Expediency and Honor

The term “expedient” is sometimes translated as an action considered to be  convenient and practical despite possibly being improper or immoral.  We have seen many instances of  expediency in American foreign policy.  Most recently, we may to be seeing it in Syria.  President Trump has said that he is pulling American military personnel out of that country.  Perhaps this is a good decision (I am not informed on all the pros and cons), but what will happen to the Kurds, our long-time and most reliable allies in the fight against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria?  There is a very real danger that Turkey will use our withdrawal as an opportunity to attack and destroy the Kurds.  It is also possible that Trump will decide to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.  What will happen to those pro-American Afghans and Iraquis who allied themselves with us and depend on our support?  By the way, even as I acknowledge my insufficient knowledge of the facts, I am inclined to oppose Trump’s proposal to withdraw from Syria.

Let us examine two historical examples of somewhat similar expedient actions by the United States government.  Perhaps the actions were correct in the circumstances, but I believe that most will agree that there was a certain loss of honor.

In 1801 the United States entered into hostilities with Tripoli.  Tripoli had been raiding American shipping and declared war on the United States when we refused to continue paying them a tribute (protection money).  Naval actions ensued over several years with mixed results, but the turning point of the war came in May 1805.  Ex-consul and former Army captain William Eaton and Marine Corps Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon led a force of eight marines (remember “Shores of Tripoli” from the Marine hymn?) and five hundred mercenaries across the desert from Egypt and captured the Tripolitan city of Derna.  The Americans had joined cause with Hamet Karamanli, elder brother of the Bashaw of Tripoli, and promised to restore him as leader of Tripoli.

Faced with possible defeat and overthrow, Yusuf Karamanli signed a treaty ending hostilities.  Not only did we abandon Hamet, we paid his brother the Bashaw $60,000 for the return of American prisoners.

Eaton complained bitterly, but expediency carried the day.

The United States became deeply involved in South Vietnam in the early 1960s.  First it was a support and training role, but as pressure from North Vietnam increased there was more and more involvement by American fighting forces.  President Johnson stated our unequivocal support in no uncertain terms, and close bonds were established between American troops and our South Vietnamese allies.  Unfortunately, it was an ugly, unpopular war, and the tide of public opinion had turned definitely against it by early 1968.  With the election of Richard Nixon in November 1968, the mantra was no longer “victory” but “peace with honor.”  In honest terms, this meant turning the actual ground fighting over to the South Vietnamese military and getting out of the country as soon as possible. It was a long and difficult process. At the same time, an intense aerial bombardment was initiated to force North Vietnam to the negotiating table.

Vietnamese peace accords were signed in January 1973, but some fighting continued.  Nevertheless, American involvement in actual combat ended in August 1973.  Less than two years later, after Nixon’s resignation, the North Vietnamese violated the peace agreement and began a full assault against South Vietnam.  The South Vietnamese army collapsed quickly, and we did little to help them. Political opinion in the United States would not support any re-involvement by the American military, and with the fall of Saigon in April 1975 the war was finally over.  The scars on the American body politic remain, and those South Vietnamese allies who fought beside us paid a heavy price for their loyalty.  Many lost their lives.  Many more spent years in brutal re-indoctrination camps.

Expediency had triumphed once more in 1975.

One word of warning.  Anyone who cooperates with the United States should always remember that we are a fickle and sometimes unreliable ally.  Presidents who make promises may be voted out of office.  A war party may be replaced by a peace party.  In the final analysis, the somewhat nebulous concept of national honor matters not so much, and national self-interest usually wins out.


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