I’d happily take a bullet for Matt Yglesias, but he needs to be called out on this:
DOMINOES AND IRAQ. The backdrop is too hard to summarize, but Kevin Drum is right about this. I’ll do him one better, though — the hawkish “domino theory” view of Vietnam proved to be largely correct in that lots of the bad consequences they thought would follow from losing the war really did happen. Pro-Soviet regimes took over not only South Vietnam, but Laos, Cambodia, and Burma. The Soviets were emboldened and sponsored a revolutionary movement in Central America that took over Nicaragua and seriously destabilized Guatemala and El Salvador. And while I forget the details, they also mucked about with no small degree of success in Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia. Anti-apartheid movements vaguely aligned with the Soviet Union gained strength in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The pro-Soviet governments of Syria and Egypt launched the Yom Kippur War and the Soviet-aligned PLO became a major player in Lebanese politics and launched a variety of audacious international terrorist attacks.
What what what?
If you read this as simply suggesting that bad things happened during and after the Vietnam War, yet the US survived, fine. If, however, you take Yglesias’ claim that “the hawkish ‘domino theory’ view of Vietnam proved to be largely correct in that lots of the bad consequences they thought would follow from losing the war really did happen”, then it’s indefensible.
In Laos, communist factions had been fighting neutralist factions sinc 1962 and before. They controlled the bulk of the country well prior to their official seizure of power in 1975. Their victory had not the faintest to do with increased Soviet hawkishness.
In Cambodia, the victory of the Khmer Rouge can be directly tied, not to the US withdrawal, but to the US decision to extend the battle into the Cambodian countryside and destabilize rural Cambodian society. The Khmer Rouge had some support from the North Vietnamese (for a while), lots of support from anti-Soviet China, and little support at all from the Soviet Union.
I don’t think I’ve ever even heard an argument that connects Egypt and Syria’s 1973 attack on Israel to US withdrawal from Vietnam. The reason I’ve never heard it is that the argument flies in the face of common sense. The Soviets supported those regimes well prior to US withdrawal, and those two regimes had good reasons for attacking Israel without the prodding of the USSR.
As for Central American and Africa, the Soviet Union had been mucking around considerably in both places well before the US withdrawal from Vietnam. To assert a causal link between US defeat in the Vietnam War and, say, the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua is to push the word “tenuous” a bit beyond it’s commonly understood meaning. Maybe “supratenuous”?
Domino theory depends on the notion that commitments are interdependent. If we fail to demonstrate resolve in one area, our enemies will attack us in other areas. Of course, even the most wild eyed of domino theorists tended to confine their analysis to Southeast Asia, and didn’t suggest that withdrawal from Vietnam would lead to the loss of Peru. Nevertheless, the causal mechanism is critical; the enemy must be assured that we will not resist in all areas by our decision not to resist in one. If they enemy is attacking us for other reasons, or if the enemy’s behavior is substantially unchanged, then Domino Theory isn’t working.
And that’s precisely what we’ve got going on here. Plenty of bad stuff happened in the 1970s, but virtually none of it can be tied in any compelling way to the withdrawal from Vietnam. It’s about as plausible to argue that the Paris Peace Accords led to the Yom Kippur War as it is to suggest that they led to the rise of disco. Domino theorists DO see a sinister conspiracy, emanating from Moscow, that assesses US capabilities and resolve, then acts accordingly by starting brushfires around the world. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of that happening, and there’s plenty of evidence that the people who launched these various brushfires did so for their own reasons and of their own accord, whether they could derive some support for the Soviets or no.
As a final note, let me suggest that, if I were Leonid Brezhnev, the experience of Vietnam presents multiple potential lessons. I could, on the one hand, come to believe that if the US were pressed long enough and hard enough, it would withdraw. I could come to believe that the US was one tough hombre, and would stick out an expensive, destructive war in an irrelevant part of the globe for eight years; imagine what they would do if they really cared!! Finally, I could learn that the US could be tied down in an expensive, pointless, and divisive war for a long time, and thus try to get the US tied down in other places. The point is that domino theorists only believe in the first lesson, and don’t appreciate that the facts fail to speak for themselves. They then understand every action the enemy takes as a direct response to our behavior, and not as the product of domestic factors, changes in the international system, or the outcome of long term historical processes. And this is precisely the mistake that Yglesias is allowing himself to make here.