As President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam and the lifting of the arms embargo to that country represents his "pivot to Asia," his simultaneous killing of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the Taliban leader in Pakistan, and the U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s announcement of an assault to free Fallujah in Iraq illustrate why the pivot has not been realized.
The pivot is an attempt by the United States to contain China by supporting countries in East Asia against its rising power and also to augment U.S. military forces and bases in the region. Yet the pivot has never been fully completed because the United States has been bogged down needless nation-building wars in the greater Middle East for a decade and a half.
Obama, supposedly the antiwar president, has failed to recognize that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are unwinnable nation-building quagmires. The war in Afghanistan – of which the assassination of Taliban leader Mansour in Pakistan is a part – has surpassed the Vietnam War as the longest war in American history. Obama first surged US force levels there and then halted a promised complete withdrawal to continue the fight indefinitely against the Taliban with 11.000 American troops. In Iraq, initially, Obama wisely carried out George W. Bush’s timetable for complete American withdrawal and then decided to send US forces back in to fight ISIS (5,000 troops and increasing), which is largely a threat to the Mideast and Europe. Obama has also sent a limited number of US forces into Syria for the same purpose.
While in Vietnam, perhaps Obama should reflect on options for the Mideast by examining US policy toward the Vietnamese communist regime, which took over the entire country after the US withdrawal in 1973. In 1995, President Bill Clinton astutely buried the hatchet and established diplomatic relations with that odious regime. The Vietnamese regime remains autocratic, having undertaken only a few economic and almost no political reforms, while still possessing an abysmal human rights record. Yet the United States needs not only to talk to authoritarian regimes but to get along with them. Such a policy doesn’t mean the United States can’t monitor their human rights records toward specific dissidents and complain about it through diplomatic channels.
If the United States followed a similar policy in the imperfect countries of the greater Mideast, it would withdraw from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. As with Vietnam, none of these countries is strategic for US security, especially in light of the fracking boom that has restored the United States as the largest oil producer in the world. Furthermore, the United States needs to realize and accept that the resurgent Taliban eventually will have some role in the Afghan government and might even control it. All the United States needs to do is to make it clear that if the Taliban again starts harboring anti-U.S. terrorists, US air power (notice I didn’t say ground forces) will return to wreak havoc on the country. However, the Taliban, keen on survival, should have learned a lesson from its earlier harboring of al Qaeda: it was ousted by US military power.
In Iraq and Syria, the United States should again withdraw its forces, leaving regional and local actors to contain the threat from ISIS, which is limited in scope. If the United States continues to meddle there – which is why ISIS’s precursor group, al Qaeda in Iraq, arose in the first place – ISIS may focus its limited resources on trying to launch much more challenging attacks against the faraway United States. The Europeans should also encourage the US to leave Iraq and Syria, because they have been complaining about a flood of refugees washing up on their shores, yet don’t seem to realize the connection between that and US and European intervention there has further destabilized those countries.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, US leaders somehow thought the backwater country of Vietnam was strategic and became embroiled in a tar pit. The same is true today in the Middle East. As time passes, however, perhaps the United States will again realize that trying to change foreign cultures at gunpoint doesn’t usually work and deal with the imperfect situations that exist in other countries in more constructive ways.