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Echoes from the Past

News that President Obama is sending 300 military ‘advisers’ to help train the Iraqi army stirred a few echoes in the memory – and I for one didn’t have to delve too deeply to recall the source: Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy once sent military ‘advisers’ to Vietnam to help train that country’s inadequate army. 

And we all know what happened after that. 

It is unimaginable that Obama will make the same mistake as his predecessors.  And anyway this time the situation is quite different.  In Vietnam, the advisers arrived well ahead of the large-scale commitment of American forces; in Iraq the advisers will be treading in the footprints of substantial American troops, since withdrawn. 

Still, the parallels between the two conflicts may leave some observers with feelings of unease.

There is another similarity.  In Vietnam, President Diem was a hated and inflexible despot, a devout Catholic in a largely Buddhist country.  He was deposed, with ill-disguised American connivance, and was later assassinated.   In Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Mariki, a Shia who does not suffer his Sunni and Kurdish minorities gladly, is likewise widely despised for his intolerance. 

Mariki is reported to be under pressure from American envoys to step aside in favour of a more flexible candidate.  He might be well advised to lock his doors at night.

The analogies are even striking in military terms.  The Viet Minh, later the Viet Cong, made startling progress against the inept South Vietnam army and soon threatened the capital, Saigon, which, without American intervention, might have fallen years earlier than it did.  Now ISIS has seized the initiative against an apparently demoralised Iraqi army and has advanced within shelling distance of Baghdad.  American ‘special forces’ personnel are now being hurriedly inserted to restore order in the ranks.

Presumably Obama has learnt a few lessons from history and is unlikely to stumble into something he cannot control, as his predecessors did.  At least that’s what I imagine sensible Americans will be hoping.  And I doubt that even the loony Republican right will be baying for American blood to be spilled. 

The loonies may even come to accept that Iran, once a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’, must now be regarded as a contingent ally.  Even they can recognise that international crises have a habit of creating strange bed-fellows.  Acceptance of the Soviet Union as an ally of convenience against Nazi Germany presents an obvious example of the aphorism that the enemy of one’s enemy is a friend.  Just as disparate forces could readily unite against fascism, so they may now bring themselves to cooperate in fighting Islamic extremism.

One can only wonder what kind of quid pro quos might emerge from such an arrangement.  But Obama must surely be thinking that the Iraq debacle, in which he has played no part until now, might just present an unforeseen opportunity to dispose of two enemies at once.

The situation, in short, is terrible but fascinating.

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