Published on August 16, 2021
As helicopters frantically evacuate Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan — an ominous echo from the fall of Saigon — the world is asking is what comes next for U.S. foreign policy. The loss in Vietnam was followed by years of U.S. retreats and defeats, culminating in the Iran hostage crisis. President Biden and Democrats in Congress must not allow that to happen again.
The Afghanistan tragedy is looking more and more like a replay of Vietnam. In both cases, the United States led a multinational alliance to hold territory for freedom. In both cases, the United States tried to create an army and country in its own image. Both nations were pushed to hold elections even though they had no democratic traditions or practices. They also created armies trained to fight like the United States’, a particularly egregious error since neither Vietnam nor Afghanistan could sustain the tech-heavy militaries they had been bequeathed. They depended on U.S. supply and expertise, and when one or both were withheld, they crumbled under pressure.
It’s no surprise, then, that people now wonder if the Afghanistan debacle foretells the decline of U.S. power. Vietnam’s fall was quickly followed by the fall of Cambodia and Laos to communist forces. The Soviet Union wasted no time in testing the United States’ resolve elsewhere. By November, Moscow’s Cuban proxies were sending more than 50,000 troops to Angola to ensure that pro-Soviet forces controlled the oil-rich former Portuguese colony. President Gerald Ford tried to send covert aid to those fighting against pro-Soviet factions, but the Democratic-controlled Congress approved the Clark Amendment in late 1975 forbidding such assistance. Angola quickly became a Soviet proxy.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.