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The Vietnam moment in US Middle East policy

It is time for Washington to give up the ambition to remake the region and its regimes to suit its purposes
A US Air Force carry team transfers the remains of Master Sgt. Christopher J. Raguso who died in a helicopter crash in western Iraq on on 15 March, 2018 (Reuters)

Recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, and the difficulty the United States is experiencing in formulating a meaningful response, bring into focus a question Washington has skirted for years but has not had the courage of address directly.

Does the United States' deep involvement in the Middle East serve any purpose? Does it safeguards US interests and those of its allies? Does it make a difference?

Washington is as deeply enmeshed in the region as ever, but increasingly unable to make a difference

The Obama administration moved a timid step in the direction of questioning US involvement by withdrawing troops from Iraq and announcing a pivot to Asia, but the rise of the Islamic State group (IS) led to a renewed focus on the Middle East. As a result, Washington is as deeply enmeshed in the region as ever, but increasingly unable to make a difference.

It is time for Washington to admit this is the case, give up the ambition to remake the region and its regimes to suit its purposes. 

This is what the United States did in Vietnam in 1973, when it finally recognised that it could not win the war, signed a peace accord with both North and South Vietnam and withdrew. Two years later the North Vietnamese army overran the south.

Left to its own devices, Vietnam has since reformed, and today is a thriving country, with a growing economy, and surprisingly good relations with the United States.

Admitting that the Vietnam policy was a failure was a drastic and humiliating step for Washington, but also a courageous one that ultimately benefited the United States, Vietnam and its neighbours.

Abandoning the present failed policies in the Middle East will be equally difficult and humiliating, but it will be beneficial in the long run for the United States and the region as a whole.

A new policy

The attack on the Saudi oil facilities show the United States must embrace a new policy. It does not matter whether the attacks were launched directly by Iranian forces, by the Houthis in Yemen or by elements of al-Hashd al-Shaabi - the Popular Mobilisation Units - in Iraq, because Iran was ultimately responsible.

What really matters is that all the US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not prevented the attacks or even mitigated the consequences

What really matters is that all the US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the training of forces in the Gulf and Iraq, have not prevented the attacks or even mitigated the consequences. No evidence has surfaced indicating that weapons from the extensive Saudi arsenal were fired at the incoming drones and missiles.

Above all, it matters that the United States is not able to formulate a meaningful response that will make Iran pay a price for the attacks without leading to a new war, exposing US troops in the region to greater harm or opening Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to new attacks.

Posting a small number of US troops to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as President Trump is proposing will not make those countries safer -but the weak and hesitant US response is sending a signal of both a lack of commitment and powerlessness. 

Two choices

The United States has two choices if it wants to remain a credible actor in the region. It can increase its commitment and take military action against Iran, knowing it will probably lead to a new, long and unwinnable war. This is the pre-1973 Vietnam option.

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Or it can adopt the post-1973 Vietnam option, admitting that it is not its duty to help fight the Saudis’ battles for them, or to chase IS remnants in Iraq (it is Iran that wields more influence in that country), or to continue fighting the Taliban in an endless war in Afghanistan leading nowhere

This is not a call for a new isolationism. It is a call for a more realistic policy that reflects today’s reality, when the United States simply no longer has the overwhelming superiority of wealth and power that allowed it to dream of remaking the Middle East as it wanted.

It is a call for the United States to learn to protect its interests in the region as it is, through diplomacy, agreements and alliances, rather than through endless conflicts.

Such a policy shift will be better for the United States, but also for the countries that are encouraged by the illusion of a protective American umbrella to pursue their own unsustainable policies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Marina Ottaway
Marina Ottaway is a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a long-time analyst of political transformations in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. She is working on a project about the countries of the Arab Spring and Iraq. She has ten authored books and six edited ones. Her most recent publications include Getting to Pluralism, co-authored with Amr Hamzawy and Yemen on the Brink, co-edited with Christopher Boucek. Her latest publication is "A Tale of Four worlds: The Arab region after the uprisings", co-authored with David Ottaway.