Vietnam’s Real Lessons for Iraq
The headline, “U.S. Embassy Prepares for Possible Evacuation as Militants Take Control in Iraq,” brought back the depressing memories of the fall of Saigon almost 40 years ago, and the humiliating images of the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military personnel from the U.S. Embassy there on April 30, 1975. But even if the al-Qaeda renegades affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) don’t take over Baghdad, and U.S. helicopters don’t have to evacuate the American civilian and military personnel in the city, what is taking place in Iraq now has all the makings of the crushing grand finale of the American military intervention in Southeast Asia.
Now, like then, there are those who contend that things would have turned quite differently if only the United States had not withdrawn its troops so hastily from Southeast Asia/the Middle East; if only Washington had provided more military assistance to the regime in Saigon/Baghdad; if only the leader of South Vietnam/Iraq would not have been so corrupt and so incompetent; if only the government in Saigon/Baghdad was more democratic and inclusive; if only the American president had been able to mobilize more public support for “staying the course.” Or as the saying goes, “If my grandma had wheels, she was a motorcycle.”
Even more infuriating is (as it probably was to the war critics in 1975) to have to listen to the politicians and pundits who led this country into a mortifying military fiasco insisting that they were right, that their script made for a hit movie; it’s the producers in Washington who messed everything up.
Before we forget what really happened, as the likes of John McCain will insist that the decision to go to war in Iraq is now “ancient history” and that, in any case, all the world’s intelligence services were sure that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s), let’s recall that before American troops landed on the shores of the Euphrates:
- Iraq was a stable and secular country where women and Christians enjoyed civil rights, the Kurds (following the first Gulf War) had a modicum of political autonomy. It would have been nice to have a user-friendlier Saddam Hussein. But all things considered, Washington could co-exist with him.
- Iraq served as the main strategic counter-balancing power in the Persian Gulf (following the Iran-Iraq War when Washington made sure that neither side would win). Iraq and Iran were two players that we didn’t like very much. But the strategic stalemate in the Persian Gulf served American interests.
- Iraq wasn’t the headquarters of al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. In fact, both in terms of interests and ideology, al-Qaeda posed a threat to the Ba’ath regime in Baghdad. In short, Washington and Baghdad faced a common enemy.
We know what then happened: The ousting of Saddam and the invasion of Iraq resulted in the collapse of the fragile strategic balance of power in the Persian Gulf, and strengthened the power of Iran. It led to the coming to power of a theocratic regime in Baghdad that is allied with Tehran, and ignited a bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that is spilling now to the rest of the Middle East. And lest we forget, there were the high costs in life, treasure, military strength, and diplomatic credibility for the United States.
Now an al-Qaeda that had never set a foot in Iraq and Syria before the American invasion may be getting close to gaining strength in those two countries, and could soon even take power in Baghdad.
The “Iraq Conflict now poses ‘Existential Threat’ to the United States,” according to John McCain, who had made the same argument before he called for invading Iraq. Sisyphus of Greek mythology was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again; Sisyphus was depicted by Albert Camus as a symbol of the absurd. He didn’t know McCain.
McCain also believes that America could have won the Vietnam War. And who knows? If that would have happened, the United States and Vietnam could now be close trade partners and its government would have been establishing close military ties with Washington. But wait a minute. Isn’t that what is happening these days as the United States and Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia are looking towards Washington as a counter-balance to Chinese military and economic power in the region?
In fact, contrary to the nightmare scenarios that followed the American evacuation of Saigon, the world-as-we-knew-it didn’t come to an end, the barbarians didn’t storm the gates, and the Reds didn’t take over Asia and the rest of the world. Through cautious and thoughtful diplomacy, the United States took steps to cut its losses and rebuild its military and economic power, including in Asia. At the center of these efforts, was the opening to China that helped to create the basis for diplomatic and economic cooperation in the region and to restructure its balance of power in terms that were favorable to the United States.
If anything, American military withdrawal created incentives for the pro-Western nations in the region to strengthen their military and economic cooperation through the newly established Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vietnam ended-up ousting the murderous Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, then went to war with China in 1979, which like the Iraq-Iran War ensured that neither of them emerged as victors. Then the Cold War ended and America won!
Which brings us back to Iraq and the Middle East. Not unlike what happened after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, what is seen now as an American defeat could actually help Washington to rebuild its position in the world, including in the Middle East, if it pursues the same kind of intelligent and realist policies that were embraced by American administrations at that time.
Instead of fantasizing about new U.S. interventions in the Middle East, the United States needs to realign its position in the region by engaging Iran and providing incentives for Tehran, Ankara, and Riyadh to take the lead in bringing stability to Iraq and Syria. These three regional powers—and the United States—have a common interest in averting the disintegration of these two countries, and in ensuring that the conflicts there don’t degenerate into a wider Sunni-Shiite War. The possibility that ISIS forces come to power in Baghdad poses a threat to all of them and should encourage them to use their military and diplomatic power to prevent that from happening. They should take a lead in that effort with the United States providing some indirect assistance.
Creating the conditions for the evolution of such a strategy could eventually lead to the maintenance of the territorial status-quo while at the same time help shape decentralized federal systems in Iraq and Syria that would provide political autonomy to the various ethnic and religious groups. Washington can only help; it cannot make that happen on its own.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.