PENTAGON OFFICIAL: The Similarities Between Obama’s ISIS and Kennedy’s Vietnam Are Eerie

Joseph Miller | Contributor

Joseph Miller is the pen name for a ranking Department of Defense official with a background in U.S. special operations and combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked in strategic planning.

The war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is not a continuation of Operation Iraqi Freedom, nor is it Gulf War III: This is President Barack Obama’s Vietnam.

Early on in the Iraq War, political pundits on the right and the left began to draw comparisons to the Vietnam War because at that point, it appeared as though Iraq was on a glide path to becoming an unwinnable quagmire. The surge of U.S. forces ordered by President George W. Bush, however, was able to turn the tide against the insurgency and al-Qaida, allowing the fledgling Iraqi government to gain a foothold and establish its legitimacy.

But almost eight years later, Iraq has finally become what those pundits described– another Vietnam. And the historical parallels are eerily similar.

IN 1960, after a decade of war, the nation elected a well-spoken, young, good-looking, Harvard-educated Democratic senator named John F. Kennedy to become the president of the United States. Kennedy became the nation’s first Catholic president, which was viewed as a major victory at the time, given historical prejudices. Kennedy’s Republican opponents attempted to label him as too young and lacking the executive experience necessary to govern the nation, especially since the United States was in the middle of the Cold War. But those charges fell on deaf ears as the young, charismatic senator was able to woo everyday Americans through his rhetorical skills.

THE DAY KENNEDY TOOK OFFICE IN 1961, he inherited a foreign-backed insurgency in Vietnam that was being fought along sectarian and ideological lines. Thousands of U.S. troops were serving as advisers to the U.S. allied government forces of South Vietnam, which were fighting communist insurgents from the north of the country. At that time, it did not appear that the U.S.-backed government was winning.

IN 2008, after a decade of warfare, the nation elected a well-spoken, young, good-looking, Harvard-educated Democratic senator named Barack Obama to become the president of the United States. Obama became the nation’s first black President, which was viewed as a major victory at the time, given historical prejudices. Obama’s Republican opponents attempted to label him as too young and lacking the executive experience necessary to govern the nation, especially since the United States was in the middle of the War on Terror. But those charges fell on deaf ears as the young, charismatic senator was able to woo everyday Americans through his rhetorical skills.

THE DAY OBAMA TOOK OFFICE IN 2009, he inherited a foreign-backed insurgency in Iraq that was being fought along sectarian and ideological lines. Thousands of U.S. troops were serving as advisers to the U.S. allied government forces of Iraq, which were fighting foreign-backed jihadist insurgents from the north and west of the country. At that time, it did appear that the United States backed government was winning, but U.S forces would be required to remain in Iraq to maintain the gains made by the previous administration. Obama decided not to pursue a security agreement with the government of Iraq to allow U.S. forces to remain in Iraq — over the objections of the U.S. military. Two of Obama’s secretaries of defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta — a Republican and a Democrat, respectively — charged that the decision not to pursue a security agreement was political on Obama’s part, as he wanted to withdraw from Iraq.

Five years later, Obama finds himself where Kennedy did in 1963.

IN 1963, Kennedy tasked his senior military commander for operations in Vietnam, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, to conduct an assessment of the situation in Vietnam after insurgents made stunning gains against U.S. allied forces in the south. Kennedy worried that if left unchecked, communism could spread to neighboring countries and destabilize the region. McNamara, a former Ford president, was a man that Kennedy had come to respect and, thus, had the president’s ear.

THE PRESIDENT ALSO APPOINTED A SPECIAL ENVOY for Vietnam from the White House, Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs Walt Rostow. Rostow’s appointment to help coordinate the Vietnam effort was widely seen as an attempt to give the White House more direct control, insight and influence into military decision-making. After conducting their assessment, Gen. Taylor and Secretary McNamara concluded that the current U.S. strategy in Vietnam was not working. Accordingly, Taylor and McNamara made recommendations to Kennedy to triple the number of U.S. advisers in Vietnam, conduct a strategic bombing campaign against key targets in North Vietnam, and to secretly deploy thousands of U.S. forces to embed with the South Vietnamese army to fight against the North Vietnamese insurgents, and direct precision air strikes.

IN 2014, Obama tasked his senior military commander for operations Iraq and Syria, Gen. Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to conduct an assessment of the situation in Iraq and Syria after insurgents made stunning gains against U.S. allied forces in the south. Obama worried that if left unchecked, the ISIS could spread to neighboring countries and destabilize the region. Hagel, a former Chevron board member, was a man that Obama had come to respect and, thus, had the president’s ear.

THE PRESIDENT ALSO APPOINTED A SPECIAL ENVOY for Iraq from the White House, Gen. John Allen (ret.). Allen’s appointment to help coordinate the ISIS effort was widely seen as an attempt to give the White House more direct control, insight and influence into military decision-making. After conducting their assessment, Gen. Austin and Secretary Hagel concluded that the current U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria was not working. Accordingly, Austin and Hagel made recommendations to Obama to triple the number of U.S. advisers in Iraq, conduct a strategic bombing campaign against key targets in Iraq and Syria, and to secretly deploy thousands of U.S. forces to embed with the Iraqi army and Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS insurgents, and direct precision air strikes. (RELATED: Obama Has Spent More Time Playing Golf Than In Intel Briefings)

WARY OF ENTERING THE UNITED STATES INTO ANOTHER LAND WAR IN ASIA, Kennedy rejected the recommendation to embed U.S. forces with the South Vietnamese army and instead opted to conduct a strategic bombing campaign and deploy non-combat advisers only. As a condition for increasing support to South Vietnam, Kennedy demanded concessions from South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, who was widely seen as enacting and enforcing discriminatory sectarian policies that were alienating the religious minority Buddhists and the ethnic minority Montagnard peoples. (The Montagnards would prove to be a great ally of the U.S. military and fought bravely alongside U.S. forces.)

WHEN DIEM FAILED TO MEET THOSE CONDITIONS, Kennedy tacitly supported Diem’s overthrow to ensure a new president would come to power who could unite the people of Vietnam. However, shortly after its implementation, it became apparent that the new strategy Kennedy chose to pursue was insufficient to achieve the goal of destroying communism in Vietnam.

WARY OF ENTERING THE UNITED STATES INTO ANOTHER LAND WAR IN ASIA, Obama rejected the recommendation to embed U.S. forces with Iraqi army and Syrian rebels and instead opted to conduct a strategic bombing campaign and deploy non-combat advisers only. As a condition for increasing support to Iraq, Obama demanded concessions from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, who was widely seen as enacting and enforcing discriminatory sectarian policies that were alienating the religious minority Sunnis and the ethnic minority Kurdish people. (The Kurds would prove to be a great ally of the U.S. military and fought bravely alongside U.S. forces.) (MILLER: The President Is Lying To America — About Us, And About ISIS)

WHEN MALIKI FAILED TO MEET THOSE CONDITIONS, Obama overtly supported Maliki’s overthrow to ensure a new prime minister would come to power who could unite the people of Iraq. However, shortly after its implementation, it became apparent that the new strategy Obama chose to pursue was insufficient to achieve the goal of destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Which brings us to today.

In terms of an historic parallel, the administration finds itself in 1963: Obama faces nearly the same decision that President Lyndon B. Johnson did, when he opted to commit the series of strategic blunders that caused the U.S. to lose in Vietnam.

In 2014, the president’s options are to 1) Withdraw all U.S. forces; 2) Insert Special Forces to embed and fight alongside local forces; or 3) Insert U.S. ground forces to conduct the fighting.

Johnson opted — fatally — for option three, and inserted tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers into Vietnam. From that point on, the fight was American instead of Vietnamese. But Obama doesn’t have to go the same route that Kennedy and Johnson did, and in 2014, has a number of advantages his predecessors did not. He has at his disposal the lessons of Vietnam, the lessons of Afghanistan and the lessons of Iraq. He also has a professional, combat-hardened military with 15 years of counter-insurgency experience.

Rather than take over the war, the president should embed special forces teams with both the Iraqi army and the Syrian rebels to coordinate, lead and direct the fight against ISIS, with Iraqi and Syrian rebel forces doing the bulk of the work. These special forces teams can also call in close-air support to help clear ISIS from the cities the coalition has thus far been unable to rout them from. (MILLER: What It Will Take To Win The War Against The Islamic State)

This is exactly what the U.S. did in Afghanistan after 9/11, when special forces teams were able to organize and lead warring tribes to overthrow the Taliban. This would not violate the spirit of the president’s “no boots on the ground” line that has backed him into a political corner, because we know what Obama really meant to say was that he did not want to send U.S. infantry divisions to Iraq to engage in unilateral combat operations against ISIS. He will need to come straight with the American people if he wants to win, or even just move on. (MILLER: Obama’s Current Strategy Is Doomed To Fail)

And since the Iraqi government is already in place, the U.S. would not have to conduct nation- or state-building in Iraq after the fighting ends.

Syria is a more tricky situation, and the Obama administration must decide if it can live with Bashar al-Assad in power, or must find a real workable political solution, which at this point seems unlikely. If the administration chooses to support the removal of Assad, it should learn from the mistakes of the previous administration and realize the costs in terms of blood and treasure. (MILLER: Iraq A Symptom Of Larger Obama Failure — Syria)

Finally, once this is done, Obama needs to commit to what he failed to do when he withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011: train and mentor the Iraqi army until it is able to stand on its own (as the U.S. military advised he do at that time).

If Obama fails to take these steps, ISIS will likely launch a siege against Baghdad that will involve terrorist attacks against civilians to initiate a national sectarian war similar to the one that took place in 2006, when Iraq nearly collapsed. It also runs the risk of turning into a larger regional sectarian war, which will make it harder for Sunni allies currently in the coalition to continue their support for the effort against ISIS, and provide ISIS with a platform to plan and launch attacks against the United States. Domino theory, if you will.

ISIS is on Baghdad’s doorstep, Mr. President, and the time for action is now. Learn the lessons of history. And issue the order– before it’s too late.

Tags : barack obama david petraeus iraq isis john allen john f kennedy leon panetta nouri al maliki robert gates syria vietnam vietnam war
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