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Vietnam was important enough to the U.S. for Johnson to commit more than 500,000 troops. Nevertheless, he was unwilling to risk invading the North, blockading its coasts, threatening the existence of its government or even bombing close to its border with China. American commanders were ordered to keep the war on the ground in the South, and Washington was reduced to hoping its soldiers could kill North Vietnamese troops faster than Hanoi could move them onto the Southern battlefield.

According to that scenario, the U.S. would attempt to arrange a stalemate similar to the one it gained in Korea in 1953. "We had a plan of sorts," says Bundy. "Grind up the other guy's army until he would presumably not take it anymore, and then we would get a political settlement." Rusk wrote in his memoirs, "I thought North Vietnam would reach a point when it would be unwilling to continue making those terrible sacrifices" and negotiate a settlement.

That point never arrived, as the U.S. was on the strategic defensive for the entire war. The North Vietnamese army and its Viet Cong surrogates were on the offensive. It didn't always look that way because U.S. forces roved far and wide on vast search-and-destroy missions to root out communist bases. But those were tactical efforts; the Americans were not allowed to march north to face the enemy at its source. The North kept the initiative, choosing when to attack and when to lie low and rebuild its strength. Although 1.1 million of its soldiers were killed in the war of attrition, the North continued to sacrifice them until the U.S. negotiated its own withdrawal in 1973.

Today's world confronts the U.S. with nothing remotely like Vietnam. There is no global struggle with communism to drag America into every brush-fire conflict from Yemen to Angola. U.S. Presidents have the freedom to pick their wars and fight them as they choose, without worrying about setting off a thermonuclear war. The U.S. could go into Somalia and Haiti knowing it would never involve 500,000 troops for years, because the final outcome in those countries is not vital to America's national interests--we do not believe we are in a long twilight struggle with Somali warlords. The U.S. can also decide to pull its forces out on a fixed schedule without worrying about losing credibility or toppling dominoes.

Of course the U.S. can still blunder. It might get into a struggle--in Bosnia, say--that it could not win in a reasonable time or at an acceptable price. Even so, the imperatives of the cold war have been replaced by an entirely different limiting factor: the difficulty of finding America's vital interests at stake in other people's conflicts. During the cold war the question was posed as, Is there any reason we can't intervene? Now it is, Why should we?

After 241 American troops on a pointless mission in Beirut were killed by a suicide bomber in 1983, the Reagan Administration struggled to draw lessons from the disaster. The next year, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger offered a checklist for evaluating the future uses of military forces abroad. Such actions should be necessary to protect vital national interests, he advised, and permit the use of powerful force to achieve a decisive victory. The objective must be clear and attainable by military means, and it must be supported by Congress and the people.

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