Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JULY 2014

When Barack Obama announced in June that he would send about 300 military advisers to Iraq to assess dangers created by the startling capture of northern Iraq by ISIS forces and the threat to Baghdad, skeptics asked whether he planned to use air power to bolster faltering Iraqi troops trained earlier by U.S. forces.

A week later, the Pentagon said an additional 500 special forces were headed to Iraq to protect U.S. personnel at the American embassy and give support to the initial 300 advisers. Observers now asked whether this was "mission creep" that could lead to another Vietnam-type intervention.

If we review how President John Kennedy viewed U.S. national interests in Vietnam in 1961-62, and George W. Bush's view of Iraq in 2002-03, the stakes were different. For Kennedy, a Communist Vietnam would be a Sino-Soviet threat to all of East Asia, including Indonesia in the south and Japan in the north. The "domino effect" motivated the Kennedy national security team.

Bush, on the other hand, saw Saddam Hussein as a threat to the oil-rich Persian Gulf area which supplied Europe and East Asia, as well as the United States, with crude oil at a time when world oil prices were high. Hussein's assumed possession of chemical weapons and potential acquisition of nuclear ones convinced Bush that removing this threat to U.S. security interests in the Middle East was a vital national interest which justified the use of force. Unlike in Vietnam, Hussein posed no ideological threat.

But the parallels in these cases are significant. Both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the Bush White House in the 2000s grossly misjudged the local political and cultural environments when they sent Americans to war. In Vietnam, Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, misunderstood the strong nationalist appeal of North Vietnam's leader, Ho Chi Minh, whose troops had defeated French colonial forces ten years earlier and forced France to abandon its rule in Indo-China.

Forty years later, George Bush's policy planners, especially at the Pentagon, made a similar mistake by overestimating the ability of U.S. forces' to pacify the religious and tribal conflicts that were suppressed by Hussein's brutal dictatorship. When casualties mounted in Iraq, as they did in Vietnam earlier, U.S. commanders struggled to cope with nationalist and religious conflicts that caused resistance to American troops.

The outcome of these wars was different. After U.S. ground forces were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973, North Vietnam's forces invaded the south and within weeks caused a collapse of South Vietnam's army. This was a major diplomatic disaster for the United States, especially when remaining embassy personnel had to be evacuated by helicopter from the embassy's rooftop.

In Iraq, U.S. forces were withdrawn in December 2011 after its government refused to grant legal immunity to military advisers who were scheduled to remain. Today the stunning military conquest of northern Iraq by ISIS forces raises this question: Could Iraq become another Vietnam for U.S. foreign policy?

A major question in Washington is whether President Obama will ask Congress for support to use air strikes by drones and planes, as well as special forces to help stop the ISIS offensive and its drive to create a new Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. Obama asserts he will not use U.S. air power unless Iraq's parliament selects a unity government to replace the increasingly authoritarian Maliki and his Shiite cabinet.

Will the White House eventually accept a partition of Iraq along religious and ethnic lines? Kurdish leaders are about to declare independence for their northern region after securing its oil fields and building a capable army that is supplied with U.S. weapons. Although Secretary of State John Kerry says Washington prefers a unified Iraq, time may be running out.

At this writing, it's unclear whether Obama intends to send additional military personnel to Iraq, or whether the 800 already sent are there primarily to provide security for the embassy.

In my view, Obama probably will not intervene with air power or ground forces, although he may launch drone strikes on ISIS positions. Instead, he will use diplomacy, covert means, and economic incentives to build regional support for a combined effort to turn back the ISIS threat, This would be similar to the combined assault in 1991 against Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

We may eventually see the division of Iraq into three states: Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish. But the U.S. won't suffer another debacle as it did in Vietnam in 1975.

File last modified on Friday, 14-JUL-2014 10:01 AM EST

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