Raise your hand if you saw this coming:
What are the right lessons from America’s Vietnam experience that can be applied to the current situation in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East?
The United States in the 1960s and early 1970s found itself backing a shaky South Vietnam government that lacked full support from religious and sectarian groups within its borders as it faced armed Viet Cong insurgents. Today it’s the newly formed, Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad facing Islamic State fighters without the total support of some Iraqi Sunni, Kurd and secular groups.
In Vietnam, the insurgents were fed arms, supplies and even fighters from North Vietnam through nearby Laos and Cambodia. Today, equipment, supplies and Islamic State fighters come into Iraq through neighboring Syria.
The South Vietnamese military was further weakened by corruption and lack of training. The Iraqi security forces have the same problems.
That should be a key lesson from Vietnam. Foreign governments have to find their own way.
Cordesman, however, is right about several things. He is correct when he says, “We are dealing with a range of extremist movements and an ideological struggle for the future of Islam,” and that “no kind of lasting ‘victory’ in the form of some reasonable degree of stability and security can occur in Iraq — or any of our other wars — without effective national unity.”
Vietnam should have taught the U.S.that as an outside power — with no common language, culture or history — Americans cannot bring about national unity in other countries.
Cordesman makes another point worth remembering in the Vietnam context — there will be no peace in Iraq, even with national unity, if across the border in Syria there is a sanctuary for Sunni forces hostile to the government in Baghdad.
There is one final point that Cordesman makes that the Obama administration, Congress and presidential candidates should take to heart.
“We need regular, honest, and comprehensive Obama administration reporting on the course of our wars,” he writes. He adds that also needed are “hearings and congressional reviews that do more than focus on five minute media visibility exercises for committee members.”
I hope your hand is raised. The Iraq-Vietnam comparisons started before the first American boots touched Iraqi soil, and that was way back during Desert Storm.
I grew up watching the Vietnam war on television. If it had lasted a few more years I probably would have gone there. Even before we left evacuated the Saigon embassy people have been arguing and pointing fingers over why we lost. Some blame the military. Some blame the media. Some blame the politicians. Some blame the American public.
They are all right. And they are all wrong.
Iraq is just like Vietnam. Except it’s not.
Iraq and Vietnam are very different countries with very different people and problems. We fought each war for different reasons facing different enemies. Both outcomes were the same.
For the record, our involvement in Vietnam started before I was born, but I opposed the invasion of Iraq. Both endings left me feeling sad and depressed.
There is, however, a simple lesson to be learned from both Iraq and Vietnam. That lesson is some problems don’t have solutions.