An all too familiar image is haunting the debate about Afghanistan: The Vietnam War. Thirty-five years after America's ignominious departure from the rooftop of the Saigon embassy, many in Congress are obsessed with the possibility of defeat and disgrace in another poorly understood country. If a little history is a dangerous thing in the hands of critics, the Vietnam syndrome is absolutely toxic. The foremost lesson of history is that history does not repeat itself in the exact same manner at every junction.
The curious and disturbing aspect of such historical exaggerations is that it is affecting those responsible for guiding US policy.
To be sure, the corrosive Vietnam syndrome seems to particularly trouble Democratic administrations. It was after all during the tenure of two Democrats, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, that the United States deepened its commitment to the Southeast Asian quagmire, discrediting American power, and scuttling a promising domestic reform agenda. As the Obama team focuses on health care and climate change, liberals once more fear that a distant conflict could engulf another promising presidency. To preserve the liberal hour they seek to avoid the liberal nightmare.
The Vietnamese success against an august superpower was indeed a remarkable achievement. However, it was an accomplishment that came about due to a fortuitous confluence of reasons: Hanoi's nationalistic credibility, its careful exploitation of the advantages of the Cold War, and a particularly arrogant and incompetent American military command.