As seen in the Northern Virginia Daily
Kabul and Saigon — a comparison that doesn’t stand up
As they did in 1975 when Saigon passed into the hands of the North Vietnamese army, American and European doomsayers are raging at the tragic abandonment of Afghanistan. Kabul, they proclaim, is another Saigon, an epic defeat that totally wrecks America’s credibility. Corriere della Sera distinguishes itself with an ill-concealed outburst of anti-Americanism..
Serious historians know Vietnam did not mean the end of U.S. credibility. They predict that the Afghan disaster will unfold in the same way. It is true that, as in Afghanistan, many in America clamored for more funds to defend Vietnam, starting with Henry Kissinger who in March 1975 declared: “We cannot abandon friends in one part of the world without jeopardizing the safety of friends everywhere.”
But how much and what credibility did the U.S. actually lose? Its enemies gloated and Moscow in particular looked forward to reaping the rewards of the American retreat from Southeast Asia. But U.S. strategic interests did not in fact collapse while it was the Soviet Union that would suffer a death blow from defeat in Afghanistan after its 1979 invasion.
The loss of South Vietnam did not mean the end of the American leadership, nor did it induce countries under threat to believe that they could no longer rely on that leadership or that American influence was spent. If U.S. influence was compromised in any way, it was as a result of the invasion of Iraq without a demonstrable strategic justification. However, the fact remains that the country’s allies and friends continued even then to rely on the protection guaranteed by the U.S. and to offer mutual support.
After Biden’s abandonment, the United States is not without resources to deal with Afghanistan, starting with the means to isolate the Taliban politically, including denying its treasury access to the billions of dollars Washington has frozen.
The U.S. priority is not to negotiate a modus vivendi with the Taliban leaders, but to counter with all the power at its disposal a resurrection of ISIS and other terrorist organizations. This strategy is essential not only for Afghanistan but for the whole Middle East where the United States will support countries threatened by ISIS terrorism. The loss of Afghanistan does not change this scenario, regardless of the dismal prophecies of the doomsayers. America will regain its influence in Afghanistan, as did in Vietnam after the 70’s.
The doomsayers must be reminded that the disaster in Vietnam opened a new chapter in the Cold War in favor of the U.S. who found regional partners in countries that feared the domino effect and worked with the U.S. to contain communism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. And again, historians recall Nixon’s opening to China that eased Sino-American tensions and ensured that the North Vietnamese victory did not work in favor of Chinese regional hegemony.
Paradoxically, the end of American involvement in Vietnam obliged U.S. leaders to turn their attention to other strategic issues, from the integrity of alliances to disarmament negotiations with Moscow. The difficult days of the South Vietnamese defeat ended with the emergence of a more productive American “soft power.” This can happen again with the renunciation of endless wars, the “forever wars” that suck America’s ability to contribute to global progress.
As in the post-Vietnam era, the U.S. has the opportunity to shape a regional order with Southeast Asian nations whose people who have no interest in seeing Afghanistan in the role of “sponsor” of a new terrorism. It is highly unlikely that the Afghanistan under Taliban rule will morph into a flourishing democracy. We should seize the opportunity created by exiting an interminable war to leverage the national interests of the regional powers
As historian Mark Atwood Lawrence argues, the challenge to Washington recovering its global position does not come from foreign leaders suddenly doubting the U.S. reliability. The challenge is domestic politics. Consider the speed with which the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, called the withdrawal from Afghanistan “one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history.”
McConnell will do anything to win back the Senate for the Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections. For him and his Republican colleagues, the solution, essentially, is to keep kicking the can down an endless road. For their part, most Americans know Biden did the right thing. Unfortunately, history is replete with leaders getting punished for doing the right thing. It’s entirely possible Biden will be one of them.