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Why Vietnam’s Two-State Solution Failed

Binyamin Rose

The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement carved much of the Middle East into future states that are now disintegrating amid the raging sandstorms of the Arab Spring.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


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Last October, at a town hall meeting for US citizens in Israel, Republican Congressman Raul Labrador of Idaho quipped that the US has better relations with just two countries since President Obama took office: Iran and Cuba.

Now we can add Vietnam to that list.

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On his visit to the Far East this week, President Obama announced he would lift America’s half-century-old embargo on lethal arms to Vietnam — a country the US warred with in the 1960s and 1970s, sacrificing 58,000 American lives in the process.

In keeping with his opening to Cuba, Obama received no ironclad commitments from Vietnam’s Communist rulers to safeguard human rights in a nation that has liberalized its economy but maintains tight control on political expression.

The Vietnam War remains one of the most destabilizing, demoralizing, and transforming conflicts in US history. Many historians trace the rapid ascent of the American political left, the steep concurrent decline in public morality, and the people’s permanent distrust of politicians, to the doorstep of Vietnam.

But the seeds of this disintegration were sowed at a peace conference in Geneva more than a decade before US troops ever set foot in Southeast Asia.

The Geneva Conference of 1954 convened to discuss both the recently concluded Korean conflict as well as the turmoil in Vietnam. The US, UK, France, the Soviet Union, and Red China were the main political players.

One outgrowth of the conference was the imposition of a “two-state solution” on Vietnam after a Communist insurgency in the north had succeeded in routing French colonial forces and establishing a capital in Hanoi under the rule of Ho Chi Minh.

Vietnam was to be divided north and south along the 17th parallel. The Communists would keep control of North Vietnam, while South Vietnam would fall into the Western orbit. The US effectively replaced France as South Vietnam’s patron even though the US never formally signed the Geneva Accords. Free elections were to be held within two years so that the Vietnamese people could make their own decision on self-determination, but the Geneva Accords had unraveled long before then thanks to North Vietnamese violations.

Even massive US military intervention in the 1960s and early 1970s could not keep the Communists at bay. By 1975, the US military had withdrawn, and North Vietnam imposed a “one-state solution” on the South, forcibly unifying the two Vietnams under Communist rule.

Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

One major lesson was revealed with the release of the Pentagon Papers, the name given to a top-secret Department of Defense study of US political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 and leaked to the New York Times in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg.

According to the study: “The separation of Vietnam at the 17th parallel was designed to facilitate the armistice, but in fact it also facilitated the development of two governments under inimical political philosophies, foreign policies, and socio-economic systems… if the Geneva Accords were subverted, the subverters were the Geneva conferees themselves, who postulated an ideal political settlement incompatible with the physical and psychological dismemberment of Vietnam they themselves undertook on July 21, 1954.”

The parallels of Vietnam in the 1950s to the Middle East are striking.

Much has been written, and many conferences convened this month, to discuss the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, a plan that carved much of the Middle East into future states that are now disintegrating amid the raging sandstorms of the Arab Spring.

“Sykes-Picot has a lesson for the present day, a simple and important one,” writes Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum. “Foreign powers must not attempt unilaterally to decide the fate of distant regions, and especially not in a clandestine manner. Rather than seek to impose their will on a weak, anarchic region, the powers should hold back and remind locals of their own need to take responsibility. Rather than treat Middle Easterners as perpetual children, outsiders should recognize them as adults and help them succeed.”

Diplomats are already packing their bags for Paris, to meet at the end of next week for yet another effort to foist a two-state solution on Israel and its unwilling Palestinian non-partner. They would be wise to take a copy of the Pentagon Papers to read while they sip a cocktail in first class on the jet to France. The description of two governments with inimical political philosophies and foreign policies is an understatement when applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which, in addition, exhibits an unbridgeable religious and cultural divide.

1,620: The number of American servicemen still listed as missing in action (MIA) in Southeast Asia –US Department of Defense

“Foreign powers must not attempt unilaterally to decide the fate of distant regions, and especially not in a clandestine manner” —Daniel Pipes

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