Is the U.S. Experiencing Déjà vu in Iraq?

Discerning the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq

Andrew Arnett
Jul 13, 2014 · 5 min read


With ISIS on Baghdad’s doorsteps, it is hard not to recall a former US military endeavor which went awry, referring of course, to the Vietnam War. Both wars embroiled the US military in a costly eight year commitment. Almost three years after that commitment ended, we are wondering if Baghdad is facing an end game scenario similar to Saigon in 1975, culminating in a panic stricken evacuation of the US embassy by helicopter.

Perhaps, but not likely. Despite media hype to the contrary, the chances of Baghdad falling into ISIS hands, as did Saigon to the communists, are low. The indicators show that America will not cut and run from Iraq, as they did in Vietnam. The reasons for this are numerous and intricate, but they invariably stem from at least two factors: oil and strategic advantage.

To make this point clear, Obama has sent over 700 US military advisors to Iraq and on June 23, John Kerry, in a show of support for the regime, visited Baghdad and Kurdish controlled Irbil.

Despite these developments, there is no doubt the two conflicts mirror each other with uncanny accuracy. The question isn’t ‘if” there are parallels, but rather “when”. The “when” comes by dialing the clock on Vietnam back, not 40 years, but rather 60, to the year 1954.

In 1954, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu led to the defeat of French colonial power in Vietnam by communist revolutionaries. This resulted in the signing of the Geneva Accords, which divided the country in half. Viet Minh communists, led by Ho Chi Minh, assumed control of the north, while the south was administered by the French supported State of Vietnam under Emperor Bao Dai. The French forces themselves withdrew under a cloud of humiliation and defeat, after an eight year conflict known as the First Indochina War.

Are we feeling a sense of Déjà vu yet?

On June 28, ISIS declared the creation of an Islamic State over the territories it has seized in northern Iraq and Syria. The spokesman for ISIS stated the new leader of this region, or caliph, will be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. If this declaration does’t have the formality of the Geneva Accords, it certainly has the legitimacy of military authority. Baghdad has clearly lost control of the northern half of the country, barely able to fend off rebels from its own doorsteps.

If Abu Bakr al-Baghdad is to play the role of Ho Chi Minh, then Nouri al-Maliki may represent a latter day Emperor Bao Dai, a divisive leader of a non-functional government who’s day’s are numbered. The process has already begun, by the Iraqi parliament, to elect a new leader.

The French colonial power that waged a doomed war effort against the Viet Minh is clearly a doppelgänger of the Bush led US invasion and occupation of Iraq. And if we follow this line of reasoning, then Obama is acting out President Eisenhower, who eschewed French requests for assistance with the First Indochina War, prophetically claiming “this war would absorb our troops by divisions.” Nonetheless, Eisenhower did eventually dispatch up to 900 military advisors to South Vietnam, as well as military, economic, and technical assistance.

The Kurds have a clone in the Montagnards, a tribal people living in the Central Highlands of Vietnam who were antagonistic to both the democratic South Vietnamese government, and the Communist North. They, like the tribal Kurds in Iraq, represent a third force in the conflict. And like the Kurds, the Montagnards were skilled fighters, as well as being closely allied with American troops and policy. Curiously, both the Kurds and the Montagnards have been supported by US special forces.

These are some examples of the parallels between the two conflicts, but it may be the similarity of US policy towards both situations that make these events manifest. In Vietnam, the operative term was the Domino Theory. Today, though that term is eschewed, the US nonetheless adopts the same attitude towards Muslim extremists, and their potential spill over into neighboring countries. It is this philosophy which fuels the need for maintaining US presence in the region.

In an Op-Ed piece in the LA Times on June 13, Andrew J. Bacevich addresses the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, ostensibly casting Obama in the role of Nixon and asking the question “Can Obama pull a Nixon with the Iraq crisis?” This “Nixonian Gambit” he refers to regards the strategic realignment with China at the end of the Vietnam war. With Kissinger paving the way, Nixon “reduced by one the roster of countries that Washington counted as problems or threats. . . thereby salvaging a modicum of advantage acutely relevant to the as-yet-undecided Cold War.”

In that updated scenario, Mr. Bacevich sees Iran playing the role of China, urging Obama to negate Iran as an enemy, by partnering up with them to combat ISIS. The US may eventually do just that, but the comparison between China and Iran may not be justified. China, during the Vietnam War, was supportive of the North Vietnamese revolutionaries, whereas Iran, being predominantly Shi’ite, are at war with the Sunni led ISIS insurgency, and thus support the current ruling establishment in Iraq.

Who then, is supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Even though Saudi Arabia has publicly stated it is not backing ISIS, being Sunni Moslem, it is an enemy of Iran, and has lent its support to, if not ISIS, then at least to some of the other insurgent rebel groups fighting in Syria. Some of those groups have subsequently teamed up with ISIS as well.

If these parallels continue to bear fruit, then we can conclude that the US is just beginning a third round of military involvement in the region. If so, one wonders how quickly the circumstance can conflate from a 1954 like scenario, to that of 1964, when the US sent in ground troops to Vietnam. Perhaps, at this point, all it would take is something akin to a Gulf of Tonkin incident.

You can follow Andrew Arnett on Twitter at @AndrewArnett.

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