Can Obama Do in Iraq What Nixon and Ford Couldn't in Vietnam?
tags: Barack Obama,Vietnam,ISIS
Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.
Practically every American intervention abroad since the 1960s has prompted comparisons to Vietnam. So it was hardly surprising when on October 8, in response to President Obama’s decision to expand the campaign against ISIS into Syria, Frederik Logevall and Gordon M. Goldstein authored an op-ed in the New York Times that asked “Will Syria Be Obama’s Vietnam?”
I’m not sure that’s the right question. The American concern over ISIS originated in Iraq, after all—an intervention that is now eleven years old. America’s air campaign against ISIS today reminds me less of the intervention that happened in Vietnam than the one that didn’t happen—in the spring of 1975.
This past June, when ISIS suddenly broke through America’s collective effort to forget about Iraq and seemed poised to take Baghdad, it was easy to wonder if we were about to witness a repeat of the fall of Saigon.
More than two years after the peace agreement that led to the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, a North Vietnamese offensive against South Vietnam met with little effective resistance, much like last June’s stories of Iraqi armed forces dropping their arms and failing to fight ISIS. Compare these passages from the New York Times coverage of the fall of Hue in March 1975 and Mosul in June 2014:
“By the thousands, the people are abandoning Hue…. The armed forces are also moving out, some by landing craft, some in military vehicles, some bundled into trucks with family members, furniture and food. No one seemed in the slightest doubt yesterday that Hue and the rest of the north were being left to the Communists.”
“Thousands of civilians fled south toward Baghdad…. The Iraqi Army apparently crumbled in the face of the militant assault, as soldiers dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and blended in with the fleeing masses…. ‘They took control of everything, and they are everywhere,’ said one soldier who fled the city.”
The political reaction this summer also eerily echoed the reaction to events of nearly 40 years ago.
In his Memoirs, Richard Nixon argued that he had won the Vietnam war and that American bombing of the North would have preserved the South Vietnamese government. It had survived for two years after the peace agreement. That meant Nixon’s Vietnamization had worked.
“When Congress reneged on our obligations under the agreements,” Nixon wrote, “the Communists predictably rushed in to fill the gap.” Nixon had privately assured South Vietnamese President Thieu that violations of the peace agreement by Hanoi would be met with renewed American bombing. But in June 1973, the Church-Case amendment forbade funding for any military operations in Vietnam. “The congressional bombing cutoff, coupled with the limitations placed on the President by the War Powers Resolution in November 1973, set off a string of events that led to the Communist takeover.” The war was “lost within a matter of months once Congress refused to fulfill our obligations,” Nixon said.
Henry Kissinger has also repeatedly argued that the peace agreement reached with Hanoi had secured the independence of South Vietnam, and that he and Nixon intended to use air power to thwart any North Vietnamese aggression against the South. But, he asserts, Watergate so weakened Nixon that they were unable to overcome the opposition of Congress. In a meeting with Singapore’s Lee Quan Yew on August 4, 1973, Kissinger said: “We have suffered a tragedy because of Watergate … We were going to bomb North Vietnam for a week, then go to Russia, then meet with [North Vietnam’s lead negotiator] Le Duc Tho. Congress made it impossible.”
Lewis Sorley, in his 1999 work A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, argued that “[t]here came a time when the war was won.” Due to the pacification efforts of Gen. Creighton Abrams, he writes, victory in in Vietnam “can probably best be dated in late 1970.” The countryside was pacified, and South Vietnamese forces were “capable of resisting aggression so long as America continued to provide logistical and financial support, and … renewed application of U.S. air and naval power should North Vietnam violate the terms of that agreement.”
The argument that continued American application of its air power against North Vietnam could have preserved South Vietnam has been thus been a staple of Vietnam War revisionism.
In June, Sen. John McCain made an argument about Iraq similar to the one that Nixon, Kissinger, and Sorley made about Vietnam:
"We had it won," McCain said. "Gen. [David]
Petraeus had the conflict won, thanks to the surge. And if we had left a
residual force behind, that we could have, we would not be facing the crisis we
are today. Those are fundamental facts ... The fact is, we had the conflict
won, and we had a stable government.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina added: “There is no scenario where we can stop the bleeding in Iraq
without American air power."
There are no do-overs in history, and no one can say for certain whether the renewed application of American air power after the 1973 peace agreement might have prevented the fall of Saigon—or if it did, for how long. But we are currently seeing why Congress sought to limit the executive branch’s options back in 1973.
The fear then was that, despite the peace agreement, Nixon and Kissinger would continue to fight a war that the country overwhelmingly wanted to be over. Kissinger’s repeated statements indicate that they in fact intended to do just that, not just in Vietnam but possibly in Cambodia, too. The Church-Case Amendment was how Congress expressed the national consensus against reviving the war.
Today, there seems little will in Congress to restrain the president’s war-making powers. If anything, the loudest voices have been those arguing for even greater military action. In response to such pressure, the president has already expanded the air war to Syria.
Just last week, McCain argued that “pinprick” airstrikes were proving ineffective, and called for further expansions of the war: “They’re winning, and we’re not,” McCain told CNN. “The Iraqis are not winning. The Peshmerga, the Kurds are not winning.” Thus, he argued, there was a need for “more boots on the ground … in the form of forward air controllers, special forces and other people like that…. You have to arm the Peshmerga … Buffer zone in Syria, no-fly zone, take on Bashar al Assad the same as we have ISIS.”
McCain’s vision of a renewed, ever-expanding war is precisely what Congress in 1973 meant to prevent Nixon and Kissinger from doing. After nearly a decade of war, Americans had decided that the fall of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos would not be a mortal threat to American security.
Today, what stands between the United States and the full-scale revival of a war Americans thought was over is not Congress, but the president himself. Obama has repeatedly stated that he will not re-introduce American combat troops to Iraq, and he is trying to maintain a sense of balance about the nature of the threat: “While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, these terrorists have threatened America and our allies. And the United States will meet this threat with strength and resolve.”
McCain, however, is doing the opposite, hyping the threat the U.S. Back in June he said: “We are now facing an existential threat to the security of the United States of America.” Last week he said: “it is a threat to the United States of America if they are able to establish this caliphate.”
A September CNN public opinion poll suggests that Americans
agree with McCain about the threat, while siding with Obama on the limits of
the U.S. response. Ninety percent say ISIS represents a threat to the U.S.,
with 45 percent calling the threat “serious,” 22 percent saying it is “fairly
serious” and 23 percent saying it is “somewhat serious.” (Two years after 9/11,
in 2003, 49 percent considered Al Qaeda a “serious” threat to the U.S.)
Seventy-one percent believe ISIS terrorists are already in the U.S. But at the
same time, by a 61-38 margin, Americans oppose using American ground forces to
ISIS has succeeded in making Americans think that Iraq
matters again, and that U.S. interests require its defeat, but it has not yet
convinced them that it is worth Americans doing the fighting and dying. That's Obama's dilemma. If air power is not enough, does he take the chance that Iraq (or Syria) falls to ISIS, or does he break his promise?
In the spring of 1975, Congressional and public opinion meant that President Ford had little choice but to watch as the North Vietnamese Army rolled into Saigon. Nearly 40 years later, President Obama faces a far more difficult task: prevent the collapse of the Iraqi government (and, increasingly, the Syrian opposition) without fully reviving a war he spent years trying to end—all in the face of an opposition that is intent on proving that the Iraq war it supported was won until the president lost it.
Whether Obama will be able to keep his promise not to send American ground forces back to Iraq is very much an open question. Having taken the first step to save Iraq by applying American air power—what Nixon, Kissinger and Ford could not do in Vietnam—it may be increasingly hard to resist subsequent steps if air power proves to be not enough.
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