Monday, June 16, 2014

The Fall of Saigon

 I am not old enough to remember the Vietnam War, including its conclusion, the fall of Saigon.  But from what I have heard about it, events in Iraq are following a familiar pattern.  When we withdrew from Vietnam, the Viet Cong were largely eliminated as a force.  We were able to cobble together something that could loosely be called victory.  We claimed to have achieved peace with honor.  And a war-weary public didn't want to hear any more about it.

But the government of South Vietnam we left in power was a frail, artificial construct, too weak to stand on its own. Once we left, it soon collapsed.  The North Vietnamese blitzkrieg came charging across the border, and the government we had been propping up fell with little resistance.  All pretenses of victory were at an end.  We had lost.

Of course, there were hawkish hard liners who considered the situation salvageable to the very end.  If only we had gone in and propped up the South Vietnamese government again, we would have been able to turn back the North Vietnamese invasion and all would have been well, or, if not well, back to the status quo ante.  The hardliners were mostly Republicans.  A Republican President (Nixon) had negotiated the fragile peace that we could pretend was a victory.  A Republican President (Ford) was in the White House when Saigon fell.  But the Democrats controlled Congress and cut off any funds for continuing the war.  So certain unrepentant hard liners always insisted that we could have won if those treacherous Democrats hadn't stabbed a Republican President in the back.

Oh, yes, and once South Vietnam fell, it soon became apparent that, although the government we had been backing were bad guys, the enemy we were fighting were worse.  A lot of Americans whose opposition to the war spilled all the way over into support for the enemy had a hard time admitting it.

Fast forward another 40 years, and it looks very similar (though not the same).  We managed to cobble together what could roughly be called a victory in Iraq.  The Sunnis turned against Al-Qaeda in Iraq and took sides with us in defeating them.  The Iraqi government requested -- nay, demanded -- our withdrawal and was in charge when we left.  We claimed that the surge worked.  And a war-weary public didn't want to hear any more about it.

But the government of Iraq we left behind was a frail, artificial construct, too weak to stand on its own. Once we left, it soon enraged the Sunnis, and they once again started working with AQI and others like it.  ISIS is launching its blitzkrieg across the Syrian border, and towns have been falling with little resistance.  All pretenses of victory are at an end, or nearly so.  If ISIS wins, we have lost.

Of course, there are hawkish hard liners who still consider the situation salvageable.  They are convinced that if only we had left a small residual force in Iraq (against the express wishes of the Iraqi government) we could have stopped this from happening, or that a few troops even now will work wonders.  But all that either action would achieve would be to continue the situation that most Americans (and Iraqis) found so intolerable and were unwilling to continue.  Deep sigh of frustration.

Of course, there are differences between then and now.  This time, a Republican negotiated our exit, including the possibility of a small residual force, while a Democrat actually made the exit, without such a force.  And the fall of Mosul has taken place with a Democrat in the White House and a Republican Congress.  Which means, based on its past record, that Congressional Republicans will scream bloody murder, demanding that Obama intervene until he actually makes some move to do so, whereupon they will scream bloody murder denouncing his actions.  Partisanship is a lot sharper now than it was then.

Oh, yes, and this time no one had any illusions about the nature of the people we are fighting.  The government we propped up may be bad guys, but no one doubts that ISIS is even worse.

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