The Magazine

The Incurable Vietnam Syndrome

Distorting our foreign policy for three decades and counting.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By MAX BOOT
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The Vietnam experience also shows the importance of not holding Third World allies to an impossible standard. The Kennedy administration helped overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, and South Vietnam never had another ruler who was as strong or legitimate. That is a lesson worth keeping in mind as so many critics insist that progress in Afghanistan requires replacing Hamid Karzai, who is supposedly too discredited to help us win. New York Times columnist Frank Rich writes, for instance, that "Karzai, whose brother is a reputed narcotics trafficker, is a double for Ngo Dinh Diem." Let us hope he does not suffer Diem's fate. If the United States were to be seen as complicit in Karzai's removal, that would make it as difficult for his successors to gain legitimacy as it was for Diem's successors.

Another crucial point to take away from Vietnam is the importance of willpower in warfare. North Vietnam was much smaller than the United States, but its desire to prevail was much greater. If it is parallels to Vietnam that you seek, look at the wavering in the White House today. In some respects it is reminiscent of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, which showed themselves more interested in ending than in winning the war.

If President Obama ultimately decides not to make a serious and prolonged commitment to Afghanistan, he will be making the same mistake so many Democrats did in the early 1970s when they claimed that we could get out of Vietnam with no damage to our country or the region. We now know that America's defeat was a tragedy for the people of Southeast Asia, with millions of Cambodians slain in the "killing fields" and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" taking to the seas on leaky rafts. It also did incalculable damage to America's standing in the world, encouraging our enemies from Tehran to Managua to step up attacks on our allies. It took us a full decade to recover, and even now we are still dealing with some of the fallout from that period, such as the Iranian revolution. The consequences of defeat in Afghanistan would undoubtedly be just as severe, if very different.

By and large, however, we would all be well advised to handle Vietnam analogies with great care and to focus on the specifics of current conflicts rather than making them fit a template that's more than three decades old. That is precisely what General McChrystal and his team of officers are doing. Their findings are based on a careful, on-the-ground review of the situation. Many of their critics, by contrast, seem to be driven by sixties nostalgia more than by an understanding of Afghanistan today.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and author most recently of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.