What Vietnam Must Teach Us about North Korea and Iran

by Robert E. Hunter

In international politics, serendipity sometimes plays an instrumental role. That happened this past week, with President Donald Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly, mutual name-calling between him and Kim Jong Un of North Korea, and harsh comments from Iran’s Supreme Leader, plus an Iranian ballistic missile test. Thus, tensions have risen significantly in the two places where crisis could most readily morph into major war.

Also, this week, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick began airing on PBS their 10-part series on the Vietnam War. For many Americans under 50 years of age, this is their introduction to that most fraught of national experiences. For those of us who were of age during the war, these films brought back not just the memories but also the divisions in American society. For some, the documentary has reignited old debates and hard feelings.

The timing of the documentary’s airing is serendipitous because the Vietnam War is a cautionary tale for our leaders as they cope with current crises and the possibility of additional open conflict in our generation. That Trump and Kim have characterized one another as insane—to paraphrase—is deeply unsettling and leads one to pray that they are speaking more for effect than for action. Nevertheless, as Burns/Novick relate, misinterpretation or just plain error can have major consequences. Such was the “Tonkin Gulf Affair,” which most analysts now agree never took place—though working in the White House at the time, this author wrongly believed that it did happen. It produced the first dramatic escalation of the war, based on the carte blanche Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson and that was also used by his successor, Richard Nixon.

Americans naturally tend in the heat of the moment to believe their leaders about what is happening abroad, including the casus belli that can lead to war. Only later is it possible to assess calmly whether the U.S. governments did something that benefited American security, like the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, or that just produced lasting damage, like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

North Korea’s Unambiguous Threat

North Korea’s leadership is bent on achieving the ability to attack the mainland United States with nuclear weapons, if for no other reason than to deter a US attack on the DPRK. In terms of their national interest and for the Kim Jong Un clique, this makes sense, given that until recently overthrowing the regime in Pyongyang has been U.S policy, in fact if not always in rhetoric. To be sure, a nuclear capacity for deterring the United States is only reinsurance, since North Korea has long had the capacity to destroy Seoul, the South Korean capital, with conventional weapons.

If the increasing stridency of President Trump’s statements on the North Korean leadership is primarily an attempt to convince China to take decisive action to keep the DPRK from further developing its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, he must be calculating that at some point Beijing will be willing and able to prevail in Pyongyang. Far from clear, however, are both China’s willingness to act and its capacity to succeed. The willingness may prove to be there: China’s biggest fear must be that, if it fails in getting Kim to back down, either South Korea or Japan will get their own nuclear weapons.

U.S. options are frankly limited. Whenever national security is at stake, as the North Koreans must believe is true for them, economic sanctions are useless. The historical record on that point is unambiguous.

A way might exist to induce North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons activities. But at the very least it would require ironclad guarantees of regime survival in Pyongyang—where increasing US pressure on Iran, despite its effective renunciation of nuclear weapons, means that we have zero credibility in Pyongyang. China, the only country with any chance of getting Kim to change his behavior, would want to extract a hefty price from the US. Beijing has long wanted a major ratcheting down of US military presence and activities in and around Korea, as well as greater tolerance for Chinese claims in the South China Sea. It might ask for even more for helping the United States out of its current security dilemma—if indeed even China can prevail with Kim Jong Un.

The prospects for the United States are not auspicious as it tries to deal with the DPRK’s current drive toward a nuclear capability that could threaten the US homeland. In addition to the complexities of making deterrence of North Korea effective, the American public would be deeply unsettled by the possibility that a purported madman might not in fact behave rationally.

Meanwhile, Confronting Iran

The confrontation between the US and Iran, highlighted by Trump’s UNGA speech and Iran’s responses, is less immediately threatening: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed two years ago, puts off for at least a decade any realistic threat of an Iranian nuclear capability. But US critics of the agreement, buttressed by provocative Iranian activities in the region that do not relate to nuclear weapons, believe it is necessary to put increased pressure on Tehran. Trump has even spoken of perhaps requiring the JCPOA to be renegotiated if not abrogated. He is once again calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

Trump is wrong: every serious and unbiased analyst understands that the agreement is one of the most important steps in years in advancing US regional security, as well as that of countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, if Trump does walk away from the JCPOA, these two countries are likely to rue the day as regional tensions would spike, while the US president would also further isolate the United States from key allies abroad. (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says that Trump has made his October decision on whether to recertify that Iran continues to be complying with the JCPOA, despite confirmation by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But, according to Tillerson, the president will only determine later when to reveal the decision: “let the dust hit the ground where it hits”)

In practical terms, the US confrontation with Iran has moved beyond the nuclear weapons issue to embrace its work on ballistic missiles, which the UN Security Council resolution on the JCPOA expressed in an annex as follows: “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons [emphasis added].” Yet this non-binding formulation is often misrepresented in the US as a “requirement” and the basis for reneging on sanctions-relief mandated by the JCPOA.

US concerns with Iran’s regional activities also include its support for Hezbollah (primarily an Israeli concern) and for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, plus its interference in Yemen and support for dissident elements in Bahrain. As Trump said, this makes Iran the most destabilizing country in the Middle East, a theme regularly echoed by senior administration officials.

That characterization of Iran’s uniqueness or at least primacy as a destabilizing factor is open to debate. There are alternative views. One is that the war in Yemen represents first and foremost Saudi Arabia’s decades-old ambitions, which it is pursuing with massive killing of civilians and aided by US military power; and the crisis in Bahrain derives from Saudi support for the minority Sunni leadership’s brutal repression of the Shia majority. Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war is primarily a product of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, one of the worst foreign policy mistakes in American history, which overthrew the Sunni-minority government in Shia-majority Iraq. Viewed against this background, attempts to overthrow Assad are Sunni “payback time” against an Alawite (Shia variant) minority in mostly Sunni-majority Syria. The US has thus taken sides both on the Sunni side in the classic struggle with the Shia and the geopolitical ambitions of some regional countries that often do not align with US interests, properly understood. Neither serves US security interests.

Precedents for Trump Policies

At the same time, US critics of Trump’s stridency at the UN General Assembly must recognize that his actual policies regarding both North Korea and Iran are direct extensions of Obama administration policies, with the one exception of the JCPOA with Iran, Obama’s landmark achievement. Trump makes more “noise,” but he is following the precedent set by some members of Obama’s team and their “slow-rolling” in reducing sanctions against Iran as required by the JCPOA and their searching for other reasons to keep Iran isolated. Efforts in both the Obama and Trump administration that have scotched hopes that the JCPOA might permit an easing of tensions with Teheran are strongly supported by US partners in the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, buttressed by their supporters in the United States.

Indeed, the narrative that Iran is the worst actor in the Middle East is now sunk deeply into US political culture, as happened regarding Vietnam—e.g., the “domino effect” of communist advance in Southeast Asia. This embedding of anti-Iranian attitudes has become so prevalent that even U.S. supporters of continuing the JCPOA must in the same breath list Iran’s sins, to the point of arguing for “enhancing sanctions that punish Iran’s non-nuclear misbehavior,” even where that could lead the U.S. to violate the nuclear agreement.

Notably, while Trump castigated Iran at the UN and referred in general to the threat from terrorism—“It is time to expose and hold responsible those countries who support and finance terror groups”—he stopped short of naming the chief culprit, Saudi Arabia, and its fostering of Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world. Yet that is the primary cause of Islamist terrorism extending from Africa through the Middle East, to Southeast Asia, including Pakistan and Afghanistan—where the Saudi-inspired Taliban every day threaten US military personnel. As a Shia country, Iran is not involved in this Sunni-based terrorism.

Key Challenges to US Decision-Making

Part of US alienation from all-things-Iranian can be explained by the fact that, for many years across three administrations, the US has increasingly ceded a significant role in determining its Middle East policies—with the JCPOA exception—to its regional partners. Too often, Riyadh and Jerusalem have had a critical impact on US regional policy, even when this is arguably at variance with US national interests. Not since the so-called China Lobby distorted pursuit of American interests regarding the People’s Republic of China—until Richard Nixon, a principal “arsonist,” went to Beijing in 1971 to begin “putting out the fire”—has US foreign policy in a major region of the world been so influenced by domestic lobbies that have convinced themselves that supporting the interests of foreign governments is also best for the United States.

Finally, as the United States confronts serious challenges both on the Korean peninsula and across the Middle East, the “lessons of Vietnam” again come to mind. As the Burns/Novick PBS series demonstrates, in issues of war and peace leaders under the pressure of events and of popular concerns often get it wrong. Nor is this just a matter of “civilian control of the military,” where three of President Trump’s four cabinet-level national security officials are military men. (Meanwhile, the fourth, the secretary of state, had no background in national security when taking office and still does not have a full team in his department.) Yet the military officials in the Trump administration have worked hardest to temper the president’s behavior, though so far unsuccessful in tempering his talk and tweets, and are chary of any new conflicts. Burns/Novick also suggest that, while US military commanders continually pressed for escalation in Vietnam, civilian leaders led the way in getting the nation deeply mired there and elsewhere in Southeast Asia and thereby failed the nation.

In sum, there is a political climate in Washington and the country, fostered by the president, some other political leaders, and much of the media, that works against gaining and sustaining the perspective and sound judgment needed to avoid a “Vietnamization” of today’s two preeminent threats to peace.

The United States can begin to work its way out of the escalating crises in Korea and the Middle East, but only if the leadership in Washington learns from history and breaks with attitudes that, as with Vietnam, can blind us to pursuit of our true national interests—following Abraham Lincoln’s admonition to “disenthrall ourselves.” The alternative is to become prisoner of preconceptions, ignorant both of realities and alternative policies, however half-a-loaf they may be, that can enable us to avoid conflict with both North Korea and Iran and to begin pursuing sensible security policies in two key regions of the world. Doing so would also help to restore faith on the part of America’s allies that good sense and enlightened leadership can again prevail in Washington.

Photo: U.S. soldiers wounded in the Vietnam War (1967).

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Columnist, commentators, and even some diplomats, are well intended, but bottom line, may be more kibitzers in a bridge game, or the Greek choir off stage in a play. They may hold cards in their hands, but are more Charlie MacArthys mouthing the words of others, strumming the emotions of the audience – in a democracy, the hoi poloi. Success can be rationalized as the product of serendipity. Most days, when the possibility of a destructive war looms, the winner is one with the luck of the draw. Nowadays, given nuclear weapons, odds are no one will win. In Vietnam, the force fields of survival, ego, and attrition combined to end in the war in stalemate. Call it serendipity. My senses call it a waste.

  2. President Johnson did not believe the Tonkin Gulf stories because he knew there was no such thing as North Vietnam-North Vietnam was a media myth to make money, such as the “Cold War” was. No such thing so President Johnson did nothing about the stories. President Nixon had nothing to do about the Tonkin Gulf stories because the US was at peace when he took office.

Comments are closed.