Editorial: Don't ignore the past in the present fight against Islamic State

The Vietnam War ended on April 29, 1975. That was the day we watched the last Americans scrambling to climb aboard helicopters to flee Saigon. It was a stunning U.S. defeat.

The seeds of that defeat were planted years before, most notably on March 8, 1965. That was the day the first U.S. Marine combat troops landed in Danang, Vietnam. That action gave a civil conflict a global stage, forming Vietnamese patriots overnight.

If we had only understood.

In most respects, Vietnam and Iraq have nothing in common. In one essential matter, however, U.S. involvement in the affairs of these two countries has reinforced a singular lesson of modern warfare: the limits of overwhelming military power when it comes to influencing the course of a nation.

Vietnam is an important marker because it continues to haunt the national psyche. It was the war that demonstrated that a mighty power could be undone by the determination of a poor population in an underdeveloped nation. It showed that viewing the world only from a U.S. perspective, ignorant of others' culture and context, leads to disastrous results.

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If only we had learned.

Instead, we allowed the revenge fever that raged through the body politic following 9/11 to take over, and we quickly engaged in two simultaneous invasions and occupations. They demonstrated that we are unparalleled on earth in our ability to destroy and equally, dismally inadequate at influencing politics or changing cultures.

The drums of war are again beating loudly as a new threat -- the self-proclaimed Islamic State -- engages in a particularly vicious takeover of territory in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. is tempted once again to revert to a kind of reptilian revenge to assuage its anger over the unspeakable beheadings of two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker. We dance again with folly if we put aside the complex historic, social and religious realities that have brought us to this point as we skip to battle.

Now is a time for reflection, not bluster. We must weigh Persian Gulf complexities and the productive limits of U.S. military action. Iraq and Afghanistan are ongoing laboratories demonstrating the disastrous realities of the unintended consequences of contemporary warfare.

One way of understanding the complexities of our Middle East involvement is to consider the contortions of national purpose, not to mention conscience, that the U.S. must engage in order to retain Saudi Arabia as an ally.

Saudi Arabia, we are told, is now unnerved by the Islamic State phenomenon and its intention to create a caliphate, or political-religious state, across Syria and Iraq. We all are repulsed by the reports of beheadings in the name of an Islam that is actually a perversion of the faith.

The Islamic State, however, grows out of a strain of theology called Wahhabism, named after an 18th-century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Wahhabism found a home within Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, where some of the most extreme forms of Islam are practiced. The laws of the Saudi state are, to put it mildly, draconian, and Saudi politics less democratic than that of our professed enemy, Iran. The Washington Post recently reported that according to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia executed as many as 22 people within the space of two weeks last month, and at least eight of those were beheaded. Most of those executed had committed nonlethal crimes, and, said Amnesty, four members of one family were beheaded for "receiving drugs."

Are we kidding ourselves, then, in our selective moral outrage? Is this a case where images and American victims are necessary to provoke revulsion?

Do we want to rush to another protracted military commitment where the slippery slopes are being polished and are headed toward "boots on the ground," and where another era of unintended consequences lurks in waiting?

Islam itself is looking for a new Middle East balance as Sunni and Shiite sects wrestle with crumbling ecosystems, vexing social unrest often caused by endemic unemployment, and theologies attempting to come to terms with modernity. The West cannot provide the answers. These need to come from within Islam -- and they will. Whatever chances moderate Muslims might have in leading the way to find these answers will only be undermined by Western intervention, which in turn will undermine our own security.

"I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor," Pope Francis has said. "I underscore the verb 'stop.' I don't say bomb, make war -- stop him. The means by which he may be stopped should be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit, but we nevertheless need to remember how many times, using this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor, the powerful nations have dominated other peoples, made a real war of conquest."

That papal assessment appears to leave room for acting in limited ways on the demands of realpolitik as well as the state's obligation to protect its population. Stopping the Islamic State group will certainly require more than passively waiting for a conclusion. But prudence should govern the response, not resort to military strategies that will lead to endless, inconclusive conflict.

Let's understand and learn this time. Let's not set ourselves up for yet another demoralizing and costly foreign policy debacle.

This story appeared in the Sept 26-Oct 9, 2014 print issue under the headline: This time, learn from past debacles .

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