The lessons of Vietnam: Why Obama’s, McCain’s, and all the other ISIS plans will fail


Listening to Obama’s speech Wednesday outlining his ISIS strategy was deja vu’ all over again. It regurgitated the same failed strategy to deal with terrorism that Bush first gesticulated; but more importantly it uncomfortably demonstrated yet again the failed lessons of Vietnam that American leaders have yet to learn in the 40 years since that war ended.  His speech, along with the other plans proposed by the neo-cons and warmongers such as John McCain and Graham Lindsay, aptly confirmed one of the greatest lines by Karl Marx who stated once in his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

In a nutshell, Obama’s strategy is simple and simpleminded–America will drop tons of bombs on ISIS, expand the war to Syria, and rely upon ground troops provided by Iraq and other countries to replace Americans on the ground. It is a military strategy devoid of a political solution, emphasizing that it may take years (and into the next presidency) to succeed.  Obama inherited a failed war and is now passing it onto the next president.

How much this reminds me of Vietnam, except not Obama is both Johnson and Nixon at the same time. President Johnson inherited a nascent war from Kennedy only to escalate it and then in  the waning year of his presidency to express remorse about its efficacy after the Tet Offense in 1968 where any confidence of US victory was destroyed by a massive North Vietnamese offense in January of that year.  The war cost Johnson a second term as president.  Nixon took over, again escalated it, including expanding the war illegally and secretly with bombings into Cambodia.  When  that did not work, Nixon’s peace plan was the “Vietnamization” of the war–replacing American ground troops with those of the South Vietnamese–hoping that the latter would be able to continue the war and delay America’s indignant and inevitable loss for a few years.  

Obama’s expansion of the bombings and reliance upon Iraq or other ground troops is just Cambodia and Vietnamization warmed over.  But so was Bush’s response to 9-11, or to the invasion of Iraq in pursuit of the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.  In all these cases the assumption was that American military might will overwhelm the enemy, liberating the people to form their own democratic societies.  It worked really well in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Alone the factual parallels to Vietnam should be instructive to why the Obama, McCain, et al plans will fail.  But dig deeper, there are two major lessons or reasons why any of the plans currently proposed are farces.  First, consider Powell Doctrine.  General Colin Powell in 1990 stated that the use of US military force needs to answer several questions, including asking whether there is a vital US interest at stake?  Are there clear objectives for the use of force?  Is there a clear definition of success?  And is there an exit strategy?  On all accounts, what Obama described in his Wednesday speech missed the mark.  About the only real rationale for going back to war is that we failed before  and that now we need to do more of the same to postpone failure even longer.  It is not clear what the US interest is, and even if there is one, we have no benchmarks for success or a strategy for leaving.  Quagmire was the word once used to describe Vietnam–that is the new word now for Iraq.

But even more profoundly, the failure of Obama’s strategy lies in perhaps the most important lesson of Vietnam–the limits of US military power.  The single greatest book on Vietnam remains  Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam.  In describing the failed war she describes of the US escalation into Vietnam:

It was entering into a moral and ideological struggle over the form of the state and the goals of the society.  Its success with the chosen contender would depend not merely on US power but on the resources of both the United States and the Saigon government to solve Vietnamese domestic problems in a manner acceptable to the Vietnamese.  But what indeed were Vietnamese problems, and did they even exist in terms in which Americans conceived them?  The unknowns made the whole enterprise, from the most rational and tough-minded point of view, risky in the extreme.   (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972), 6-7.

The tragic failure of Vietnam was that it was really a battle for the hearts and minds of the people–not a war that could be one on the battlefield with bombs.  The US did understand that the problem of Vietnam was not a geopolitical one between communism and democracy, but a more indigenous cultural battle among the people there.  The same is true in Iraq and Syria.  This is not a global battle over terrorism and freedom but a problem that has to be solved by the people in that part of the world.  Dropping bombs does little to resolve the fight, especially if as in Vietnam it hurts  civilians and pushes them to the other side or continues to prevent people from solving their own problem.

Missing from Obama’s and all the other plans is an asking of the question to why ISIS is so successful in recruiting supporters.  There is no plan to ascertaining why, for example, individuals from the Minnesota Somalian community are joining terrorist groups or why British citizens are becoming ISIS members who are beheading Americans.  Until such time as the focus shifts to asking these questions, to realizing that a strategy in place since Vietnam will not work, the current plans too will fail in farcical ways.