The last helicopter from Baghdad.

As we embark on an attempt to salvage Iraq from both the misdeeds of its post-Saddam Hussein/post-American occupation government and from the claws of ISIS, here’s a cold, hard lesson from History.

After his election as president in November 1964 Lyndon Johnson increased American troops in the war in Vietnam to a maximum of 540,000 men. In January 1968 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) launched a massive offensive to coincide with the Tet lunar New Year celebration. The Americans and the South Vietnamese managed to defeat the Tet offensive on the ground, but not in the eyes of American voters. Up until Tet Americans had tended to believe the assurances of progress that were being made in Vietnam on the part by their leaders. Tet changed that. Now a majority began to doubt that victory was possible and that American leaders were telling them the truth about the war. In March 1968 President Lyndon Johnson announced a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, solicited peace talks, and announced that he would not run for re-election.

Peace talks began in Paris in May 1968. When they failed to make progress, President Johnson resumed bombing until the North Vietnamese came to their senses in October 1968. However, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon encouraged the South Vietnamese to block further talks until after the November 1968 elections.

Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey in the November 1968 election. Nixon’s goal was to extricate American forces from Vietnam without the whole house of cards coming down immediately. As his foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger put it, “We’ve got to find some formula that holds things together for a year or two [i.e. until late 1970 or 1971].” That formula appeared to be “Vietnamization”: shifting the chief burden to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). While negotiations with North /Vietnam continued, Nixon began to draw down American forces. By late 1971 the total number of American troops had fallen from 540,000 under Johnson to 157,000 under Nixon. Unsurprisingly, the negotiations went nowhere since the US was obviously withdrawing and the North Vietnamese could anticipate swift victory once the Americans were gone. In March 1972 Nixon unleashed a massive air attack on North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese gave in, negotiations resumed, and a cease-fire was declared in January 1973. Most of the remaining American troops were withdrawn by March 1973.

The Republic of South Vietnam survived until early 1975. Then the North Vietnamese attacked. The ARVN collapsed, and huge numbers of refugees-in-the-making converged on Saigon in hopes of being evacuated by the Americans. Many (6,200) were, but most were not. Saigon fell on 30 April 1975.[1]

What are the parallels, if any, between South Vietnam then and Iraq now? Neither government enjoyed much legitimacy in the eyes of at least a large minority of their people. Both governments were up against ruthless and competent enemies. There are limits to what can be accomplished by airpower. The American administrations that had to clean up the mess weren’t the ones who had caused it.

Perhaps the differences are more important. Having escaped the Indochina disaster, Americans refused to recommit when a new crisis arose. The world did not end.

[1] “Leaving Vietnam,” The Week, 9 February 2007, p. 11.



Between 2003 and 2008 al-Qaeda in Iraq came to play an important role in the civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites and in the resistance to the occupying American forces. However, they wore out their welcome with the Iraqi Sunnis. In 2008 the Sunni “Awakening” movement swung most of the Iraqi Sunnis against al-Qaeda in Iraq, while the American “surge” added to American strength in the fight. By the end of 2008 the remnants of al-Qaeda had been driven into Syria’s Raqqa province. Syria is torn by a different civil war, so it is in no position tp control its own borders. Here the defeated survivors split into quarreling factions. Al-Qaeda “Classic” lost the initiative to the more radical Islamic State (ISIS). ISIS went about building its power base by recruiting enthusiastic fighters. Many of them are volunteers from Muslim countries outside Syria and Iraq, and perhaps 500 of them come from Western countries. Estimates of the numerical strength of ISIS forces vary widely, from a low of 7,000 to 10,000 actual soldiers to a high of 10,000 to 15,000. ISIS also raised a lot of money through extortion and systematic kidnappings for ransom. In February 2014 al-Qaeda “expelled” ISSIS followers from its clubhouse. As if they cared.

In 2011 the United States withdrew the last of its troops from Iraq. This allowed Shi-ite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to reverse the course of Sunni-Shi’ite reconciliation that had paved the way for the defeat of al-Qaeda. When al-Qaeda renewed its attack in Iraq, many disgruntled Sunnis renewed their cooperation with the jihadists, while the Iraqi army had been degraded through neglect and corruption. Maliki and the Shi’ites had created a disaster.

In early 2014, perhaps 3,000 ISIS fighters invaded Iraq. Iraqi forces failed to hold them back. In June 2014 a small force of ISIS troops (estimated at 800) drove away in panic 30,000 Iraqi Army troops and seized the city of Mosul. Later they advanced toward Baghdad.[1]


To what extent should we worry about ISIS? The ISIS fighters appear to be professionally competent irregular soldiers with experienced commanders. They are adept at terrorism. They attract a good number of recruits from abroad. They have what looks to journalists to be a big war chest funded by crimes. They have the “momentum” so beloved of sports enthusiasts. They scare the living daylights out of a lot of people.

At the same time, they have won their successes in badly fractured countries whose professional soldiers were preoccupied and divided by other conflicts, and where there exists no political consensus. What happens if and when ISIS slams up against opponents with solid governments, real economic and military resources, and a disposition to fight? Turkey, Iran, and Israel form a cauldron in which the ISIS experience is likely to come to an end.

People will immediately scoff at this idea. Iran, Turkey, and Israel cooperating in spite of their bitter grievances with one another? A historical analogy is useful here. Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union all were at odds with one another before the Second World War. The common danger posed by Hitler’s Germany forced them into what Winston Churchill called the “Grand Alliance.” That alliance began to unravel as soon as the danger had passed.

Another historical analogy is that of Sino-Soviet relations in 1949. Americans assumed that the Soviets would alienate the Chinese. The Korean War then prolonged the Sino-Soviet alliance. Now some Americans assume that ISIS will alienate Sunnis. What if the unexpected happens, as it often does? Which historical analogy is correct, if either one is correct? Should the United States take the lead in solving this problem?

[1] “Rise of a terrorist state,” The Week, 11 July 2014, p. 9.