Politics & Policy

Vietnam Syndrome

Enough quagmire talk.

As war looms ever closer in Iraq, more references are being made by critics that this new conflict risks “another Vietnam.” The first Gulf War of 1991 was widely hailed at the time as having put the “Vietnam Syndrome” behind us, but it didn’t. It was reported that “Desert Storm” was a decisive victory because, unlike Vietnam, the military was given carte blanche to develop a winning strategy without the confining rules of engagement that allegedly cost America victory in Southeast Asia.

In truth, the Gulf War and Vietnam were more similar than not. In both wars, the United States was on the strategic defensive; either trying to keep Saigon out of Hanoi’s hands or liberate Kuwait from Iraq. Within the designated theater of operations, there were few constraints on military operations against enemy forces. But in neither case did Washington assume the strategic offensive with the aim of removing the enemy regime that was committing the aggression that American troops were combating. The aim was simply to restore the status quo ante bellum.

It was this political aspect of “limited war” thinking that made both the Vietnam War and the confrontation with Iraq into such prolonged conflicts. If determined opponents can stay in power, able to reconstitute military forces over time as they draw on their national resources and support from other powers, their wars will continue. And as long as they remain on the strategic offensive, they will dictate the pace of the conflict and hold the initiative. Eventually, Hanoi wore down the United States through protracted struggle; and prior to September 11, 2001, a similar process was favoring Saddam Hussein as arms inspections had ceased and economic sanctions were collapsing.

The “one hand tied behind our back” argument for why Vietnam was lost has been dominated by the issue of restrictions on the bombing of North Vietnam; particularly that Hanoi and Haiphong harbor were off limits for most of the war. But it is doubtful that any level of bombing would have solved the basic strategic problem. Consider when President Richard Nixon escalated the air campaign in May 1972 in response to a major North Vietnamese ground offensive into South Vietnam. It reached its pinnacle with the “Christmas bombing” that December. Hanoi and Haiphong were finally hit directly by B-52 heavy bombers as restrictions were lifted. This seemed to break the negotiating deadlock, leading directly to the Paris Accords which were signed on January 27,1973.

This apparent victory of air power proved hollow. The Hanoi regime had signed a piece of paper, but had not changed its outlook. The Paris Accords even allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in those parts of South Vietnam they had seized. With American ground troops subsequently withdrawn and U.S. aid to South Vietnam curtailed, Hanoi was able to launch a successful ground offensive only two years later. The war only ended when one side was destroyed. Tragically, it was Saigon that was subjected to a regime change.

Saddam agreed to far more stringent terms in 1991 than Hanoi had accepted in 1973, because there was a U.S.-led coalition army only 60 miles from Baghdad which could have removed him from power. Saddam was thus willing to agree to measures such as U.N. weapon inspections and the destruction of all weapons of mass destruction. Yet, by the time Iraq signed the U.N. ceasefire resolution, the withdrawal of the 545,000 deployed American troops had already started. There would be no army of occupation to escort or support the U.N. inspectors. Like North Vietnam two decades earlier, Iraq went to work to negate the terms to which it had agreed at the point of a gun, as soon as the gun was put away.

Subsequent years of “no-fly” zones and occasional bombing campaigns, the most ambitious being that of “Desert Fox” in 1998 against suspected Iraqi weapon labs and factories, failed to change the regime in Baghdad or alter its ambitions. The 1998 air campaign was much like that of 1972, its main purpose being to cover an American retreat with a barrage of fire and smoke; another spin of declaring victory, then getting out. The dictators in both Hanoi and Baghdad knew that once the bombers had flown away, whatever had been demolished could be rebuilt.

It is when President George W. Bush says, as he did again in his press conference March 6, “if we go to war, there will be a regime change” that the break from the legacy of Vietnam is heard. He has said that if American troops go into Iraq, they will not stop until the country is liberated, and he devoted a major speech to building a post-Saddam Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute dinner February 26. There is no talk of “limited war” in this administration, only plans for “decisive war.” This resolve should assure the American people that their sons and daughters in uniform are not being sent into a quagmire, but on a noble enterprise akin to that of World War II in its clarity of purpose — the rooting out of evil at its source.

— William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for national-security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.


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