America’s perennial Vietnam syndrome
Prophetic words they were not. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all…The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.”
Thus spoke a euphoric President George H.W.Bush early in March, 1991, shortly after the 100-hour ground war that chased Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the oil-rich U.S. ally they had invaded and occupied in the summer of 1990.
The specter of Vietnam, far from being buried in the Arabian sands, has risen again as President Barack Obama and his advisers are considering the course of the war in Afghanistan, now in its ninth year, increasingly unpopular, and considered unwinnable even by America’s senior soldiers if it is fought alongside a corrupt government that lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the population.
That the Vietnam syndrome is alive and well is obvious by the proliferation of analyses and commentaries drawing parallels, or dismissing them as nonsense, since Obama declared Afghanistan a war of necessity. (Type “Is Afghanistan Obama’s Vietnam” into the Google search box and you get more than nine million references).
The cover of the latest edition of Newsweek magazine is taken up by an iconic photograph of the Vietnam war, people clambering up a ladder to a U.S. helicopter waiting to evacuate them off the roof of a Saigon building the day before the city fell to communist forces on April 30, 1975. The story inside: what to learn from the lessons of Vietnam.
The answers to that question differ widely and the Vietnam analogy has come up routinely whenever the United States resorted to military action in the past three decades, from Lebanon and Somalia to Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. Obama himself has dismissed the parallel.
“You never step into the same river twice,” he said in October, “and so, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. But the danger of overreach and not having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people, those are all issues I think about all the time.”
Both in scale and geopolitical context the difference between the two conflicts is vast: at the height of its involvement in Vietnam, the United States had more than half a million troops there, fighting both Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnamese army regulars who could count on aid from China and the Soviet Union.
In Afghanistan, the United States has some 68,000 soldiers, a number that is likely to grow to 100,000 or more (depending on what decision on reinforcement is taken) by the end of Obama’s term. Neither the Taliban insurgents nor al-Qaeda can count on the kind of outside support America’s antagonists in Vietnam commanded. In Vietnam, more than 58,000 soldiers died. The U.S. death toll in Afghanistan stood at 916 in the first week of November.
VIETNAM SYNDROME AND FLAGGING SUPPORT
But there are also parallels, and the Vietnam syndrome the elder President Bush had declared kicked is doubtless one of the reasons why public support for the war in Afghanistan has been declining steadily, despite Obama’s assertion that the American commitment would not be open-ended. The latest poll, by CNN, showed that 58 percent of those questioned were opposed to war.
And the parallels? In the words of Senator John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who turned into a war critic after his deployment, “Once again, our enemy blends in with the local population and finds sanctuary in a neighboring country. Once again, the danger of being perceived as an occupying force by a war-weary population remains perilous.
“With Afghanistan, as with Vietnam, we have a president facing pressure from the military.”
President Lyndon Johnson, Kerry wrote, failed to stand up to his military commanders when they warned that the U.S. was facing defeat without additional forces – the argument that the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal made when he put forward options to Obama, including up to 40,000 more troops.
History does not repeat itself but the similarities between Obama in 2009 and Johnson in 1963 are striking. Both inherited a war that became their own at a time when they were pushing far-reaching and costly domestic reforms. Johnson’s Great Society programs ranged from reducing poverty to improving medical care. Obama’s key project is universal health care.
Most of Johnson’s reforms were enacted in the first two years of his presidency, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. By 1968, the war in Vietnam had eroded his popularity to such an extent that he decided not to run for re-election.
The House of Representatives passed Obama’s health care bill this month, the Senate is expected to vote on its version soon. Polls show Obama’s popularity has been slipping, though his approval rate is still above 50%. Where it will be in a year’s time, halfway through his term when the U.S. goes to the polls for mid-term elections, will partly depend on how the war in Afghanistan is going.
The ghost of Vietnam hangs over the White House.
You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com.