WORLD MATTERS: Flood of Refugees exposes America’s fatal flaw: Impatience and democracy

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By Uwe Siemon-Netto

The flood of Middle Eastern refugees into Europe exposes a fatal flaw of the current democratic system in the United States.

The defect is the innate inability of the fast-paced American system to bring a long-drawn-out war against an unconventional enemy to a victorious conclusion. As Adelbert Weinstein, the brilliant military analyst of Germany’s renowned Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, commented in one elegiac sentence after the fall of Saigon in 1975, “America could not wait.”

Vietnamese boat people in 1979.
Vietnamese boat people in 1979.

Although these two events are separated by 40 years, there is a link between them, as I will show below. They differ in that while after the Communist victory in Indochina, America absorbed the consequences of its defeat by letting in the bulk of the South Vietnamese exiles, it now stands idly by as third parties carry the burden.

This year, Germany alone expects one million migrants mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Vice Chancellor Siegmar Gabriel. These men, women and children have escaped from the Islamic State terror that is the direct result of the Obama administration’s withdrawal its forces from Iraq. So far, the U.S. has accepted only 1,500 Syrians, while on one weekend alone 40,000 flooded Munich’s central railway station. Germany has had to call civil servants out of retirement to register them, while bloggers in the American media glibly jeer, “These people are Europe’s problem, not ours.”

Refuting criticism from a minority of domestic opponents against her generous welcome of refugees, Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “If we now must apologize for showing a friendly face in emergency situations, then this is not my country.”

The calamity enveloping Germany and all of Europe is not of Europe’s making, contrary to what self-proclaimed “historian” Bill O’Reilly claimed on Fox News Wednesday night, and what spiteful bloggers in American media outlets have been saying for several weeks now.

Rather, this drama mirrors in a wrenching way the boat people tragedy of 1975, after the United States had abandoned South Vietnam.

Back then millions of South Vietnamese fled their homeland and hundreds of thousands drowned in the South China Sea. The survivors were eventually given a new home in the United States and many other countries, including Germany, where they became successful scholars, professionals and entrepreneurs.

Today, Germany, Sweden and some other EU nations are largely left alone in this crisis they have not caused, while in much of the U.S. media — perplexingly mainly on the conservative side of the political spectrum — direct carping criticism at conservative Chancellor Merkel’s decency.

This, too, is a stanza in the swan song of contemporary democracy we are hearing here. One wonders whether in this twisted new version of democracy, decency no longer seems to be a permissible characteristic of government leaders; one only has to listen to some of the utterances by candidates in these early days of the U.S. presidential campaign.

What happened in 1975 in Indochina, and what is happening now in Europe, eerily confirms a prediction by North Vietnamese defense minister Vo Nguyen Giap who said, “The enemy (meaning, the West) … does not possess the psychological and political means to fight a long-drawn-out war.”

French political scientist Bernard B. Fall, the most astute expert on Vietnam in the 1960s, explained, “In all likelihood, Giap concludes, public opinion in the democracy will demand an end to the ‘useless bloodshed,’ or its legislature will insist on knowing how long it will have to vote astronomical credits without a clear-cut victory in sight.”

Fall continued, “This is what eternally compels the military leaders of democratic armies to promise a quick end to the war – to ‘bring the boys home by Christmas” – or forces the democratic politician to agree to any kind of humiliating compromise rather than accept the idea of a semi-permanent anti-guerilla operation.”

Fall wrote this in 1967. He was proven right in 1975 and is now proven right in 2015. There can be little doubt that Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Islamic State of Iraq and Levant “Caliph” al-Baghdadi have read Giap and Fall as well as the writings of Sir Robert Thompson, one of Britain’s chief strategists in the guerrilla war in Malaya that preceded the Vietnam conflict.

As head of the British advisory mission in Saigon, Sir Robert warned the Americans that weight of firepower, preponderance of manpower, and sophistication of equipment counted for nothing compared to the willingness to meet and defeat the enemy on his own terms.

Sir Robert succeeded in Malaya by following a strategy of “clear and hold,” i.e. providing secure areas for the civilian population.

But the so-called eggheads in the Johnson administration opted for the faster “search and destroy” alternative, throwing half a million GIs into combat, sending in B-52 bombers and defoliating the jungle with Agent Orange in the hope of ending the conflict in a time frame acceptable to an impatient electorate and media culture.

Sir Robert’s strategy would have probably prolonged the war by decades but caused infinitely fewer casualties, both military and civilian. It would also have resulted in victory, Thompson suggested later. “The Americans… did not have the patience for this sort of war,” he lamented.

More importantly, he bemoaned the doom of America’s loyal friends: “There is no concern here for the fate of the South Vietnamese who, encouraged by the American commitment, stuck their necks out against the Vietcong.”

And now it seems there is no concern for Iraqis, Afghans and Syrians in the same position. They are pouring into Germany, with American politicians and commentators caviling haughtily from their luxurious offices and studios faraway in Washington and New York.

Why does Sir Robert’s “clear and hold” strategy seem so impracticable in today’s catastrophic situation? Because it would mean that safe zones must be created in the homelands of the refugees from Islamic terror. And this would imply an extended Western military commitment, led by the world’s only superpower, on the ground, and expose the Obama administration, God forbid, to charges of neocolonialism.

Rather let Afghanistan, the Middle East and all of Europe go down the drain – and blame “feckless Europeans,” led by the Germans, for this turn of events. I fear that democracy will go the same way.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 58 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto is the founder and director emeritus of the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Capistrano Beach, California. In his most recent book, Triumph of the Absurd, he describes his experiences as a Vietnam War correspondent in the 1960s.

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