Last June, more than three years after declaring “mission accomplished” in Iraq, President Bush made a secret flight to Baghdad to meet the new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. That his visit was both surreptitious and brief spoke volumes about the level of security in the Iraqi capital. Despite the blitzkrieg victory of 2003, and occasional tactical successes since (the battle of Fallujah in 2004, and the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, at the time Bush met al-Maliki), the most powerful man in the world was forced to travel in and out of Iraq virtually incognito. This image and the reality behind it are troubling, and revealing.
Since June, attempts by the Bush Administration and the al-Maliki government to improve security in Baghdad and throughout Iraq have fallen flat. A new program to clean up the situation in Baghdad was announced by al-Maliki at the time of the Bush visit, and additional U.S. forces were brought in to reinforce the effort. It is palpable that this effort to secure (1) Baghdad has failed.
Even so, the administration and its supporters continue to urge more of the same. In a Washington Post op-ed piece on Sept. 12, Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, and Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, called for yet more U.S. troops to be deployed to Baghdad. They were, however, unable to adduce any real evidence that such a policy would be effective. Additionally, they ignored the fact that our forces are already woefully overstretched around the world, making a further concentration on Baghdad problematic, to say the (2) least.
Elsewhere in Iraq, outside of the Kurdish area, deterioration continues apace. A Marine Corps intelligence assessment, dated Aug. 16, 2006, declared al-Anbar province, the vast Sunni area to the west of Baghdad, for all intents and (3) purposes lost. In the Shiite south, militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Arm)T, backed by Iran, hold sway. Iraq is falling apart before our eyes, and there appears to be nothing we can (4) do about it.
My home state, Vermont, leads all states in per capita soldier deaths in Iraq. We Vermonters, as much as anyone, want to see the light at the end of the Iraq tunnel. But, as in Vietnam, it simply isn’t there.
The parallels with Vietnam are by no means exact. South Vietnam in the 1960s and Iraq today are different in important ways – geographically, ethnically, and culturally. The level of U.S. involvement in Iraq falls well short of our commitment to South Vietnam, where we deployed over 500,000 troops and suffered some 58,000 Americans killed – many times the current total in Iraq. Civilian casualties in Iraq, horrific as they are, cannot (at least not yet) be compared to the hundreds of thousands of casualties suffered by the Vietnamese civilian population between 1965 and 1975. There is no U.S. air campaign against those supporting the insurgency from outside the country our troops are fighting in, as there was against North Vietnam. This having been said, there remain striking similarities between Vietnam then and Iraq now.
Both South Vietnam and Iraq are artificial constructions, pseudo-nations as opposed to organic nation-states. Each was created by one or more of the great powers during the waning years of western world domination. In the case of South Viet-
Despite the blitzkrieg victory of 2003, and occasional tactical successes since, the most powerful man in the world was forced to travel in and out of Iraq virtually incognito.
nam, a unitary state (i.e., Vietnam) was arbitrarily split in two by the great powers at the Geneva Conference that followed the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu (1954). Iraq, conversely never made sense as a unitary state. It was cobbled together by the British out of distinct Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish territories following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
The differences in their individual creation stories are, however, essentially irrelevant. The key thing to realize is that both South Vietnam and Iraq were neocolonial enterprises that could be maintained only by force. Recall that once South Vietnam lost U.S. support, it fell almost immediately to the North (the North Vietnamese Communists, whether we like to admit it or not, were, for all their brutality, the embodiment of Vietnamese nationalism). Iraq has been kept in existence first by British power, then by the iron fist wielded by Saddam Hussein, and now by American boots on the ground. When those boots depart, centrifugal pressures will cause the Iraqi body politic, already rent by ethnic and religious differences, finally to fall apart. When we are gone (and we will have to leave at some point) the pseudo-nation Iraq will vanish from the map, just as South Vietnam did. The result, so far as the U.S. is concerned, will be the same as in Vietnam: failure to achieve our objectives, leaving a situation worse than the one that existed before we intervened.
What future can anyone seriously envision for an Iraq on its own, other than sectarian strife and de facto or de jure partition, with Iran, patron of the Iraqi Shiites, the great gainer? When U.S. troops leave, Sunni and Shiite and Kurd will not lie down together, except in death. The hope for western-style pluralism and democracy is just that, a hope. What basis anyone had for expecting democratic pluralism to take hold in Iraq, I have been unable to discover. Nation-building must fail where there is no national foundation to build on.
There are definite, almost eerie parallels between U.S. policy in South Vietnam during the 1960’s, and Iraq since 2002-2003. Let’s start with deception. While it remains unclear to this day why Lyndon Johnson, resoundingly elected president in 1964 as a peace candidate, went to war immediately following his inauguration, we do at least know that the reasons he stated for our intervention – the domino theory, etc. – were false, and known by both Johnson and his advisers to be false. Thus was born the infamous “credibility gap” which just kept yawning wider and wider right up until the day Johnson left office.
Forty years later, it is likewise uncertain why George W. Bush launched Gulf War II. Bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction or links between Saddam and al Qaeda now seem unlikely to have precipitated his action, while imperial hubris or Oedipal impulses remain possibilities. Few serious people now doubt that deception was employed, at least by some (I am thinking in particular of a man powerful in both Bush administrations, and his minions), to get us into this war. No sentient being could possibly doubt that deception about the state of the war and its prospects is ongoing. The credibility gap of 2006 is as great as, or greater than, that of 1966.
In both Vietnam and Iraq we opted for a military as opposed to a political solution. Yet neither Vietnam nor Iraq represented an area of vital interest to the United States. As regards Vietnam, this is not only apparent in retrospect, but was recognized by many thoughtful people at the time – people like Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, and Matthew Ridgeway. (6) But there were countervailing forces at work in the mid- 1960s that helped to drag our nation into war (I am thinking, for example, of the China Lobby and its mouthpiece, Joseph Alsop, and the Luce Press).
Iraq, and indeed the entire Middle East, is of strategic importance to the United States only because of its petroleum resources (7) sources.
There has never been any evidence to show that any Arab or Muslim country possessing oil will refuse to sell it to us as long as we can pay for it – except, that is, when Israel is included in the equation. And thus is revealed the true strategic purpose behind the neoconservative agenda to remake the Middle East: not primarily to secure U.S. access to the region’s oil resources, but rather to preserve and protect the state of Israel – the state that is in fact the one true impediment to our unhindered access to that oil.
It is well known that in 1996 Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser, all of whom worked assiduously for years to provoke an American war against Saddam Hussein, authored a paper (best known by its shorthand title, “Securing the Realm”) addressed to then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which advocated very strong steps to strengthen Israel’s security.8 In the minds of these men – and others, like Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis “Scooter” Liberty, and Bill Kristol – Israeli and American interests are coterminous. And therein lay the true motive behind the Iraq war of 2003.
Nation-building must fail where there is no national foundation to build on.
In both Vietnam and Iraq, then, we went to war not because the national interest demanded it, but in large part (I do not say entirely) because pressure groups succeeded in goading the (9) U.S. government into armed intervention.
Tactically, American hamhandedness in both Vietnam and Iraq cannot be denied. (10) In Vietnam, we chose to seek out the enemy and kill him with massive firepower, despite the unfavorable terrain and the enormous “collateral damage,” i.e., civilian casualties, that resulted. The proper course, if we were going to fight a limited war (as opposed to “bombing them back to the stone age”) would have been to secure the population through pacification, while letting most of the enemy forces rot in the jungles and mountains, away from the (11) people.
Our initial tactics in Iraq, during the blitz campaign of March-April 2003, were admittedly deft and effective, rather than hamhanded. But by the late summer of 2003, if not sooner, it had become clear that something was very wrong with the post-blitzkrieg planning. We (or rather, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) had chosen to fight the war on the cheap, using only one-third the force originally recommended by the Army Chief of Staff. This was enough to take Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein, but not nearly enough to secure the country and prevent the cancerous growth of guerrilla groups, militias, terrorists, and criminals that have made Iraq an ungovernable, living hell. Both civilians and the military were slow to recognize the cancer once it appeared, so slow (12) that they lost any chance of cutting it out before it spread. Today more than three years after the fall of Baghdad, only the presence of U.S. troops prevents Iraq from disintegrating completely. The litany of errors (both of omission and commission), false hopes, broken promises, and outright lies in our Iraq policy will no doubt baffle historians of the distant future, as they try to discern why the most powerful nation in history failed to secure the victory in a secondary theater. (13)
When the Iraq war opened in March 2003, just as our armored spearheads were debouching from Kuwait, I told the president of the company I then worked for, an American- educated Turkish national (the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother), that our forces would take Baghdad no later than April 15. He was skeptical; but I was right: they took Baghdad on April 9. At the same time, I was telling other friends that after the fall of Baghdad there would still be plenty of Iraqis with automatic weapons and no love for the United States, that we would have to contend with them, and that if we weren’t careful we would be in for a long and possibly unwinnable urban guerrilla war, a much bigger Somalia. They too were skeptical, but events have shown that I was more right than not.
I can remember, as a very small boy, sitting at my mother’s knee and watching wounded American soldiers being interviewed on television. It was February 1965, and the soldiers had been wounded in the Viet Cong attack on Pleiku in South Vietnam, an event that precipitated our full-scale intervention in that conflict. My mother, who though an educated person was no geopolitical expert, suddenly blurted out (in the voice of the Pythoness, I almost want to say): “We ought to get out of there, and get out fast.” The wisdom of her words needs no further explication.
I will close with another prediction. Although the U.S. can never be defeated militarily in Iraq, we will eventually grow tired, as in Vietnam, of the cost in blood and money. And the day will come when helicopters will lift off from the rooftop of the American embassy in Baghdad, carrying the last Ameri- cans in Iraq to an ignominious safety.