When America Abandoned an Ally

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As the Obama administration walked out the door, tributes from adoring media and entertainment outlets drowned out the accusations of abandonment emanating from erstwhile friends and allies of the United States. Syrians who wanted American help in saving Aleppo and Israelis who wanted the U.S. to side with them against Iran and the United Nations had the most immediate grounds for complaint. Ukrainians had been crying foul since 2014, when the White House made clear its unwillingness to honor the security guarantee issued by the U.S. two decades earlier. Since 2011, Egyptians had criticized the United States for pulling the rug out from under long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, paving the way for an oppressive Islamist regime that had to be overthrown by military coup. In Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of citizens who sided with the U.S. had been uprooted or killed because of the premature withdrawal of American forces.

Historians will probably need decades to describe in full measure the causes and effects of this fickleness. Joshua Kurlantzick’s “A Great Place to Have a War,” published more than 40 years after America gave up on its Hmong allies in Laos, gives an idea of how much more we are likely to learn as the years go by. It also suggests that the more we learn, the worse the abandonment will look.

Mr. Kurlantzick begins the story by explaining that France, during its imperial phase in Indochina, allied with Hmong tribes residing in the Laotian highlands. The martial prowess of the Hmong made them far better players in French divide-and-conquer schemes than the pacific lowland Laotians. In the 1960s, the United States backed the Hmong to cause trouble for the North Vietnamese Army, whose war in South Vietnam depended on the Laotian infiltration routes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Mr. Kurlantzick’s sections on America’s partnership with the Hmong are generally accurate and informative. He draws the proper contrast between the two central American figures in the drama, Bill Lair and William Sullivan. Lair, a CIA officer, had forged the U.S.-Hmong alliance by virtue of his love for the Hmong people and his friendship with Hmong leader Vang Pao. Sullivan, the American ambassador to Laos for much of the period, had no particular affection for the Hmong and saw them as useful insofar as they advanced U.S. interests and his own career.

On the Hmong side, the key role belonged to Vang Pao, a man of immense charisma and military talent who led from the front in hundreds of battles and somehow survived. From 1960 to 1975, his Hmong guerrillas inflicted fearsome losses on the North Vietnamese, compelling Hanoi to divert divisions of troops from the war in South Vietnam. But the Hmong could not hold territory indefinitely against large enemy formations and hence could not keep the North Vietnamese from their main objective—moving men and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

When it comes to the international context of the Laotian conflict, the book goes astray. The 1962 Geneva Accords on Laos, Mr. Kurlantzick states, were supposed to neutralize Laos by removing all foreign armed forces, meaning both U.S military advisers and 9,000 North Vietnamese Army troops. But, he writes, “all of the signers ignored the accords.” The United States consequently “opted” for “a covert war in Laos,” employing the CIA to support the Hmong.

Mr. Kurlantzick neglects to mention that the United States initially complied with the Geneva Accords. All American personnel left Laos. On the other side of the ledger, a mere 40 of the 9,000 North Vietnamese troops departed. The Kennedy administration opted for a covert war as a result of North Vietnam’s duplicity and aggression, a fact that casts later American actions in a more favorable light than the one shone by Mr. Kurlantzick.

In the early 1970s, Congress slashed aid and air support to the Hmong, sealing their fate. Among Democrats, any effort to assist the Hmong, or other Laotian anti-communists, was tainted by the connection of the Laotian conflict to the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. And congressmen from both parties soured on Laos as a result of White House secretiveness and dissembling about America’s military involvement—a point worth remembering today, given the proliferation of covert warfare.

Americans also lost interest in the nation’s Indochinese allies because of the perception that they were no longer crucial to American interests. By 1975, the U.S. had attained its original objective of preventing all of Southeast Asia from falling to communism. The Hmong could be written off as expendables under the logic of Lord Palmerston’s proverb that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”

The Ford administration decided on cold-blooded abandonment. When, in the dying moments of the war, Vang Pao asked the Americans to evacuate his fighters, the White House replied that America would evacuate only Vang Pao and a few hundred other Hmong. CIA personnel in Laos disregarded what they considered an appalling decision and arranged for the transportation of 2,500 Hmong to Thailand.

In the late 1970s, substantial numbers of Hmong refugees reached the United States, where stark cultural differences and low educational levels put them at a disadvantage in relation to other immigrant groups. They nonetheless fared better than the 400,000 Hmong remaining in Laos, whom the Laotian communist regime persecuted as enemies of the state.

Mr. Kurlantzick endeavors to depict the Laotian project as the wellspring of a burgeoning CIA paramilitary branch. To make his case he must, among other things, ignore the gutting of the CIA paramilitary staff after 1975 and conflate the intelligence work behind recent drone targeting with paramilitary duties. He neglects a more momentous legacy of the Laotian debacle: the damage to American credibility.

The forsaking of the Hmong and of Laos in general—along with the far larger abandonment of South Vietnam—spawned doubts that the United States would stick by its allies elsewhere in the world. The events of the past eight years have had much the same effect. Ronald Reagan showed that the U.S. can restore its credibility, but it took skill, vision and perseverance to do so then, and it will surely take more of the same to do so now.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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