mantra entered the country after the 1997 economic crisis, pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. These institutions understood the concept as a technocratic category, one that mostly meant efficient and transparent governance. In Thailand, however, the concept was translated by conservative political ideologues as thammarat, the governance of Dhamma, transforming good governance into righteous governance, a governance that does not rely on electoral support but rather on alignment with the monarch, the thammaraja.

While these semantic shifts in ideological categories may take local forms, they do not occur in an international vacuum. Previous authoritarian phases in Thailand—particularly the period between 1945 and 1992—had been supported, both economically and ideologically, by the United States and its anti-communist rhetoric. Since the 2014 coup, the junta has been looking to China for similar patronage.

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Cambodia is experiencing a rising middle class which has fueled a boom in smart phone access, now the primary access point for the internet.Young Cambodians today are speaking English fluently. Photo/Ian Taylor

The alignment between the two governments has not just been the result of real politic and shifting international alliances but also rooted in parallel claims about the rule of law and corruption. In 2002, the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress endorsed a new rhetoric of legalism, as a more efficient system to deal with equal and fair participation. Political scientist Pan Wei, in a famous article that took the shape of a political manifesto for legalism stated that “rule of law directly answers the most urgent need of Chinese society—curbing corruption in times of market economy. Electoral competition for government offices is not an effective way of curbing corruption; it could well lead to the concentration of power in the hands of elected leaders.”

The middle class president

Jokowi’s developmentalist democracy goes beyond a simplistic personal attribute or set of beliefs: it is inherent to his class status.

 

 

 

 

 

While not as sophisticated as Professor Pan, and not with the same ability to govern as the Chinese Communist Party, the system emerging in Thailand since the 2014 coup looks quite similar: a legalistic system in which non-elected officers create and enforce the law, above and beyond the electoral will of their population. The Thai transition from a polity in which people make the rules through elected parliamentarians to one in which the rules are imposed from above for the people and parliament to follow, has been legitimised on a basic principle: the superiority of unelected “good people” over elected politicians in preventing corruption and establishing good governance.

It would be easy to dismiss these changes has temporary push backs. Yet, my work argues, something deeper is changing around Southeast Asia, something that we will not see or understand unless we stop working under preset theories of democratic transition and we engage ethnographically with the shifting landscapes of class alliances, everyday ideologies, and forms of governance. These transformations, in fact, are particularly resistant to quantitative analysis and questionnaires. Often they do not imply the emergence of new terminologies or ideological concepts but rather the re-signification of words like corruption, good governance or rule of law. It is only when we spend long stretch of time with people and participates to their lives that these new meanings emerge.

The risk of failing to see these transformations is a familiar one to people in the US: becoming aware of the emergence of a new political and social order when it is too late to do anything about it.

This post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.

Mekong River’s Fate : Major Challenges and Opportunities


April 6, 2018

Mekong River’s Fate : Major Challenges and Opportunities for Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam

https://www.asiasentinel.com/econ-business/mekong-river-fate-cambodia/

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Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Third Summit of the Mekong River Commission in Siem Reap on April 5, 2018. Facebook

The Prime Ministers of the low-lying countries through which the Mekong River runs – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – have been meeting this week to attempt to reach agreement on strategies to address major challenges and opportunities facing the river’s huge basin, now and into the future, overshadowed by China, which clearly intends to exert greater influence over the river and its riparians, according to critics.

It is questionable whether any of the four, who began the meeting on April 4, demonstrate any real commitment to health of the river, which is vital to the wellbeing of 60 million people whose ancestors have for centuries relied on it for their livelihoods as well as for transport, water for cooking, irrigation, cleaning, and sanitation.

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Over the past two decades, most of the four countries’ leaders have instead demonstrated a willingness to build more dams on the river because population pressures and the burgeoning thirst for additional hydropower across Southeast Asia. There is little doubt that the character of the river, Southeast Asia’s largest, is under intense stress.

The main aim of this week’s meeting, at Siem Reap in Cambodia, is a discussion of the Mekong River Council Study, a massive 3,600-page attempt to assess the impacts of mainstream hydro projects begun in 2011. The analysis includes hydropower, irrigation, agriculture and land use, transportation, domestic and industrial water use, flood protection and includes climate change. It is described as an “an integrated, cross-sectoral, comprehensive and state-of-the-art study supporting sustainable development in the Mekong Basin.”

Unfortunately, the study findings conclude that the series of 11 large hydropower dams on the lower mainstream of the river and the 120 tributary dams planned by 2040 pose a serious threat to the ecological health and economic vitality of the region.

 

“Major detrimental impacts resulting from current hydropower plans will in turn produce massive trade-offs between water, energy and food,”according to International Rivers, a Berkeley, Calif-based NGO dedicated to protection and preservation of the world’s rivers,  which has dealt exhaustively with the council study. “Predicted impacts include, by 2040; a 30-40 percent decrease in Mekong fisheries — a loss of about 1 million tonnes per year and a staggering 97 percent reduction in the sediment load reaching the Mekong Delta. These impacts are expected to result in a drastic reduction in food security and agricultural productivity, alongside increased poverty levels and heightened climate vulnerability in much of the Lower Mekong Basin.”

Not only are fish populations expected to fall, the study suggests that there will be drastic changes in fish species with  migratory “white fish” species predicted to disappear entirely from Thailand and Laos and being pushed to the brink in Cambodia. Invasive species are expected to take their place, putting pressure on ecosystems.

To date, decisions on hydropower projects have been made by member country governments on a project-by-project basis, without regard to basin-wide impacts. The lower Mekong governments meeting at Siem Reap “must now ensure that the findings of the Council Study meaningfully inform decisions on future projects,” according to International Rivers.

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The 3rd Mekong River Commission (MRC) Leaders Summit in Siem Reap hosted by Cambodia’s  Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen.

Certainly, the stakes on the river have increased. The unsettling tendency of the Chinese government to throw its weight around in the lower Mekong basin as well as its frenetic dam-building in the upper reaches, in addition to development on the mainstream of the lower delta are of rising concern. Climate change is becoming an issue as is private funding, particularly by Thai interests, of dams in Laos.

“Beijing has continued to support those countries that are determined to develop dams on the river at any cost,” according to  Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Program for Future Directions International, an Australian research institute. “China provides funds, materials and labor for dam construction in Laos and Cambodia. While both countries see hydroelectric dams as an integral component of their economic development, Laos plans to graduate from least-developed country status mainly by exporting surplus hydroelectricity to its neighbours. China has been willing to help fund those ambitions, as it believes that it will help to further its interests across greater South-East Asia.”

One major issue is the so-called “run-of-river” concept, generally applied to hydropower projects that have only a small reservoir or no reservoir for storing water in contrast to mega-dams that store vast amounts of water and cost billions of dollars to build. The idea is to create sustainable hydro energy while minimizing the impact on the surrounding environment and nearby communities.

The “ROR” dams are theoretically able to harness the energy potential efficiently and without a major environmental impact. Without large reservoirs, they eliminate methane and carbon dioxide emissions caused by the decomposition of organic matter in conventional reservoirs.

Proponents argue that because proposed Mekong dams have limited storage capacity, the hydrological impacts will be minimal, as they allow a ‘natural’ flow of water through the dam, thus aiding the movement downstream of sediment and allowing for the migration of fish .

But, according to International Rivers, “focusing on the overall amount of water passing through a dam does not take into account impacts on flow patterns, including increased water levels during dry season and decreased levels during wet season. The ways in which dams alter seasonal flow patterns has severe adverse implications for downstream ecosystems and agricultural systems that are built around the seasonal flood pulse.”

ROR dams can have equally harmful impacts as conventional facilities, International Rivers says, “particularly on ecosystems and communities downstream. Some of these impacts are inherent; others depend on how a dam is operated. Unfortunately, the impacts of ROR dams tend to be overlooked and understudied, an oversight in part due to the assumption that ROR are less destructive than traditional dams.”

The NGO has published a fact sheet entitled ‘Swindling the Mekong: Run-of-River Hydro’ seeking to address what it calls some of the misconceptions that surround ROR dams, and examines specific case studies in the Mekong Basin.

Vietnam’s Hopes dashed as Trump exits TPP


January 21, 2018

Vietnam’s Open Trade Policy Hopes dashed as Trump exits TPP

by Thomas Jandl, TJMR Asia Consulting

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

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After the 2016 election, hope remained in Hanoi that President Trump, once in office, would turn from firebrand protectionist campaigner into a leader who accepted the value of open trade — a cause in which the Vietnamese government had invested so much in preparation for Vietnam’s membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These hopes have given way to a hangover.

By now it is clear that Trump will govern as he campaigned: without long-term strategy and with little interest in any assessment of consequences. Not surprisingly, some 60 per cent of top US diplomats have resigned and key foreign policy positions remain unfilled. Clearly, Washington is in no position to chart a clear course for the United States’ key relationships around the world.

Vietnam’s carefully crafted policy of non-alignment — by which Hanoi has skilfully exploited big-power rivalries to balance economic and political interests — now requires a major update. During the APEC summit in Da Nang, Trump stood in front of the leaders of the foremost multilateral institution in the region and waxed about a free and open Indo-Pacific, at the same time heaping criticism on multilateralism. Trump offered bilateral deals to any takers but with the caveat that he wanted to see the United States ‘win’ what he considers a zero-sum game. That kind of deal is not likely to find many takers.

Unlike Trump, Xi Jinping has a plan to make China great again. Speaking at APEC after Trump, China’s President offered a vision of the shared benefits of a free-trading region. Vietnamese officials were smitten with Xi’s willingness to dispense with protocol during the APEC forum. In his speeches, with a wink at the United States, Xi offered a mutually beneficial deal in which trade and investment are not zero-sum games, and he assumed the leadership mantle on economic openness in Asia. While Trump adopts China’s earlier, failed approach of ramming bilateral trade deals down smaller countries’ throats one by one, Xi is on a charm offensive with a multilateralist agenda.

While China is clearly emerging as the leader of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, Vietnam may be a bright spot for Trump. Vietnamese diplomats hurry to say that Hanoi will pursue a bilateral deal with Washington, less for its economic gains than for its symbolic value. Vietnam’s US$32 billion trade surplus with the United States makes it vulnerable to a bad deal in Trump’s trade war. Yet Hanoi hopes to be able to appeal to Trump’s self-regard: if Vietnam is among the very few takers of Trump’s offer, then it may be rewarded simply for showing up and giving Trump something to gloat about. And then there is the symbolism of cooperating with Washington at the same time as Beijing aims for regional leadership.

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But this strategy is fraught with risk. Any deal with Trump is bound to be fickle. If the Republican Party is trounced at the mid-term elections in November 2018, congressional leaders and the Trump administration could set out on very different courses. Moreover, with no long-term strategy, any shift in domestic mood — or in his personal mood — may turn Trump against Vietnam in no time.

Traditionally, Vietnam prefers multilateral venues where no one party calls the shots. That is why any bilateral talks with Washington must be seen as bargaining chips for RCEP and TPP-11, to which Vietnam remains strongly committed. Having as many friends as possible is an important bargaining chip for a country like Vietnam, that traditionally punches above its weight, especially with respect to its big northern neighbour whose hegemonic impulses and significant claims on Vietnamese waters are cause for concern.

TPP would have made it easier for Vietnam to escape China’s orbit. That ship has sailed, at least for now. In the meantime, Vietnam is trying to improve its bargaining power for a position within that China orbit. Whether any deal with Trump is useful — or credible — is the risky bet Hanoi is now forced to make.

Thomas Jandl is a founding partner of TJMR Asia Consulting and a non-resident scholar at the Social Sciences and Humanities Department, Vietnam National University (VNU).

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

The NY Times Book Review: Max Boot’s The Road not Taken


January 9, 2018

The NY Times Book Review: Max Boot’s The Road not Taken

by Fredrik Logevall

 THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

By Max Boot
Illustrated 715 pp. Liveright. $35.
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Could it have turned out differently? Even before the guns fell silent in Vietnam, Americans began debating whether an alternate strategy might have brought success in the war. For some revisionist analysts, the path to victory would have involved more firepower from an earlier point on more parts of enemy territory. In this interpretation, overcautious civilians compelled the United States military to fight “with one arm tied behind its back.”

Never mind that this ostensibly “limited” war saw eight million tons of bombs dropped by American and allied aircraft on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1962 and 1973, killing many hundreds of thousands of civilians, or that the United States sprayed some 19 million gallons of defoliants on South Vietnam in an attempt to deny enemy forces jungle cover and food. Never mind that the American troop commitment at its height reached more than half a million men, or that more than 58,000 of them never made it back alive.

The more interesting and at first glance attractive argument is the opposite one: that the answer in Vietnam was to deploy less military force, not more. Washington planners, this perspective holds, erred in seeing the struggle principally as a conventional military conflict when what really mattered was the human dimension. They forgot that in a war of this kind it was not enough to be against Communism; one had to be for something. The key to victory lay in meeting the needs of people where they lived, in responding to their aspirations, in winning, as the saying went, their “hearts and minds.”

Max Boot’s latest book, The Road Not Taken, discusses his contention that the Vietnam War could have been avoided if American leaders had listened to a visionary CIA Agent, Edward Lansdale, who called for a focus on hearts and minds, not bombs and body counts. Come hear a fascinating tale of spy craft, bureaucracy and combat.

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Note: Boot is a military historian and foreign policy analyst who has been called one of the “world’s leading authorities on armed conflict” by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He’s a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times, a columnist for Foreign Policy, and a regular contributor to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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Boot served as an adviser to U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also a senior foreign policy adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2007–08, a defense policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2011–12, and the head of the counterterrorism working group for Marco Rubio’s campaign in 2015-16. Boot was born in Moscow and grew up in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in history from Yale University.–https://www.eventbrite.com

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One man personified this outlook more than perhaps anyone else: Edward Lansdale, the larger-than-life intelligence operative of America’s Cold War who is the subject of Max Boot’s judicious and absorbing, if not fully convincing, new book, “The Road Not Taken.” A dashing champion of counterinsurgency who helped thwart a rebellion in the Philippines and plotted to oust Fidel Castro, Lansdale was present at the creation of South Vietnam in 1954 as an important adviser to Prime Minister (and later President) Ngo Dinh Diem. His influence would fade, but not his belief that the struggle for Vietnam had to be won — and could be, provided American strategists employed the right combination of political and military measures.

Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, brings solid credentials to this enterprise, having written well-received histories of guerrilla warfare and America’s “small wars.” Here he draws on a range of material, official and personal, including a stash of love letters between Lansdale and his Filipino mistress. The narrative dispenses briskly and effectively with the details of Lansdale’s early life, including his college years at U.C.L.A. and his successful entry into the advertising industry, where he learned strategies of psychological manipulation that he later applied as a covert warrior in Southeast Asia. A stint as an intelligence officer under “Wild Bill” Donovan in the wartime Office of Strategic Services convinced him that this work should be his life’s career.

What emerges is a picture of a man who from an early point possessed an unusual ability to relate to other people, a stereotypically American can-do optimism, an impatience with bureaucracy and a fascination with psychological warfare. All these qualities were on display in Lansdale’s first major postwar posting, in the newly independent Philippines, where on behalf of the C.I.A. he helped suppress the left-wing Hukbalahap insurgency in the early 1950s.

But it was in Vietnam that Lansdale would achieve his greatest renown — and frustration. Neil Sheehan’s assertion, in “A Bright Shining Lie,” that “South Vietnam, it can truly be said, was the creation of Edward Lansdale,” is surely an exaggeration, but it speaks to Lansdale’s fundamental importance. Beginning in mid-1954 he ran a covert intelligence operation that sent sabotage teams to North Vietnam and helped facilitate the flow of refugees from north to south.

More consequentially, Lansdale was from the start the closest American adviser to Ngo Dinh Diem, his car often parked outside the Saigon leader’s residence deep into the night. When in early 1955 the regime faced violent challenges to its rule from sects within South Vietnam, Lansdale persuaded the Eisenhower administration to stand firm with Diem, a critical move that in all likelihood preserved Diem’s hold on power.

This proved to be the high point of Lansdale’s influence in Saigon — and, for that matter, Washington. Diem grew tired of the American upbraiding him for undemocratic moves like closing opposition newspapers. “Do you think that’s the right thing for ‘the father of his country’ to do?” Lansdale asked, to which Diem replied, “Stop calling me papa!”

Even as his clout diminished and his worries grew over the regime’s coercive actions, Lansdale extolled Diem’s achievements and urged continued American support. No other plausible leader existed who could take the fight to the Vietcong. For Lansdale, as for Boot, Diem’s ouster and murder in a coup d’état in late 1963 backed by the United States was a watershed moment, a calamitous development from which the war effort never fully recovered.

There’s something to this argument — it required about four years for the politics in South Vietnam to settle, and the Communists took advantage of the turmoil — but it misses how bleak and unsustainable the situation was with Diem. Communist forces were already gaining momentum in the countryside after 1962, which is partly why the South Vietnamese military had grown so disgruntled and why the Kennedy administration wanted a change. With his shallow conception of leadership and easy resort to repression, Diem, a Roman Catholic, had long since alienated powerful segments of South Vietnamese society, including the leaders of the Buddhist majority, and his regime enjoyed scant support among the peasantry. The coup against him was enormously popular. It’s hard to see Diem surviving in power for long regardless of what John F. Kennedy did in the fall of 1963.

To his credit, Lansdale always emphasized the need to focus on developments within South Vietnam. More than many American officials, he understood that even if one somehow stopped the flow of men and matériel from the North, the southern insurgency would remain a formidable threat to the Saigon regime. Bombing North Vietnam was therefore no solution. Unshakable in his conviction that the American way was right for everyone, Lansdale nevertheless insisted on the need to show empathy for local values and practices, to spend time with villagers, and he perceived — to a degree at least — the dilemma at the heart of American strategy: What do you do when the destruction deemed necessary to defeat an insurgency alienates the very population you seek to bring over to the government’s side?

Many of Lansdale’s ideas, however, were kooky: He advocated distributing counterfeit official documents in North Vietnam to sow confusion and fear, providing the Vietcong with booby-trapped ammunition intended to blow up in their faces and having Saigon leaders give “fireside chats” à la Franklin D. Roosevelt — and he understood Vietnamese society and politics less well than this admiring book suggests. His well-founded concern about the problems posed by pervasive South Vietnamese official corruption (grasped, contrary to Boot’s claim, by virtually every American intelligence analyst after 1965) did not keep him from championing the unscrupulous, impetuous and flamboyant Nguyen Cao Ky for Saigon’s leadership — he of the aviator sunglasses, purple silk scarf and pearl-handled revolver. Ky’s embrace of American largess made him the very symbol of corruption in the eyes of a great many Vietnamese (and he once told stunned journalists that his only hero was Adolf Hitler).

There is power in Boot’s conclusion that Lansdale “never wanted to see half a million American troops thrashing around Vietnam, suffering and inflicting heavy casualties. His approach, successful or not, would have been more humane and less costly.” In this sense, the Lansdale way was indeed “the road not taken.” Whether that road would have led to the destination he so wanted to reach, however, is doubtful. As much as this irrepressible Cold Warrior might have thought otherwise, Vietnam for the United States was destined to be what it had always been: a riddle beyond American solution.

Fredrik Logevall, a professor of history and international affairs at Harvard, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.”

A version of this review appears in print on January 14, 2018, on Page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Losing Hearts and Minds.