- The War on Terror in many ways mirrors the Vietnam War.
- Every time the United States meets one of its objectives in the Middle East it seems another objective simply takes its place.
- The only victory the U.S. can see in the Middle East is a complete withdrawal.
Last December President Trump announced that he will be withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, although he later decided to leave 400 troops in Syria. This hopefully signifies a changing policy for the region. President Trump’s decision reminds me of a similar decision made 50 years ago in 1969. This decision was the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in an unwinnable war that had been raging on for nearly 20 years. This decision was President Richard Nixon’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam. It is impossible not to draw a plethora of similarities between the Vietnam War and the current War on Terror.
In “The Art of War” Sun Tzu states, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” America did not know the enemy in Vietnam and America certainly does not know the enemy in the Middle East. Both in Vietnam and in the Middle East the culture, history, beliefs, and social structure of the regions were and are completely foreign to the U.S.
Winning the hearts and minds of the people was critical to the U.S. strategy in Vietnam and is critical to the U.S. strategy in the Middle East. This strategy obviously did not work in Vietnam and it is certainly not working in the Middle East. It is nearly impossible to win hearts and minds if you don’t have the faintest idea of the culture, traditions, and history of the people. It also does not help when you blow up the villages, kill the families, and invade the homes of the very people whose support is critical to your victory.
These very sentiments were echoed by Col. David Hackworth in an interview with PBS where Col. Hackworth offered his thoughts on the Vietnam War. U.S. Strategy in both the Middle East and in Vietnam rely on the people following dictators that the U.S. has either propped up, installed, or supported. That was President Diem in Vietnam, Mohammad Reza Pahlaviin in Iran, and is currently King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saudin in Saudi Arabia. Again, the U.S. supports and backs these dictators without having any knowledge of the people, their country, or the culture.
Whether from American hubris or ignorance the U.S doesn’t seem able to learn from history, even when it’s their own. Vietnam, the first war for America to outright lose, was the first counter insurgency war the U.S. fought. The second counter insurgency war the U.S. has been involved in is the war in the Middle East. It is incredibly difficult to achieve lasting victory in a major counter insurgency war. France couldn’t do it in Vietnam, Britain Couldn’t do it in the Americas, and it is unlikely that the United Sates will be able to do it in the Middle East.
This of course doesn’t mean that the United States won’t be able to blow up terrorists, the U.S. is pretty good at that. No, it means that a lasting victory for the United States in the Middle East is unreachable. The United States cannot stabilize the region, secure Israel from threats, protect U.S. economic interests in the region, defeat terrorism, remove those from power who support terrorist groups, or secure democracy in the region.
Every time the United States meets one of its objectives in the Middle East it seems another objective simply takes its place. Before 9/11 the U.S. committed to removing Saddam Hussein from power. After 9/11 the U.S. focus became the destruction of Al-Qaeda. Currently, if reports are to be believed, the U.S. is on the tail end of the war against ISIS.
The United States has become the police force for a region engulfed by conflict and entrenched in totalitarianism. Yet because of either hubris or ignorance we feel that there is some end to the fight and that there is some victory to be had. It was this same hubris and ignorance that led to massive extent of U.S. loss, both financial and personal, in Vietnam. Vietnam was inevitably an unwinnable war and so is the conflict in the Middle East.
Nixon realized that Vietnam was unwinnable, and Trump seems to be realizing the same thing about the Middle East. Now that ISIS has largely been defeated, Trump is working on withdrawing troops from Syria. A total withdrawal from the Middle East will be the only kind of victory the U.S. can see.