As to the question of why the Iraqi army has been failing to stand and fight as the Islamic State advances, I have a theory. It’s not that the Iraqis are any less courageous than other soldiers around the globe. It’s not that the government is corrupt. It’s that they have read a long-ago editorial in the New York Times called “Commitment?”
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Not literally, of course, but they’ve divined the point. The editorial began with the sentence: “What, if anything, do the people and Government of the United States now owe to the people and government of South Vietnam?” The question, it went on to assert, “does not admit of an easy answer.” It reckoned the question was “entangled” in considerations of “ethical responsibility, political commitment, and strategic self-interest.”
Plus, it added, there were also the “ambiguities” of a “shared history between a very powerful nation and a very weak one.” It didn’t specify which — America or Vietnam — was the “weak one” (one could argue it round or argue it flat, as a wise old editor once put it). But the Times did then proceed to assert that “beyond the clear call of human fellow feeling” there “resides” the “hard and complex political question.”
Never in the history of editorial writing had there been such a plea for perfidy. But then, the Times conceded, “it is never easy to come to terms with failure and disappointment, even if it is the failure of an effort that was mistaken in its basic premises, as America’s involvement in Vietnam was.” It reckoned that America “made a fundamental miscalculation of its own national interests” in going to Vietnam.
The editorial was published on April 6, 1975. By April 15 the Khmer Rouge was in control of Phnom Penh, setting the stage for the death of millions in what became the killing fields of Cambodia. The Free Vietnamese were by then retreating — whole divisions at a time — from the Central Highlands. By the end of April, the communist conquest of South Vietnam was complete. In the subsequent years, millions fled Vietnam by boat or died in re-education camps.
It would be wrong to blame the New York Times for that. A lot of good people — and newspapers — had come by then to share the view the Times expressed in “Commitment?” But it would also be wrong to fail to appreciate the portents that long-ago moment holds for our own time, a point that I’ve been making for years but that has never seemed clearer.
What we’ve heard in recent days is that, as it was put in Thomas Friedman’s interview with U.S. President Barack Obama, “We’re not sending a bunch of U.S. troops back on the ground to keep a lid on things.” How eerily it echoes President Gerald Ford’s press conference of January 1975, when he was asked point blank whether there were “circumstances in which the U.S. might actively reenter the Vietnam war?” and he replied: “I cannot foresee any at the moment.”
Within weeks, Congress stopped resupplying Vietnam’s own military, and South Vietnam withdrew its divisions from the Central Highlands. The communists’ own divisions rumbled out of the jungle, some marching afoot, some traveling by tanks, some towing huge missiles behind tractor trucks. This is how freedom in Indochina — a region with the population of Eastern Europe — was lost for generations. It’s not clear yet that we have reached this point in Iraq. But neither would it be surprising.
Here is how it was put in the Times in the editorial “Commitment?”: “The events of recent weeks have sadly proved that South Vietnam could not prevail militarily unless helped by American bombing and probably also by American ground troops. Regardless of their lingering sense of obligation, the American people long ago rightly determined that those are heavy costs that they would not pay again in Southeast Asia.”
Could we have prevailed? There are those of us who think the answer is yes. We have had an army in South Korea for more than half a century, for a sixth as long as America has been in existence, and it’s still not safe to drawdown our forces. For those of us who are invested emotionally in Israel the lesson is for the Jewish state to strive for the independence and the capacity for self-defense in the fullest sense, as the Obama administration works through its “lingering sense of obligation.”
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.