The loss of Afghanistan has dealt an historic blow to America’s prestige. The damage is especially acute in the Middle East, where the majority of states — Israel among them — depend on the perception of American power. The victory of the Taliban, moreover, will encourage the Islamic radicals who seek to destroy Israel and overthrow moderate Arab governments. Captured American weaponry will likely find its way into the hands of Hamas and other terrorist groups, further threatening regional security.
Understandably, commentators have drawn the parallel between this week’s fall of Kabul and that of Saigon in 1975. Then, too, America’s global status appeared irreparably diminished. But rather than surrender to its Vietnam defeat, the United States launched a series of bold diplomatic moves that positively impacted the Middle East and laid the groundwork for peace. The Biden administration could do the same, greatly benefiting Israel and the region, while helping to restore America’s international standing — provided it chooses the right initiatives.
America in 1975 was a broken country, riven by dissention over the war and shattered by Watergate. Yet the nation was far from debilitated internationally. It mitigated the Cold War though the SALT anti-nuclear ballistic treaties and the Helsinki Accords, stabilizing relations between Eastern and Western Europe. At the same time, the US backed anti-Soviet forces in the Iraqi and Angolan civil wars. Less honorably, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger supported dictator Augusto Pinochet in his murderous takeover of Chile.
But the main focus of America’s post-Vietnam diplomacy was the Middle East. Israel was also reeling from war-trauma — the surprise Egyptian and Syrian attacks on Yom Kippur two years earlier — and the deaths of 2,600 Israelis. The country was psychologically and economically depressed, and highly vulnerable to pressure. Kissinger exploited that weakness and pressured Israel to cede parts of the Sinai Peninsula, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War and bitterly fought over in 1973, to Egypt. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin did his best to resist this browbeating, but following a White House threat to “reassess” the US-Israel relations and delay arms deliveries, he relented. Kissinger also courted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who restored his own country’s pride after the 1967 defeat and was eager to solidify his alliance with America. The result was the Sinai Interim Agreement, which led to the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel four years later.
Kissinger’s shuttles between Cairo and Jerusalem had nothing to do with the Cold War — both countries were well within America’s sphere — and everything to do with image. “Yes,” his diplomacy seemed to say, “the United States was humbled in Vietnam, but it is still the world’s premier superpower and willing to bring that power to bear.” The result was the establishment of a Pax Americana throughout much of the Middle East that would last for the next 40 years.
A similar sentiment could be expressed by American leaders post-Afghanistan. They could announce efforts to reanimate the peace process by encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and could redouble efforts to renew the Iran nuclear deal. Doing so, however, could further tarnish, rather than repair, America’s image. The Palestinian Security Forces, US-trained and equipped, could prove no more capable of defending a future Palestinian state than the South Vietnamese and Afghan armies were of preserving theirs. And the Iranian regime, much like the North Vietnamese and Taliban, would likely view its agreement with the United States as a greenlight to aggression. Arab capitals from Baghdad to Sanaa could fall.
No, the only way for American policymakers to achieve the necessary breakthrough in the Middle East is to recognize the ways it has changed since 1975, and even over the last few years. Israel is far stronger and more affluent than it was 50 years ago, no longer threatened by Arab armies and the Soviet bloc, and thus less vulnerable to American pressure. Most Middle Eastern leaders, meanwhile, do not have to be prodded toward peace. The region today has many potential Sadats — not in Ramallah and Tehran, but in Riyadh, Oman, and Kuwait City — and the United States has only to embrace and strengthen them. The US could convene a regional peace conference designed to expand the Abraham Accords and provide a workable framework for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The pictures of Afghanistan, though always painful, would be at least partially obscured by those of historic signing ceremonies on the White House lawn.
The question remains, however, whether the United States still has the will and resilience it displayed in 1975. Will it bounce back from the Afghanistan debacle by reclaiming its traditional role of peacemaker or will it continue to retreat from Middle East and the world, pursuing the isolationist policies of Presidents Obama and Trump? Will other powers — the Russians, the Chinese — fill the vacuum left by America’s withdrawal, dooming all chances for a breakthrough, and will Iran press its campaign for regional hegemony?
Every crisis may indeed be an opportunity and every tragedy the possibility of triumph. In the aftermath of Afghanistan, as in that of Vietnam, there exists the chance for initiatives that can bring far-reaching change to the Middle East, benefitting all the region’s peoples America’s self-confidence, and perhaps even its honor, can be restored.