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Iraq Triumph and the Ghosts of Vietnam

How can lessons from Vietnam help us understand the problems facing the United States in Iraq?

May 26, 2003

How can lessons from Vietnam help us understand the problems facing the United States in Iraq?

Arguably, it was the Gulf War that broke the stranglehold of overseas engagement. It happened when Colin Powell insisted on sending a quarter of the United States active duty forces to the region to overwhelm an already inadequate foe.

Technology has pushed us further. Today, the Americans can send a force less than half that size to the same region, bring an awesome technical arsenal to bear (precision guidance combined with networked information) — and eradicate a weak, extremist Islamic tyranny in one country and a military pigmy in another in only a few weeks each.

The Vietnam syndrome is gone. Our leadership will prevail because we now bring the mightiest military in the world.
The world is impressed. Fine. What worries me is that we Americans are far too impressed with ourselves.

We would do well to keep in mind that even if combat is no longer a quagmire for the United States, the war is actually not over — and the quagmire is just beginning.
The Bush Administration failed entirely to prepare itself — or the American people — for the task of governing two large countries — Iraq and Afghanistan — in a region in which we have little experience.
The hubris of administration leaders about the ease of rebuilding and creating effective, representative government in that infertile soil is becoming self-evident.

As with the ill-fated war in Vietnam, the Pentagon is in charge in the Middle East. Or better yet, civilian Pentagon leaders, laden with abundant rhetoric about how the world can be governed through U.S. military power, are tasking a military utterly unprepared for the responsibility of running a country.

In Vietnam, the U.S. military "only" had to contend with the jungle. Mighty as that enemy was, it's peanuts compared with the responsibilities of governance, policing and economic reconstruction in Iraq.

As in Vietnam, American rhetoric is bound to become more hysterical as events diverge from predictions.

Despite the difference in the combat outcome, there are interesting parallels with that earlier war.
For an early contemporary example, witness Afghanistan. It was said that the country will develop some form of representative government and head down the road to sound economic development. Actually, the country is disintegrating into its previous warlordism.
The Iraqis will cheer our arrival, we were told. And, after a prolonged period of hesitation, some did — for a few days. Now the Iraqis want order — and they want the Americans gone.

Another assumption was that we can maintain order in Iraq with reduced force levels. Now, we need another 15,000 troops to do so (sound familiar?).

We can leave early, leaving a representative local government behind, we were led to believe. Now, we have to stay longer and sideline the Iraqis as “advisors,” while we muddle our way through.
The Islamic world will respect our use of force — and extremists like the Taliban, Saddam's loyalists and Al Qaeda will disappear into the woodwork in fear. That was the rhetoric. Now, these same organizations remain strong — and terrorists have struck back lethally in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

The policy is working, we are told. We only need to change the people at the top so we can make it work. Sound familiar, again?

The real threat from Saddam is his weapons of mass destruction. Just where are they when we need them as evidence? Now, it doesn't matter — and there goes the credibility of the United States.

We were promised that post-war recovery and reconstruction would be affordable — and that allies would help out. Truth be told, we do not even know, as an Under Secretary of Defense testified recently, how much it will cost the taxpayer to run the Iraqi government. And the heavy hitters among the allies are understandably standing aside for this one.

Years ago, the “quiet Americans” went into Southeast Asia with the best of intentions and little local knowledge. America stumbled badly — and the nation watched as rhetoric strayed further and further from reality. Soon, the locals rejected our leadership — and the policy became more expensive as it proved more futile.
Today, we Americans are in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are not sure how to set up a government — and see our authority defied in the streets. Worse, we can rely on only a handful of civilian and military personnel who even speak the local language.

The hubris lies at home, as it did four decades ago. Policy leaders assure us we are doing fine. They clearly prefer to fight the inter-agency enemy — rather than focus on the problem.
Can't make the policy work? Let's make sure the State Department is kept at bay. They are not "tough" enough. Let's have the Pentagon run the policy. They know how to make the trains run on time, if they can find the key.

Both Afghanistan and Iraq show all the signs of a post-war quagmire — with occupation stretching out at greater and greater length, with expenditures rising, and with “band-aid” rhetoric that doesn’t match the facts on the ground.
The downside risks are large: instability in both countries, an angry populace that wants to see us gone — and an extended struggle against a series of terrorist organizations emboldened by our strike and finding fertile ground for new recruits.

Meanwhile, the domestic opposition sits on its hands fearing the 70% approval rating for the President's rhetoric.
Today, the American policy “emperors” have little more clothing than Lyndon Johnson did in the 1960s. A war policy with only one significant ally and few who know the region has a serious Achilles hell, once the combat ends. (Even that ally would now prefer a different peace policy/)

We must acknowledge that an alternative approach might have served our long-term interest better. That stepping in the faces of long-time allies has damaged our long-term global relationship.

That the world cannot be remade by the American military hand alone — and that would knowledge and political capacity for governance of overseas countries is sadly limited.

Removing Saddam may have been a singular accomplishment, though greater support might have come from the Iraqi people had they carried out this act with our support.

The post-removal quagmire, however, was ill-prepared, if it was prepared at all. Worse, it is laden with Vietnam-style hubris — and betrays a growing rhetoric/reality gap.

But the ultimate fallout may be much worse than that from Vietnam. Back then, it was mostly the left and young people in many countries around the world who came to question U.S. values and political strategies.
Today, it is the governments and citizens of many countries whoe are reluctant partners in the post-war enterprise given the hubris of our “leadership.” Such broad-based dislike risks undermining America's future ability to lead.