The Foreign Service Journal, May 2022

70 MAY 2022 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL The X Factor Stabilizing Fragile States: Why It Matters and What to Do about It Rufus C. Phillips III, University Press of Kansas, 2022, $44.95/hardcover, e-book available, 348 pages. Reviewed by Keith Mines When Rufus Phillips III passed away last December at the age of 92, I lost a good friend and mentor. Phillips was truly a “gentle, decent man who served his country with humility and devotion and fearless truth-telling,” as historian, author and foreign policy analyst Max Boot has described him. With his death, America also lost one of its most creative foreign policy think- ers, who worked until his last moments to argue for a new approach to dealing with failed and fragile states, believing strongly that this is one key to a more stable and humane world order. To our great fortune, he finished the manuscript for Stabilizing Fragile States: Why It Matters and What to Do about It, just before he died. It was published posthumously in April. The Vietnam Crucible Like all of us, Phillips is prisoner to his own experience, an experience that is as varied as it is enlightening. His first assignment as a CIA officer was in 1954 to South Vietnam. There he joined the team of Edward Lansdale, the legendary officer whose unorthodox methods of elevat- ing the political over the military had led to the defeat of the Huk insurgency and establishment of an imperfect but non- communist democracy in the Philippines a few years earlier. Phillips would return to Vietnam in 1962 as head of Rural Affairs for USAID, where newly minted FSOs Richard Holbrooke, John Negroponte and Tony Lake served as field officers. (See his April 2015 FSJ article about this period.) In an earlier volume that gained him national atten- tion, Why VietnamMatters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned (Naval Institute Press, 2008), Phillips describes how he absorbed Lansdale’s experience and wisdom, and his wholly different way of looking at state fragility. There, Phillips established the core premise that we did not lose the Vietnam War because we did not exact a heavy enough price on the North Vietnamese, or because we failed to “win hearts and minds” in the transactional way it was then being used by a president (Lyndon Johnson) who was convinced he could buy off Ho Chi Minh with a massive Ten- nessee Valley Authority–style project for the Mekong River basin. Rather, Phillips refers in that book to what Lansdale described as “the X factor,” the human, political side of the war. “The official American view of the war,” he writes, “missed the single most influen- tial component—a South Vietnamese political cause worth fighting for—while the enemy, the Vietcong, framed every action as furthering its political cause against colonialism and feudalism, and for unification. We underestimated the motivat- ing power of Vietnamese nationalism. … This conflict was at its heart a political one, a war of ideas and of the spirit.” Did outsiders have the ability to shape these senti- ments among the Viet- namese people, one could reasonably ask? Phillips was realistic about this ques- tion, contending “only the local people can save their own country.” But with enough skill and insight, “our help can be instrumental.” Lansdale tried to pitch this approach to McNamara, and Phillips had one meeting with President John F. Kennedy where he urged less focus on body counts and a singular focus on the political structure developing in Saigon and its reflection throughout the country. But there was always something eso- teric about it all—feelings and psychol- ogy could hardly stand up to bombing runs and troop levels in the corridors of power. It was a war, after all, and wars are won by killing the enemy. Phillips watched in dismay as some of his advice to focus on politics took hold locally, but not on a national level where it could have swung the balance. BOOKS Phillips turns in the second half of Stabilizing Fragile States to what is perhaps the most interesting for this audience: the architecture and personnel for doing stabilization.