Why Iraq Is Not Vietnam

Bruce Willis visits the troops

As it becomes more and more obvious by the day that the U.S. simply cannot win in Iraq, the Vietnam comparison is inevitably going to be getting a lot more play in the media. Hey, even Jane Fonda has taken her campaigning self out of mothballs to take an antiwar crusade on the road. The temptation of that comparison is obvious, not least because of the increasingly manic spin in which the whole sorry mess is being packaged for American audiences: The latest placebo we’re asked to digest is the notion that if Iraq’s draft constitution is delivered on its August 15 deadline, the insurgency will begin to wilt on the vine. Yeah, right, just like it did after the U.S. transferred “sovereignty” to the Allawi’s interim government, and after the January election — both of which were promised as the antidote to the insurgency. The element of Iraqi society represented by the insurgency is, quite simply, not represented in the constitution-making process. So, unless the drafters and the U.S. are secretly taking up the offer of the Baathist insurgent commanders for talks over a political settlement, it’s extremely unlikely that the August 15 document will make any difference. And the fact that they’re rushing to meet a deadline under pressure from the U.S. suggests that, as ever, the contentious issues will be kicked down the road.

But wait, let’s back up to the Vietnam analogy, which has been a trope of liberal opponents of the war since the invasion was first mooted. By once again projecting its power into a far-off land in a war of choice, supposedly to liberate a people who hadn’t exactly asked the U.S. to be there, the argument went, America was bound to repeat its most traumatic foreign misadventure. And the liberals’ Vietnam obsession was echoed in the behavior of some of the American troops in Iraq, who took to broadcasting Wagner while on raids and other such Hollywood Vietnam stunts. I think Iraq is very different from Vietnam, however, even if they share the basic feature that the U.S. will be unable to achieve its goals there.

Before we get into the most important difference between Iraq and Vietnam — okay, for those of you with no patience, it’s that in Vietnam the U.S. couldn’t win, but the communist-nationalist movement led by Ho Chi Minh could, and did; in Iraq the U.S. can’t win but nor can anyone else — it’s worth dwelling on the conservative flip-side of the Vietnam comparison: For the Bush administration and its backers, the analogy in Iraq is not the trauma of Vietnam, but the triumph of post-war Germany and Japan.

As preposterous as that may sound to anyone vaguely familiar with events in the Middle East, it’s a folly that appears nonetheless to have shaped the thinking at the very top of the Bush administration on how to manage Iraq. Condoleezza Rice repeatedly told audiences that the resistance in Iraq was not dissimilar to that mounted by “werewolves” in Germany — an improbably quaint fiction.

More recently, it was hard not to giggle when Dick Cheney — who over the past three years has disseminated enough manure on Iraq to put the whole country under tomato plants — rewound the tape on Condi and said the current phase in Iraq is more comparable to the Battle of the Bulge in Europe or Okinawa in the Pacific, and that a glorious victory awaited. (If the rest of the world took seriously anything Cheney said on Iraq, they might have taken that as a declaration of intent to nuke Baghdad!)

Far more important than mocking the plain silliness of the Japan-Germany spin, however, is to recognize the central role it may have played in shaping policy: Last year, I heard a radio interview with Noah Feldman, the NYU Middle East legal scholar who worked as a consultant on constitutional matters for the Coalition Provisional Authority, in which he described flying into Baghdad along with all the other “experts” who would run the occupation. He looked up from the tome on Iraqi history he was reading and looked around the plane; to his alarm he realized that everyone else who would be directing policy for the CPA was immersed in works of history on either Japan or Germany after WWII. And CPA chief J Paul Bremer kept a chart on his wall documenting “Milestones: Iraq and Germany.” Journalists discovered the CPA working from policy documents lifted directly from the administration of postwar Germany, from which they had neglected to change the term “reichsmark” to dinar.

Small wonder, that they were never able to grasp Iraqi reality. More compelling, perhaps, is the fact that both the conservatives and the liberals seem to share the same epistemological flaw: They insist on understanding Iraq through the prism of American experiences — traumatic, in the case of the liberals; triumphant in the case of the conservatives — rather than engaging with Iraq’s own history and context.

While it may also be destined to be remembered as another American failure, I do believe Iraq is quite different from Vietnam. The key ifference may have been underscored recently by the visit to Washington of Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. After all, this is the same regime installed by Ho Chi Minh after the regime created by the U.S. in Vietnam was finally overthrown in 1975. The U.S. couldn’t win, but the nationalist-communist movement led by Ho Chi Minh could and did. And while no movement is ever really fully representative of a people, it appears to have been sufficiently representative of enough of them to ensure that its 30-year rule over all of Vietnam has been basically stable, despite the strictures it placed on many Vietnamese. Despite its “fall” into the Soviet orbit, the outcome in Vietnam did not significantly challenge U.S. interests in the wider Pacific rim. The Vietnamese even arguably cleaned up their neighborhood by ousting the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge, and then whupped the Chinese when Beijing sought to punish Hanoi for destroying its client by launching military actions along the border. (Ironically, the same Khmer Rouge later received covert U.S. backing when it fought the Vietnamese-backed regime in Phnom Penh.)

But as the presence of the Prime Minister in Washington signaled, Vietnam is stable and has come around to seek the advantage of a market economy and doing business with the U.S.

In Iraq, to put it bluntly, while the U.S. can’t win, nor can anyone else. There’s no reason to believe the insurgency will be quelled on the current political terms, and it has actually grown steadily in strength, depth, breadth and sophistication over the past two years. It has crippled reconstruction efforts, leaving Iraq pumping less oil and producing less electricity two years after its “liberation” than it was doing before Saddam’s ouster. And it has sustained a level of violence that has seen thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, both in terror strikes and in U.S. counterinsurgency operations in the years since Saddam’s fall. The insurgency is based in a minority community — the Sunni Arabs — from which most of Iraq’s political, social and economic elites have been drawn since the creation of Iraq by the British. It is a community thoroughly alienated by the political transition, but not simply because insufficient effort has been made to coax them to join the table, but because the very idea of democracy imperils their traditional privileges: The very idea of being offered scraps by a government led by the Shiites with the Kurds playing second fiddle is anathema enough people in a community that traditionally ruled Iraq — and while this is largely unspoken, there is considerable hostility even among U.S. allies in the Arab world to the idea of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, particularly because the current government have made clear that they are far closer to Iran than to the U.S. (Recently, they concluded extensive pacts with Tehran on everything from refining oil to training the new Iraqi military, much to Washington’s chagrin.)

So the transition to a Shiite dominated democracy (the two being inextricably linked, given the Shiites demographic dominance) may in itself be driving the insurgency — and remember, while the Zarqawi phenomenon grabs the headlines and the spin, most of the insurgents captured and killed have been Iraqis, and the dominant element in the insurgency remains mid-level former Baathists. And on the basis of the current political process, the insurgents may well find a social base among the Sunnis, and financial support in the wider Sunni Arab world, for years to come.

Even then, they lack the ability to prevail. Some suggest if the U.S. pulled out, the former Baathists would make short shrift of the new security forces, and reinstall themselves via a putsch. But the Kurds would simply break away, and the Shiites — increasingly armed and dominant in the new security forces would fight, probably with direct backing from Iran. The Sunni insurgency is strong enough to withstand whatever force the Shiites government can muster, but not strong enough — or representative enough — to reassert control over the whole country. The Sunnis have the organization and training; the Shiites have the numbers and the backing of Iran to cancel that out.

To some, the answer is simple: Break Iraq up into three ethnic mini-states. The Kurds want to go their own way, anyway. So do some of the Shiite politicians of the south. Let them take their oil and leave the recalcitrant Sunnis with the vast empty deserts of Anbar province as reward for the insurgency. Bad idea, and it won’t work: The country doesn’t divide that neatly. Baghdad, for example, is home to 3 million Shiites and close to 2 million Sunnis. Even Kirkuk, which the Kurds are claiming, has a large enough Arab and Turkmen population to put up a fight. (Even among the Shiites, the residents of Baghdad may not be that enthusiastic about their southern cousins talk of keeping the oil revenues away from the capital.) More importantly, there’s insufficient support for a breakup of Iraq outside the Kurds. It’s not only the Sunnis that will resist; Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite spiritual leader who remains the most powerful person in Iraq won’t hear of it. And, of course, creating new borders between ethnic communities along a frontline that has traditionally been the battlefront between Arabs and Persians will inevitably draw in Iran and the Arab League on opposite sides, while Kurdish independence will be swiftly smothered by Turkish intervention. Today’s guerrilla and terror war would swiftly be replaced by a far more damaging regional conflagration.

No, Iraq is more like a split atom: The fallout will have to be contained for a long time to come. The only hope for the U.S. being able to recuse itself from that role would be if it started down the long and complex road of negotiating a compact between Iran, Turkey and the Arab League countries on managing Iraq. But listening to Rumsfeld’s high-pitched whining to the new Iraqi government about stopping Iran’s “meddling” (uh, Don, they were invited by the new, democratically-elected governmetn to “meddle”) there’s no sign of Washington embracing this reality any time soon. Besides, managing Iraq on the basis of consensus with Tehran, Ankara, Damascus, Cairo, Amman and Riyadh would mean accepting that a war designed to dramatically overturn the status quo throughout the Middle East will have, in fact, ended up reinforcing it.

Still, as America tires of a foreign entanglement draining blood and treasure with no end in sight, Iran may start looking a lot more attractive to Washington. As Juan Cole so elegantly explained, whichever way you slice it, the biggest winner in the Iraq war has been Iran. And, of course, al-Qaeda, whose once-marginal ideas have become sufficiently mainstream among sections of the Arab and Muslim youth — in no small part because of the U.S. behaving in ways that fit the propaganda stereotype promoted by Bin Laden and his PR people — so as to guarantee that the problem of terrorism will be with us for another generation. So, not really like Vietnam. Something quite different, and possibly worse.

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12 Responses to Why Iraq Is Not Vietnam

  1. Pat S. says:

    This analysis of the situation is great, and my dad and I had a similar conversation just yesterday (though we both agree so there wasn’t a ton of argument). I particularly enjoyed the fact that this is a lesson for liberals as well: you can’t refight the antiwar battles of the 1960s in a world that’s drastically different 40 years later.

    Tony, as a “damn foreigner,” perhaps you could offer your take on American international myopia in a later post? As much as I believe the American public genuinely wants to do the right thing on the international stage, they just really fail to understand that not everybody views the world in the same way.

  2. crimewatch says:

    “And, of course, creating new borders between ethnic communities along a frontline that has traditionally been the battlefront between Arabs and Persians will inevitably draw in Iran and the Arab League on opposite sides, while Kurdish independence will be swiftly smothered by Turkish intervention. Today’s guerrilla and terror war would swiftly be replaced by a far more damaging regional conflagration.”

    And well, perhaps that is precisely the object – of course! After all, Mr. Cheney has remained true to his late-WW2 analogizing by actually theatening the use of tactical nuclear weapons – not against Baghdad, of course, but against Iran. True, this would all be very “damaging”, but it must be asked, to whom? Well, primarily to the Middle East and secondarily to the regions adjoining the Middle East. That is, at least from the point of view of the perpetrators.

    One could easily imagine a post- US Congressional election scenario wherein the US “exits” by way of an assault on Iran. It would be the perfect tonic for the sagging morale of the US military, as it marches off once again to fight the kind of battle it was trained to win. It would also be a perfect antidote for reversing Bush’s sagging poll numbers as the rally-round the Flag reveille works its magic once again (and taking bets on that: “Casey Who?”). Further, one can imagine a “Sunni” Arab League coalition army manning the southern front against the Iraqi Shia while the US does the heavy hitting from its new Iraqi Kurdish base, from the north in Azerbaijian, and – don’t forget – from the east in Afghanistan, as well as from the south as usual in the Persian Gulf states and Diego Garcia as well. It’s all been done before – twice!

    One could even imagine yesterday’s Sunni Iraqi bad guys becoming tomorrow’s heros – that would “resolve” the insurgency pretty quick, and they’ve certainly proven their military mettle, haven’t they? They certainly also pose no progressive “commie” political obstacles – their leaderships are by and large as fundy as the Shia. Now, there is the _real_ difference from Vietnam.

    I mean, does anyone believe for an moment that the Bush Admin was not aware that the Iraqi Shia leaderships (SCIRI, DAWA, Badr) had spent long years in exile in IRAN, worship the Ayatollah Khomeini as a god, and would impose a pro-Iranian mullahcratic regime upon their substantial piece of Iraq? Only if one adheres to the “dumb bumbler” theory of the Bush Admin. But why are do they appear to accept this Shia fundy outcome with such calm?

    There is another view that says we are dealing with a consciously criminal operation. Most who wish to have some connection to what used to be called a “mainstream” here in the U.S. don’t want to consider that possibility, let alone contemplate the fact that the rest of the political regime in the U.S. – the leaderships of both major parties, the corporate media, the major think tanks, the whole Beltway, basically – have acted as willing (as in the Coalition of the Willing) accessories to the crime. After all, political careers are at stake. Belief in a “normalcy” and “deviations” thereof are an imperative, an attitude that permeates even the left-liberal (and libertarian right) opposition to these policies.

    The refusal to contemplate that the United States has embarked on a new career of serial aggressions is understandable. There is also no doubt that “taking it to the next level” with Iran will unfold a disaster even greater that the one presently facing the world in Iraq. But hey, those bad consequences won’t happen until after 2008, when BushCo will have meanwhile reproduced its policies in post-GW form (is anybody thinking ahead about the “long war”?).

    And even if they should miss a beat in 2008, they’ll be back later, because the aforementioned “accessories” won’t put the whole crew in the slammer for life where they belong – just like Bernie Ebbers, who fate shows it can be done.

    And finally, no, we’re not talking conspiracy: that would be like saying you or I go to work each day and “conspire” with colleagues to do our jobs. They are just “doing their jobs”, the one’s they were “hired” to do in the 2000 and 2004 (however shady the circumstances). That is why the U.S. Constitution defined it as the Executive Branch, rather than as the Conspiracy Branch, of government.

    As to why the “job” being “done” takes on the character of an endless drive-by shooting? It’s a question of Historical Circumstance – an entirely broader and lengthier subject.

  3. Srinivasan says:


    If there is nobel prize equivalent for journalism you deserve it. OK that was my way of saying that I’ve been following ur articles closely and find them very focussed and lucid on middle east. While rest of the world have been using their interpretation and bias (including thomas friedman whom I admire, but in this case his love for israel or whatever jewish cause is blinding him) you have been dispassionate in your analysis.
    But expanding your theme, I think there is hegellian interplay of thesis/anti thesis playing out in middle east. I lack sufficient data to justify my theory, I believe jihad, al qaeda is a marxian haves/havenots fighting it out. Before interpreting it as simple quick fix marxian interpretation pls. read on.

    The mid east regimes which have oil in plenty or friends of people having plenty of oil took west’s technology but not its critical thinking and allowed the gap to build between haves and havenots. Haves/have nots not strictly on economic basis, but on various basis ruler/ruled, historic enemities, Unfulfilled caliphate ambitions. So instead of reconciling the present and past and building new future, the dreams and halucinations of the few vs the wealth and power of ruler is playing itself out.

  4. hungkag says:

    Tony, what a precise and slashing analysis. You may not be familiar with the philippine- american war but the parallel is closer with the exception that the filipino insurgents did not have the resources and the geopolitical geography in its back.

  5. Rose says:

    I wanted to comment and thank the author, good stuff

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