In one of his last public statements on the war in Vietnam, a televised interview on September 2, 1963, President Kennedy said that in the end the South Vietnamese government could only win the war by winning popular support. “In the final analysis, it is their war,” he said. “They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it . . . ” At that time, Buddhist leaders were being repressed and some monks were committing suicide. Kennedy urged that Vietnam’s leaders “take steps to try to bring back popular support for this very essential struggle.”
Less than two months later, at the end of October, Kennedy was persuaded that Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem had to go. The president authorized a coup that resulted in Diem’s death, and the military took over. Believing in the domino theory, as Kennedy explicitly said at the time, he and his inner circle decided the war had to be won, and anyone who got in the way would have to be sidelined. The first steps were taken toward what became, under Lyndon Johnson, a huge buildup of US forces in Vietnam. Their war became ours.
Skip to the present: President Obama, while saying that it is up to Iraqis to defeat the ISIS insurgents (“Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis”), has decided to send about 300 special forces “advisers” to Iraq. The Iraqi government has invited the US to conduct air strikes against the ISIS, which Obama may yet decide to do. Perhaps he is trying to preempt criticism from Republicans that his foreign policy is weak and feckless, just as Kennedy was at least partly motivated by the felt need to demonstrate to domestic critics, not to mention Premier Khrushchev, that the US was willing to shed blood to defeat communist guerrillas.
Is history about to repeat itself? Will US forces being sent to Iraq be merely the first phase of an ever growing commitment, as was the case in the 1960s?
While I’m inclined to believe Obama when he says no US ground combat forces will return to Iraq, that doesn’t negate the Vietnam analogy. One of the hallmarks of the slippery slope in Vietnam was US willingness to forego Saigon’s promises of reform and dispense with the matter of our partner’s legitimacy. Winning the war was all that mattered. Obama has declared that Iraq is a vital interest. His strategic perspective now sees Iraq and Syria as interlinked—a new version of falling dominoes. US officials, including Vice President Biden, are talking with prominent Iraqi critics in Baghdad about forcing Maliki from power. If history is any guide, these developments signal a willingness to intervene (again) more deeply in Iraq’s civil war, discarding the priority of government reforms in Baghdad in favor of finding more malleable leaders. Obama is essentially following the same script that was instrumental in the US defeat in Vietnam: put in place leaders the US can control, rely on military power to reverse trends on the battlefield, leave political reform for later, and hope that popular support will rally around the next government.
The eleven-year old US effort in Iraq has failed. The Iraq war has demonstrated yet again that foreign powers cannot effectively carry out nation building. Kennedy was right to say it’s “their war,” and Obama was right to say the same. But both presidents changed their minds, seduced by our own imperial hubris and machismo politics. Will we ever learn?