Two and a half years ago, the specter of preemptive military action against Iran to halt its nuclear ambitions loomed. Citing President Lyndon Johnson's ultimately catastrophic decision to use the Tonkin Gulf incidents as the reasons for launching retaliatory air attacks against North Vietnam that would trap America in a quagmire, this column argued caution in not provoking an unnecessary crisis with military strikes. Fortunately, diplomacy has so far produced a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that, if fully implemented, will prevent Iran from ever obtaining nuclear weapons.
The lesson that should be learned is that every war the U.S. has started -- including the second Iraq War -- it has lost. And other parallels exist between President Johnson and the Vietnam War and President Barack Obama's promise to "disrupt and destroy the Islamic State." LBJ never resolved the contradiction between his desire to end the Vietnam War with his inability to win it. The tragic compromise was gradual escalation that led to the deaths of over 58,000 American service personnel and countless Vietnamese.
In early 1968, distraught and emotionally crippled by the war, Johnson informed the nation that he would not seek a second elected term "as your president." He was a beaten man. And Johnson's anguish over the war undoubtedly contributed to his early demise.
Obama cannot run for another term. And Obama clearly is not suffering from the same degree of anguish as Johnson did, in part because American casualties have been a fraction of the Vietnam War's and because Obama has made good on his campaign promises to extricate America from Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, for whatever reasons, the president has become defensive, lackluster in making the case for his strategy other than asserting it is working and, worst, unwilling to accept its self-evident failings in defeating IS.
In that regard, Obama and Johnson may share a common desperation in being unable to reconcile the contradictions that led to defeat in Vietnam and are plaguing the United States in combating IS. Ending IS rests in resolving three sets of contradictions that so far have been both elusive and largely ignored.
The first relates to eliminating the breeding grounds and the source for IS.
The second involves deciding whether the top priority is to eliminate Syrian President Bashar al Assad's rule or to defeat IS while reconciling common and conflicting interests with Russia and Iran, who currently have the largest anti-IS capability in Syria of any outside powers.
Third is balancing Turkish animosity towards the Kurds while utilizing Pesh Merga and other Kurdish forces to defeat IS.
Decades of unspeakable Sunni versus Shia and Shia versus Sunni violence in Iraq have metastasized IS. Unless and until reconciliation between the Shia majority and Sunni minority is established, IS will have a permanent source of recruits and a home base from which to expand. So far, the Baghdad government has been incapable or unwilling to reach accommodation with the Sunni minorities.
The administration cannot deliver on its demand that Assad must go as a prerequisite for defeating IS and at the same time rely on Russia and Iran to support the U.S.-led coalition against IS. The administration also argues, wrongly in my view, that Assad is the major factor in the rise of IS. But its bombing and drone campaigns are surely creating as many enemies as are being killed. Hence, these contradictions remain.
Last, the rift between Turkey and the Kurds limits the degree to which the latter can be used in the fight against IS.
Whether Obama is in denial over these contradictions or implacably believes that his strategy is working is unclear. It could be both. Yet, without recognizing these realities, Obama is repeating LBJ's errors that led to defeat and humiliation in Vietnam.
The next president will not be inaugurated for another 14 months. It will take at least six to 12 months for that administration to form and be fully capable of dealing with the crises and conflicts it faces, notably IS. Unfortunately, two years is too long to wait.
At best, the coalition is not losing the war against IS. At worst, as the Communist and Nazi parties succeeded in turning Russia into the Soviet Union and Germany into Hitlerism, IS could spread its Caliphate to other states in the region. This is not another hypothetical Domino theory that got us into so much trouble in Vietnam. But it is plausible and should worry us greatly. ________________________________________________________________________ Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist; Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC's Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security (BENS). His latest book is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace.
Since the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, the alliance has often been riven with dire predictions about its future viability.
That NATO survived the demise of the military threat for which it was established to contain -- the Soviet Union -- reflected reasons why global stability and security needed such an organization as a foundation for protecting and defending against the forces of disruption and violence. With a recrudescent Russia challenging the old order in Europe and non-traditional dangers in the form of the Islamic State and other Jihadi-inspired terror groups posing existential threats to the Middle East and disrupting Europe through the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the chaos in the region, a revitalized NATO would seem self-evident.
It is not.
Despite the actions taken at last year's NATO summit held in Wales to bolster defenses against potential Russian encroachment into Western Europe, many of NATO's members seem ambivalent or indifferent to the potential dangers emanating from the east and the south. While NATO maintains a small training mission in Iraq, the alliance is doing very little to contain and ultimately defeat IS. And the once powerful NATO contribution to the International Security and Assistance Forces in Afghanistan has, along with America's withdrawal of the bulk of its troops, become token.
With Russia's aggressive intervention into Ukraine and now into Syria and the establishment of a Caliphate by the IS in Syria and Iraq and the Paris bombings driving this home, where is the leadership in NATO advocating and calling for appropriate responses? Barack Obama preferred a "strategic pivot" to Asia and while his administration threatened to intercede in Syria if Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons against his countrymen. Obama then demanded Assad must go, but that belligerent rhetoric was empty. And leading from behind in the air campaign that forced Libya's Moammar Gadhafi from office and lead to his death ultimately provoked a civil war with no end in sight.
These facts raise the question of whether NATO is relevant to the 21st century or is really a relic from the past. To be sure, the Rapid Action Plan, new exercises and deployments to show resolve in the face of Putin's Ukrainian gambit and other steps, was initiated in Wales. Yet, virtually all these responses are tactical and not strategic or political actions to reset the alliance on a new course to deal with the issues, threats, dangers and uncertainties of the 21st century. It has been the senior military who have largely proposed these changes to counter and deter Russia, obviously approved by political authorities. But where and who are the political leaders arguing and pleading to adapt NATO to what a former Supreme Allied Commander termed this "new, new world?"
The answer is that these leaders so far are missing in action.
It is easier to spend rhetoric and words in response than to attempt to change the alliance's actual course. However, unless leadership emerges, NATO runs the real risk of becoming moribund. And failure to act after the Paris horrors further erodes NATO and the perception of a strong, functioning military alliance.
What should be done? Next year's heads of government NATO summit to be held in Warsaw provides perhaps a last opportunity to rejuvenate the alliance. A new overarching concept is not needed. But a change in strategy is.
To counter and deter Russia, bigger, more expensive weapons systems are not the answer. Instead, in the regions most vulnerable to Russian intimidation -- the Baltic and Black Sea states -- there should be a shift to what has been called a porcupine or hedgehog defense. This defense would be based on so bloodying any potential Russian incursion west, as to make such an undertaking too expensive. Armed with literally thousands of ground to air missiles such as Stinger and anti-armor weapons such as Javelin along with sea mines and other capacities to blunt an attack, this defense would be formidable.
The other alliance members of would provide supporting capability against Russian cyber, propaganda and economic tools and indeed could deploy even small numbers of forces to demonstrate commitment. Such a strategy would not incur huge costs and indeed might actually prove less expensive. However, work needs to start now.
Regarding IS and threats from the south, NATO could be used to promote a NATO-like alliance in those regions by expanding the Gulf Cooperative Council. Not to provoke Iran, as the NATO-Russia Council was originally created, a similar arrangement with Tehran should be pursued.
NATO is at a, and perhaps the most, critical juncture in its history. Will it be a relic? Or will NATO remain relevant? Only NATO can make that choice.
Dr. Harlan Ullman is chairman of two private companies; is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security (BENS); and sits on an advisory board for Commander European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe.