- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 17, 2010


On April 11, 1975, Congress turned its back on the sacrifice of 58,000 American lives, 350,000 casualties and an $800 billion investment. The House voted down a Nixon administration request for $700 million in emergency aid to South Vietnam. Saigon’s small U.S.-style army — created through “Vietnamization” but wholly dependent on American logistics — fought valiantly, but without air power fell before a hugely superior North Vietnamese conventional invasion strongly backed by Soviet and Chinese communism.

The spectacle of helicopters frantically lifting stranded Americans from the Saigon embassy rooftop brought a helter-skelter conclusion to “Vietnam,” a dismal, excruciatingly painful chapter in American foreign policy.

Historians will continue to argue endlessly about the American intervention in Southeast Asia. But because of its complexities, speculation on history’s “ifs” is at best misguided, and analogies from Vietnam to Washington’s current two wars are fallacious.

But there were vast repercussions from Washington’s Indochina defeat beyond the long healing process, when returning heroes were treated as outcasts. As many as 160,000 died among the million imprisoned — some as long as 17 years — in Vietnam’s communist “re-education” camps. Some 3 million more fled the country — 600,000 lost at sea or in the Cambodian “killing fields” — before the U.S.-led “Orderly Departure Program” between 1979 and 1994 eventually brought out 750,000 refugees. Two million Cambodians died before Hanoi intervened in 1978, halting the madness of its former allies.

Harder to prove, however, is that the drubbing American prestige took and the mystique created by Vietnam’s victory inspired growing worldwide turbulence. In 1979, Iranian revolutionaries took U.S. Embassy hostages and began building a new threat to regional and world stability.

In 1983 the first large-scale suicide bombing by Hezbollah cost 300 American and French lives, almost destroying Lebanon — an island of tolerance and prosperity in the Arab world — and setting the stage for a new wave of terrorism.

The prediction of dominoes falling to communism did not occur; Singapore’s Mentor Minister Lee Kwan Yu has said the U.S. effort in Vietnam bought other Southeast Asian nations time to prepare. But a totally corrupt, incompetent, repressive communist regime still dooms the future of what will soon be some 100 million Vietnamese.

After an expected congressional power shift the November elections, Washington will be consumed with domestic politics and a still-flagging economy. But a foreign policy debate is also on the docket amid the continuing sacrifice — as casualties and costs rise — in Afghanistan and as relations with Pakistan fester. One hopes that this time, as was not the case in 1975, the policy will not be decided by an “out of sight, out of mind” national consensus.

As President Obama argued recently in a rather infelicitous recollection of 9/11 and its aftermath, America’s ability to overcome disaster is remarkable and not to be minimized. But, again, history is never a completely reliable guide for the future, as great events can be affected by the old “Cleopatra’s nose” standard. (Had the Egyptian queen’s aquiline Greek nose been a little less attractive, so the old chestnut goes, Caesar and Marc Antony might have resisted her charms and the fate of the Roman republic would have been very different.

Still, speculation on American difficulties in Afghanistan and the perhaps even more excruciatingly difficult problem of Pakistan is certainly legitimate before any forthcoming debate.

Quickly, here are some elements:

• As a primitive, isolated Kabul regime proved in 2001, the inability to at least neutralize al Qaeda’s former sanctuary would encourage the growing nihilistic Islamacist movement to seek such bases — not only in Afghanistan again but throughout the Muslim world — for attacks on the American homeland.

• Defeat in Afghanistan/Pakistan would encourage growing radicalization of young Muslims living in Western societies — coinciding with Europe’s bitter debate over assimilation of its critical and growing Muslims — which is now recognized as the most threatening terrorist development.

• Because of its British colonial heritage and its size, Pakistan had been seen as a model for wider modernization within the Muslim world, so its possible disintegration would be catastrophic.

• Failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan could put Islamabad’s growing nuclear arsenal at risk, almost certainly producing further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

• India’s 1.3 billion population, with a Muslim population larger than Pakistan, remains vulnerable despite recent economic growth, with massive rural poverty and growing self-styled Maoist insurgencies, India would risk destabilization, too, if the subcontinent’s western reaches in Pakistan fell apart.

• Worldwide oil supplies, still the lifeblood of modern industrial societies, could become a victim of Mideast instability.

• Increasing Chinese military belligerence would be fed by a full-blown American retreat — not least because of Beijing’s link with Pakistan in anti-India power politics.

That’s the downside of settling for something less than victory in Afghanistan. An index of problems and “solutions” will be studied in an upcoming column.

Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at [email protected]

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