- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As the United States continues its dual tasks of nation-building and fighting terrorists in Afghanistan, foreign-policy observers have often noted the parallels between the current efforts in Afghanistan to that of the Vietnam War. In this post-Cold War setting of multiple spheres of influence, what is unquestionable is the essential role of American involvement; more important, is how it should be localized to the conditions on the ground. Undoubtedly, this will have an enormous impact on the outcome of our involvement in Afghanistan, and Vietnam for that matter.

The last day of April every year is often referred to as “Black April” by the overseas Vietnamese diaspora, a black mark to commemorate the loss of our homeland of South Vietnam to the invading North Vietnamese Communists in 1975. Personally, it marks that fateful day in 1975 when, as my mother took us to view the nightly cartoon shows at a U.S. base camp on Guam, I witnessed the strained looks of disbelief and despair on the faces of the adults milling about after hearing the announcement over the public-address system that South Vietnam had surrendered.

Thirty-five years later, we are witnesses to another invasion in Vietnam, one this time not of ideology and armies, but of foreign conglomerates. But at the same time that Vietnam has been the beneficiary of the maxim “a rising tide lifts all boats,” I, as an American now of Vietnamese birth, can only imagine what Vietnam would be like today if unchained from the communist dogma that rewards the few at the expense of the many. The country that David Halberstam 40 years ago labeled “one of five or six countries that is truly vital to U.S. strategic interests” often finds itself today on various lists of leading human rights violators. Instead of leading innovations, Vietnam remains a hopeless follower, always looking northward for ideological legitimacy in the new millennium.

The biggest similarity between the two wars is in the conduct of unconventional warfare, where the rule of the game is that there are no rules. Our nation’s military leaders have done a good job of executing this, compared with our experience four decades ago. From Gen. David H. Petraeus to Gen. Stanley A. McCrystal on down to the local commanders, they have gone to great lengths to remind us that brute force alone will not bring “victory.” In fact, in this Internet age, psychological warfare is perhaps even more important than guns and ammunition.

Professor Andrew Wiest, in his book “Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN,” was correct to point out that the oft-maligned South Vietnamese army’s biggest failing was not one of personnel and effort, but of strategy and concept. He said simply that despite President Nixon’s attempts at “Vietnamization,” South Vietnam’s military was never trained to be “Vietnamese enough.”

The current administration has also learned its lesson and wisely, although ambivalently, followed the Bush administration in refraining from announcing a hard timetable for its expanded task in Afghanistan. This was in sharp contrast to the initial flaw in providing a withdrawal schedule for forces in Iraq, a decision that while politically popular here at home, was geopolitically unwise. Given the recent suicide bombings in Iraq, we now clearly see the lack of prudence in the decision. Since when did terrorists kill and maim with timetables?

The second major similarity relates to the concept of victory and how it is defined by the modern nation-state versus rogue regimes. Even if we do execute the Afghanistan military mission with greater success, how do we actually “win” against an enemy who will stop short of nothing to achieve its “victory,” including carrying out wanton acts of terrorism against the innocent or just waiting until we leave to continue their destruction? That is exactly what happened in South Vietnam, as American forces began their withdrawal in late 1973. For us to succeed, we have to determine how the enemy defines “victory,” for in unconventional warfare, victory is still a zero-sum game.

In the case of U.S. interests in both Afghanistan and Vietnam today, the pressures of globalization have often usurped the promotion of certain aspects of our national interests; more specifically, human rights and liberalization should not be mutually exclusive from the promotion of U.S. national interests. However, from Vietnam to China, American policymakers are putting profits over people in this new dawn, ensuring short-term success, but also likely long-term failure. We are at risk of losing the “hearts and minds” of the common man - those who are apathetic to authoritarian dogma but confused about America’s ideals and purpose.

In Vietnam, where leading intellectuals and the emerging youth are being arbitrarily detained and imprisoned, Vietnam apologists are constantly singing the excuse that if the United States does not appease the Vietnamese regime, then Hanoi will be pushed closer to the Chinese. This is naive thinking, for as anyone who was born in Asia should know, there is no greater hatred for the Chinese than from the Vietnamese.

I am hopeful that the United States will finally get it right in moving Vietnam on the proper path toward a more open society, just as it is attempting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It may not be easy, but it is not impossible. We have to find the influencers outside of the Communist Party hierarchy and support them. Resources from the National Endowment for Democracy and the like can be used to help develop civil institutions and promote citizen-media bloggers. It is a testament to the uniqueness of America’s role in the world when young activists in Saigon and Hanoi, and throughout the world for that matter, are risking their lives just to get their hands on a copy of Gene Sharp’s tome “From Dictatorship to Democracy.”

Baoky N. Vu has lived in Atlanta for more than 30 years. In 1975, his family left Saigon prior to the overrunning of South Vietnam by communist North Vietnamese forces. He served as a commissioner on President George W. Bush’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

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