Is Syria America's next Vietnam?

Story highlights

  • Sean Kennedy: America's involvement in Syria mimics its war in Vietnam in key ways
  • Vietnam holds lessons for strategy, tactics, diplomacy, and politics, he says

Sean Kennedy is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He previously worked as a U.S. Senate aide, television producer and fellow at public policy think tanks. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)President Barack Obama made headlines late last month when he ordered 50 U.S. Special Operations forces to "train, advise and assist" anti-ISIS forces in Syria. Adding to the thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq on a similar mission, American involvement in the Levant is growing eerily similar to its mission creep in Indochina decades ago.

Sean Kennedy
At Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate, meanwhile, candidates appeared to be falling over themselves to commit more forces to the region. Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, for example, both called for the introduction of a no-fly zone in Syria (a move that would also require ground forces), while Ben Carson called for the taking of a "big energy field" in Iraq.
But those running for president, on both sides of the aisle, need to ask themselves this: "Do I want to inherit a second Vietnam, a geopolitical morass that, like quicksand, only pulls you down deeper the harder you try to pull yourself out?"
    True, Syria is not Vietnam. In fact, it could end up being much worse, not least because instead of two broadly definable camps with (relatively) defined strategic and tactical objectives, Syria's war involves dozens of local and regional actors with shifting allegiances and often unidentifiable strategies. As a result, Syria makes the three-dimensional chess played by superpowers back then look quaint.
    Still, in fundamental ways, America's involvement in Syria mimics its war in Vietnam, fought a half a century ago. Like President Obama and his western allies, President Eisenhower issued what were tantamount to red lines against a rogue regime that was not complying with international agreements. In turn, the United States escalated its offensive capacity in the region and on the ground as a "deterrent" to further provocations, initially to support allies faced with aggression from an unqualified evil -- in that case, international communism.
    In the late 1950s, Eisenhower sent in advisers -- the Green Berets and the CIA -- to do precisely what the Obama administration pledges Special Operations forces in Syria will be doing: train, advise, and assist. They won't be in direct combat, we were told in the mid-1960s. It didn't constitute "boots on the ground," they said.
    Lo and behold, those were empty promises. The slow build-up of a few hundred Green Berets and CIA agents, which took place without Congressional authorization until 1964, became a few thousand. By the time of President Kennedy's assassination, some 20,000 Special Forces were permanently at war in the jungles of Indochina.
    President Lyndon Johnson's hollow promise that "We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves" echoes Obama's statements today.
    "I have been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq with battalions and occupations," the President said on announcing this latest escalation. "That doesn't solve the problem."
    This statement doesn't seem exactly consistent with what President Obama told the country in August 2013: "This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I'm confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out."
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    The Russian-Iranian intervention on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even as the United States eyes his removal as it also battles ISIS, makes the parallel even eerier, for we now know Soviet and Chinese soldiers and pilots were secretly backing the Vietnamese communists, against whom the United States was stepping up its campaign.
    In addition, the "re-unification" of Vietnam spurred a refugee crisis of epic proportions, much like the one being generated by Syria today. Millions have tried to escape. Hundreds of thousands have succeeded. Many have, in the process, suffered horrific deaths.
    The biggest similarity between now and five decades ago is that both interventions have geopolitical implications that stretch beyond the immediate conflicts. After all, an American humiliation in Syria would be a huge victory, not just for elements indigenous to Syria, but also for foreign powers allied against the United States.
    But Vietnam was not just humiliating. It was a black mark on American integrity in terms of the way the war was pursued, the way our allies were treated, and the way our promises went unfulfilled. As President Obama leaves office, the question remains, will his successor clean his plate or order a new course?
    Ultimately, "Vietnam" lingers as a watchword in the American psyche -- as it should, because it holds lessons for strategy, tactics, diplomacy, and politics. Sadly, it seems that because no one wants to properly revisit that painful story, we are doomed to repeat it.