Reading 11

Reading 11 - ISIRAQ ANOTHER VIETNAM? Robert K. Brigham ‘...

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Unformatted text preview: ISIRAQ ANOTHER VIETNAM? Robert K. Brigham ‘ E? PublicAfiairs ' New York 290(0 PREFACE The war in Iraq is now a major conflict, costlier in lives and treasure ' than any other U.S.-led war since 1975. The outcome in Iraq will have a dramatic impact on US. foreign policy for years and will drastical- ly alter the geopolitical future of the Middle East. With so much riding on the outcome in Iraq, President George W Bush urges the nation to stay the course, arguing that America’s vital national security interests are at stake. He believes there are signifi- cant signs of progress against the insurgency and the government in Baghdad grows stronger every day. He insists Iraqi forces are taking over more and more of Iraq’s security needs, and the day will soon come when the United States can begin a phased withdrawal. The national elections in early 2006 and the formation of a new coalition in the prime minister’s office in April 2006 are clear signs to the Bush administration that the US. nation~buiiding efi'ort is working in Iraq. Economic conditions are also improving, the president claims, fur— ther signs of progress. X PREFACE Yet the war in Iraq was predicated on weapons of mass destruc— tion that were not found and an alliance between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda terrorist group that did not exist. This grim asseSs- ment of the war and its false pretexts is especially haunting because the issues raise the kind of mistakes, misjudgments, and myths that led to US. involvement in Vietnam. At that time, the context was the spread of communism and falling dominos in Southeast Asia. US. policymakers claimed Vietnam was the front line of the cold war, and the future of the free world depended upon suceess in that far- away place. But is Iraq another Vietnam? Is history repeating itself? Since the first days of the US. invasion of Iraq, supporters of the war have cau— tioned the public not to view this conflict as another Vietnam. They rightfully point to several important distinctions, most involving mil- itary operations. A main purpose of this book, then, is to explore the substantial military differences between the Vietnam and Iraq wars. It is clear. from an operational and strategic standpoint, Vietnam and' Iraq are very different conflicts, and the distinctions are important to make. First, in size and scope, the Vietnam War simply dwarfs the war in Iraq. Second, Vietnam began as an insurgency and escalated into a conventional war; in Iraq, the war started as a conventional invasion and deteriorated into a guerrilla war. The strategies used in both wars also differ dramatically. So, too, do the armies the United States sent into harm’s way in Vietnam and Iraq. The insurgencies also share little in common, and Iraq has no charismatic figure like Ho Chi Minh to represent the civil—military movement in the public’s eye. In addition. there is no air campaign over Iraq as there was in Vietnam. Perhaps the most striking difference is the geopolitical sit- uation. The insurgents in Iraq do not have superpower backing as the PREFACE in Vietnamese Communists had in their allies in Moscow and Beijing. Furthermore, outside of the Middle East, there is little if any support for the insurgents. In sharp contrast, Vietnam’s National Liberation Front (NLF) enjoyed the sympathy of people in many nations, including the United States. Yet despite the overwhelming number of differences, three simi— larities may be more important to the outcome in Iraq and the long— term future of US. foreign relations. First, in Iraq. as in Vietnam. there was no political corollary to America’s overwhelming military power. The United States was never able to translate its massive fire- power into a meaningful political program in Vietnam, and the same appears true in Iraq. Problems of nation building continue to plague the Bush administration in Iraq, just as they did in Vietnam for more than one US. administration. In an asymmetrical war, the govern- ment’s ability to tackle tough social, cultural, and economic difficul- ties is probably more important than its ability to win and lose battles. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, the United States and its allies have been unable to win the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. Security is a key issue, but so too is the government’s ability to provide jobs, housing, and a stable economy. In Iraq today. as was the case in Vietnam, all of the key social and economic indicators point in the wrong direction. High inflation, record levels of unem- ployment (outside of the armed forces and national police), and lack of basic necessities threaten to destroy all that the Bush administra- tion hopes to build. The lack of social progress and the increase in sectarian violence suggest the nation-building experiment in Iraq might meet the same fate as the twenty-year effort in Vietnam. Another major similarity between the two conflicts is declining public support. The problem George W Bush faces in Iraq is similar xn PREFACE to the problem Lyndon johnson faced in Vietnam: The public gave substantial support to the effort as troops were sent in, but that sup- port evaporated as the war dragged on. In Vietnam, public opinion polls clearly showed that a majority of Americans supported John- son’s I965 decisions to send combat troops to Vietnam and to give them offensive missions. Likewise, the Bush administration enjoyed enormous support from a majority of the American public when it invaded Iraq in March 2003. In each case, however, public support declined sharply in the early stages of the war because reluctant sup- porters were quickly alienated. By r967 fewer than half of the Amer— ican people supported the war in Vietnam, and that remained the high-water mark for the remaining eight years of war. In Iraq the dropeoff has been faster than any experts predicted. Most Americans believe the perceived threats in Iraq—weapons of mass destruction and support for international terrorism—have been discounted. And most Americans simply do not share the Bush administration’s enthusiasm for planting the seeds of democracy in the Middle East. The American public’s patience is wearing thin, and some quar— ters have already begun to pressure CongreSs for changes in Iraq. Congress is having a more difficult time justifying the war’s cost in terms of blood and treasure, and it will not be long before the war- weary nation demands a phased withdrawal. The Bush administra- tion, as the Johnson and Nixon administrations did before it, has launched a massive public relations campaign to drum up support for the war, but the White House and Congress probably will face grow- ing demands to declare victory and go home. As in Vietnam, the best the Bush administration might realistically hope for is a “decent interval“ between a US. withdrawal and a chaotic civil war in Iraq. It is impossible at this stage to predict the outcome in Iraq, but if Viet- PREFACE x111 nam provides any cluesu—and I think it does—the road ahead looks treacherous. At the same time, the Bush administration’s increasingly aggres- sive stance toward Iran has begun to echo the spread of the Vietnam War into neighboring countries. In 1970 Vietnam became the focus of wider regional conflicts that extended to Laos (unofficially) and to Cambodia, with saturation bombings. To some extent, the potential for the Iraq War to be a similar key to regional embroilments has already been realized. Aggressive rhetoric for military action in Iraq has spilled over national borders. Iranian jihadists are currently oper- ating in Iraq. Evidence already exists then, that like Vietnam, the war in Iraq has become a regional conflict. - The most important similarity between Iraq and Vietnam, how- ever, is the challenge that each war presented to American beliefs about the use of power. In Vietnam, as in Iraq, the United States learned there were limits to what it conld accomplish through force. In each war, US. political leaders believed in Woodrow Wilson’s old adage that spreading demOcracy abroad would make America and the world more secure. In Vietnam, the initial goal was not simply to stop the Communists but also to build a non—Communist alternative in South Vietnam. In Iraq, the central goal was regime change. The Bush administration believed it could oust Saddam Hussein and replace him with a democratic government, which would be the first step in promoting democracy in the Middle East. Idealism and nobil- ity of purpose, then, drove the United States to intervene in Vietnam and Iraq. Inside this idealism, however, lay the belief that the United States knew no limits to its power. To US. policymakers, regulating the world‘s political problems was not only desirable but also possi- ble given us. power and will. Lyndon Johnson liked to say the rea- L_ ..__ #‘h _ ..:._I,__:..:I...I.. .. ._ __,,I : xrv PREFACE son the mantle of freedom fell to the United States was no other country had the power to lift it. George W Bush also believed the United States was the only nation that could defend freedom in the Middle East with power and conviction. Despite overwhelming force, technological superiority, and abun— dant financial resources, the United States has been incapable of cop- ing with the enormous political complexities that inevitably emerge from protracted military conflicts. The end result might be an “Iraq syndrome” that challenges America’s role in the world. After the Vietnam War, America turned inward, fearful of any military engagements outside the defense of its own borders. Interventions in the Middle East and Central America in the ensuing twenty-five years were extremely limited. Even the first Gulf War was purposefully limited in nature. Although President George I-I.W Bush proclaimed the United States had in fact kicked the Vietnam syndrome with its victory in the first Gulf War, the White House knew all too well, that its strategy was based on the US. experience in Vietnam. The goals in the first Gulf War were kept limited, there was a clear exit strate— gy and the United States massed overwhelming force to meet its nar~ row objectives. In fact, several critics of the first Gulf War later claimed that US. forces should have marched all the way to Baghdad and overthrown Saddam l-IuSSein. General Colin Powell rejected this thinking. favoring instead prudent and limited action given the US. experience in Vietnam. In going to war in Iraq, the George W. Bush administration has purpOsefully turned its back on the lessons of Vietnam. With idealis— tic rhetoric, the United States has again gone out into the world in search of monsters to destroy The difliculties the United States has experienced in Iraq, however, have forced many Americans to chal— PREFACE xv lenge the neoconservative agenda that led President Bush to Iraq in the first place. A growing majority of Americans no longer believe the United States should be involved in a nation-building experiment in Iraq, and fewer still support the notion of spreading democracy in the Middle East through the application of military power. The great tragedy of the Vietnam War, as might be the case in Iraq, is that the misuse of force there limited US. military action where it might have been required later. Hearing the echoes of Vietnam, the United States refused to intervene to stop genocide in Cambodia, the Balkans, and Rwanda before it was too late for hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Realizing the United States cannot force its. will on others, the American public and Congress are now withdrawing from support of broader foreign-policy objectives. The great lesson of Vietnam and Iraq, therefore, is that the United States must use its power wisely. ' .1 ...
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This note was uploaded on 10/12/2008 for the course IR 100xg taught by Professor Siler during the Fall '06 term at USC.

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Reading 11 - ISIRAQ ANOTHER VIETNAM? Robert K. Brigham ‘...

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