By Ray Takeyh
November 12, 2009
AN ALL TOO familiar image is haunting the debate about Afghanistan:
The Vietnam War. Thirty-five years after America's ignominious
departure from the rooftop of the Saigon embassy, many in Congress
are obsessed with the possibility of defeat and disgrace in another
poorly understood country. If a little history is a dangerous thing
in the hands of critics, the Vietnam syndrome is absolutely toxic.
The foremost lesson of history is that history does not repeat itself
in the exact same manner at every junction.
The curious and disturbing aspect of such historical exaggerations is
that it is affecting those responsible for guiding US policy.
To be sure, the corrosive Vietnam syndrome seems to particularly
trouble Democratic administrations. It was after all during the
tenure of two Democrats, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, that the
United States deepened its commitment to the Southeast Asian
quagmire, discrediting American power, and scuttling a promising
domestic reform agenda. As the Obama team focuses on health care and
climate change, liberals once more fear that a distant conflict could
engulf another promising presidency. To preserve the liberal hour
they seek to avoid the liberal nightmare.
The Vietnamese success against an august superpower was indeed a
remarkable achievement. However, it was an accomplishment that came
about due to a fortuitous confluence of reasons: Hanoi's
nationalistic credibility, its careful exploitation of the advantages
of the Cold War, and a particularly arrogant and incompetent American
The Hanoi leadership's ability to fuse communism with nationalism
stood in contrast to America's South Vietnamese allies whose corrupt
indulgences and lack of popular appeal made them a terrible contrast.
General William Westmoreland's strategy of attrition where he hoped
that somehow US forces would outlast the enemy on its home terrain
only contributed to Washington's dilemma.
Despite all these shortcomings, the United States may still have
prevailed if the Soviet Union and China had not sustained North
Vietnam's war effort through generous material assistance while
deterring America from attacking and occupying their enterprising
ally. In the end, the Vietnam War was too complicated and its legacy
too divisive to serve as a cautionary tale for 21st century US foreign policy.
All this is not to suggest that the Obama administration should
dispatch more troops to Afghanistan. The notion that Afghanistan is
central to United States national security is at best a dubious
proposition given the ability of Al Qaeda terrorist cells to mutate
in a variety of other locations.
Afghanistan's history militates against easy solutions imposed by
foreigners. A country known for its tribal fragmentations, absence of
credible central authority, and fiercely independent population is
hardly an ideal place for America's nation-building schemes. To this
complicated matrix one has to add a lack of allied support and a
disastrous presidential election that further eroded government legitimacy.
In the end, General Stanley McChrystal's ambitious strategy of
securing the countryside may require a larger contingent of troops
without producing tangible results. A scaled back US presence focused
on controlling key strategic sectors and eliminating terrorist
sanctuaries may better address US concerns. Such a campaign removes
the false choice between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism and
concentrates on core objectives.
For too long, the haunting specter of the Vietnam has had a
debilitating impact on leading Democrats. The fear of entanglement in
foreign wars has led many to instinctively oppose the use of force.
The central lesson of Vietnam ought to be that the civilian
leadership must ask probing questions before committing troops. And
that the advice of the military brass cannot be the sole guide of US
policy irrespective of concerns of commanders on the ground. In this
sense, an administration that has been accused of dithering seems to
have learned some of the right lessons of Vietnam.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.