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Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Iraq: GW's First Vietnam, the Second Battle of Algiers, Chechnya, or Afghanistan?

Bush, Johnson, McNamara, the Wall, and Reality

George W. Bush may have dodged military service in Vietnam the first time around, but the bloody, badly mismanaged, not to say grossly illegal US invasion of Iraq is rapidly turning out to be a real baptism under fire -- by far his most important "faith-based initiative" to date.

Already President Bush has admitted that it was a bit premature to hoist the "Mission Accomplished" banner. According to the latest opinion polls, the American people are far ahead of him. Not only have almost half of adults (and a majority of women) now concluded that the Iraq War was "not worth it," but nearly forty percent now favor an immediate US troop withdrawal, with another significant share "undecided." Gradually American opinion is coming into alignment with world opinion, including that in the UK, Australia, Spain, and Italy, our leading official allies in this conflict.

Of course, as the neocon intellectuals who designed this sinking ship like to bluster, the US is not trying to win some global popularity contest here. But since we are supposed to be championing democracy, in Iraq in particular, presumably public opinion still counts for something. Moreover, the almost unanimous international rejection of this policy, even by our long-standing friends and allies, should give the rest of us pause. Certainly it is not making it any easier to find others to help fund and staff this costly endeavor.

For the time being, however, the Bush Administration seems determined to stay the course, assuring us that victory is just around the corner. This is beginning to sound like the Johnson Administration in the mid-1960s. Indeed, those of us who are old enough to recall the Vietnam War are already detecting many of the same disturbing signs -- (#1) the stage-managed pretext for US intervention in the first place, which later turned out to be concocted; (#2) the serious underestimation of necessary US troop commitments; (#3) the thin multilateral support, with intervention undertaken without a UN mandate; (#4) a Secretary of Defense who oscillates between being in denial and growing doubts; (#5) increasingly desperate ground-shifting attempts by senior Administration officials to defend the policy "as is," and to assert that progress really is being made, even as the headlines deny this day after day; (#6) misplaced reliance on local allies (Thieu, Chalabi, etc.) who turn out to be, by turns, inconstant, incompetent, and corrupt; (#7) a steady drip-drip-drip of US and UK troop casualties, with more than 1200 now dead or wounded, and no positive trends in sight; (#8) a growing number of civilian casualties, with at least 7000-11,000 combants and 3500-4000 civilians killed during the first month of the war, another 4-5000 civilians killed since then, 20,000 Iraqi civilians wounded, and the local population trapped in the middle of escalating violence, with US troops forced to make agonizing choices about the use of their awesome firepower; (#9) war-weary veterans with low morale, already pleading to come home after less than six months of active duty; (#10) a national security establishment that has been stripped of its independence, in thrall to a set of "pre-baked" policy choices dictated from on high; (#11) the war's huge unexpected costs, to be born almost entirely by the US, forcing domestic spending priorities to be put on hold just as Lyndon Johnson's plans for a "Great Society" had to be tabled in the mid-1960s; (#12) the simple-minded characterization of all our enemies as "terrorists," "Baathists, and "dead-enders," (or in Vietnam's case, as "Communists"), denying the role of nationalism in the opposition to US intervention -- as if Americans have not themselves waged long hard fights against foreign occupants in the interests of nationalism; and (#13) the complete absence of a clear "exit" strategy other than to simply hunker down.

Of course no one should have any regrets over Saddam Hussein's demise -- though it would be easier to celebrate if we could actually find him. But we have so mishandled his removal that we have actually managed to encourage many ordinary Iraqis to oppose our intervention. It is very hard to make all this look like an achievement. And there is also the strong possibility that (#14) decades from now, we will hear the same kind of begrudging admission from the architects of this war that Henry Kissinger Photos/fig. 8.8. Henry Kissinger
finally made just last year about the Vietnam War -- that it would have made"little difference" after all to world events if we had never intervened in the first place. Of course aging war planners like Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may not last the three decades that were required for that stunning concession.

We can always hope that the many glaring differences between Iraq and Vietnam will save us. But it is not necessarily clear which way these cut. Militarily, there are no neighboring sanctuaries like North Vietnam Cambodia, or Laos, no protected supply lines from superpowers like Russia and China, and no dense jungles. We also supposedly have a vastly superior professional army -- though it appears that without the reservists, we would be in very deep trouble.

On the other hand, Iraq's borders are porous, there are so many abandoned arms dumps and hidden stockpiles of weapons and explosives that our opponents' lack of external supply lines may not be a key disadvantage, and the enemy so far appears to have ample hiding places, despite the missing jungles. Furthermore, the region is not exactly devoid of hostile volunteers -- "terrorists," in the Administration's vernacular. In fact they are probably delighted to have thousands of green US troops, civilian aid workers and (in their view) Iraqi "Quislings" within reach, available to shoot at like fish in a barrel. Furthermore, there are still all those missing WMDs. If the Adminstration is ever proved right and they do exist, one hopes that they are not discovered first by the wrong people.

In this sense the right analogy may not be Vietnam, but the Russian Army's painful experiences with guerilla war in Chechnya, the bloody French colonial war in Algeria during the 1950s and early 1960s, and the Soviet Army's costly adventure in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Of course "we are not colonialists. We are there for the good of the people," unlike the French or the Russians. Perhaps so. But a similar story line did little for us in Vietnam...

The only good news in all this is that, compared with the Vietnam Quagmire, US public opinion is moving much more quickly. Just six months into the conflict, we already have several popular anti-war candidates. This is true, despite the fact that the median American voter is now 35 years old, and was only just being born in 1968. Perhaps there is a collective memory. Or, as President Bush himself said yesterday, "As a matter of fact, the American people — the electorate — is (sic) a heck of a lot smarter than most politicians..."


(c) James S. Henry, October 29, 2003. Not for reproduction or other use without express consent from the author.

October 29, 2003 at 10:46 AM | Permalink


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