The name George H. W. Bush was in the news twice this weekend. The first occurred because the former president celebrated his 90th birthday, in his usual, quiet way (taking a parachute jump). The other mention of Bush’s name was because the aircraft carrier named for the 41st President has been dispatched to the Persian Gulf in a desperate attempt to rescue Iraq.
Here’s what happened. A group known by the acronym ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant…sometimes referred to as ISIS, or Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham) has overrun several Western Iraqi towns like Mosul and is closing in on the capital city of Baghdad.
The speed in which this is happening is reminiscent of the final days of the South Vietnamese regime. Two years after the United States left, in the Spring of 1975, the North Vietnamese military zoomed through the country with surprising speed. The South Vietnamese military (known by the acronym ARVN) put up little resistance, leading to the phrase “going ARVN” as something akin to the performance of France in World War II in 1940. South Vietnam was led by a corrupt military dictatorship, which was why so few were willing to die for their regime.
This morning, a former army member was pressing me for answers when he learned what I did for a living. “What’s going to happen in Iraq? Does this mean we’re going back?”
The United States is torn between a pair of images. One is of President George W. Bush on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, with the banner behind him reading “Mission Accomplished.” That costly occupation long after the war was supposedly over has left a bitter taste in the mouth of many Americans, reluctant to go back to the Middle East. Even Fox News pounced on Republicans for blaming Obama for the whole mess. It is as Gen. Colin Powell warned us in the Pottery Barn analogy about Iraq: We broke it…we bought it.
The other of the images is of helicopters frantically evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese military pressed on to the capital in 1975. South Vietnamese wanting to be evacuated were desperately trying to make it on one of those last flights before falling into the clutches of the Communist regime, where they would surely be punished as traitors for supporting the United States. One of those lucky families who made it to a U.S. aircraft carrier had a tiny two-year old in their arms. She was my classmate in graduate school.
Though I agree with Fox News that the brunt of responsibility lies with Bush, a good deal of the blame deserves to be shouldered by Obama and his national security team. This was the outgrowth of the unresolved situation in Syria, and the decision of Obama (and Bush) to look the other way while an anti-Sunni government led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is reaping what he sowed, as the Sunni insurgency of ISIL is making the PM pay for fomenting sectarian struggles.
If we abandon Iraq, we abandon those who have worked to try and make Iraq a stable democracy, an improvement over prior bloodthirsty regimes. We owe it them to back them up with whatever firepower we can muster until a more inclusive government (like one led by Iyad Allawi) doesn’t allow ISIL to slaughter folks who trusted us to be there for them, as South Vietnam once did.
Otherwise, nobody is going to trust us when we promise to help them provide a government that might protect their political rights and civil liberties, from the Ukraine to Syria to Myanmar.