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Hither and Yon

U.S. At War Again

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
WASHINGTON — The eyes of the world are upon the new U.S. war in Syria and Iraq, and that’s not just because people want to know how or whether aerial bombardments and missile strikes are really knocking out the bad guys.
One question is whether such high-tech attacks from the air can suffice to defeat an implacable enemy. Look at the images shown on television by the top brass at the Pentagon, and you get the impression of an omnipotent force annihilating a fanatic foe without the need for really going in there and killing them on the ground.
Wait a second, though. Didn’t we seem pretty all-powerful in Vietnam when the military people staged those daily briefings in Saigon known as ”the five o’clock follies”? I can’t begin to recall how many briefings I attended, how high was the hype and how disappointing the results in the end.
The U.S. war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos probably reached its highest moment of optimism when President Nixon ordered U.S. forces to cross the border into Cambodia and hit the enemy in their headquarters, the Central Office of South Vietnam, a few kilometers over the line. I flew into Cambodia on a U.S. army helicopter the first day, returned to a base camp in South Vietnam to file for the Washington Star, then crossed the border again atop a U.S. army armored personnel carrier the next day. That evening I filed from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.
U.S. power never seemed so formidable – except that it wasn’t. Nixon limited the operation in terms of time, 60 days, and distance, 30 kilometers or so, and of course the North Vietnamese returned to their old camps as soon as the Americans withdrew.
This time around, the story is different. Obama swears “no boots on the ground,” we’ll do it all with those precision strikes by planes and missiles that are far more advanced, in terms of avionics, targeting, all that, than were the most sophisticated fighter planes introduced in Vietnam. We’ve seen the images released by the Pentagon showing how exactly U.S. missiles and bombs are striking facilities operated by the dreaded Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in their bases inside Syria.
But where is this war going? Will we still be seeing the same familiar images six months or a year or six years from now? Will this coalition of middle eastern powers prove all that effective or durable against ISIS fanatics skilled at drawing diehard killers from throughout the Arab world — and also from Arab communities in Europe, North America and Australia?
That question is just as vital as is the show of technological might the U.S. is putting on for the benefit not just of Arab terrorists but also for those who might contemplate stepping across a constantly shifting red line suggested by American policy-makers from eastern Europe, notably Ukraine, to the Korean Peninsula.
You may be sure that some smart military people in Pyongyang — beneath the level of the sycophants that troop around with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on his visits to military bases — are analyzing every clue they have of the accuracy and effectiveness of the U.S. strikes.
The fact that President Obama ordered the onslaught on the eve of his visit to United Nations this week shows his desire not just to impress the world by his determination to destroy ISIL and its terrorist affiliates. The lesson extends to the need to demonstrate the ability of U.S. military power to wipe out threats from Korea to the periphery of China as the Chinese threaten Japan’s hold on the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and stake their claim to the South China Sea as well.
But hold on. The U.S. may not be all that determined. The war on ISIL is running smack into demands from Congress for a vote on the whole thing — a showdown in which quarreling factions debate on whether to limit the U.S. attacks in terms of scope and time, whether to ban the use of U.S. ground forces, and whether to finance a campaign that’s bound to be extremely costly.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, summarized the issue in a talk that I attended at the Center for American Progress. “We can’t ask people to sacrifice their lives if we’re not willing to make decisions,” he declaimed. His solution: “a narrow authorization that basically supports the president’s policies” — with a one-year limit to the war and a ban on ground troops.
Sounds good, but who believes ISIL, Al Qaida and who knows what other groups will simply give up in the prescribed time period? We don’t have to go back to the Vietnam War to be aware that the bad guys will hang on, bide their time, wait for the time limit to expire – and go right on spreading terror as before.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com
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