Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held a press conference recently in which he attacked media prophets of doom and gloom for suggesting that the administration's war against Iraq is a Vietnam-like "quagmire."
"It isn't," Rumsfeld insisted. "It's a different time, it's a different era, it's a different place."
To be sure, similarities exist. Like the invasion of Iraq, the American invasion of Vietnam was based on now-proven lies. President Johnson ordered the first big escalation on the allegation that Vietnamese patrol boats had fired on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The attack never happened. Then, in 1968, Richard Nixon ran for President on the promise that he had a secret plan to end the war. In actuality, he was secretly working to sabotage negotiations that could have ended the war.
George W. Bush rallied the public behind the Iraqi war with evidence that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear bombs and had, for a fact, biological and chemical weapons that threatened our country. He also implied that Iraq was responsible with Al Qaeda for the attack on the World Trade Center -- these were all falsehoods, all lies.
Saddam, as leader of a country, with assets to protect (such as power, palaces, and a political movement) was constrained by international pressure. Removed from power, with nothing to lose and revenge on his mind, Saddam has the potential to become, with Osama bin Laden, a freelance terrorist, more dangerous to the United States than he ever was as the dictator of Iraq.
On other issues the Vietnam/Iraq analogy breaks down. For Bush, the war in Iraq detracts attention from his assault on the New Deal social contract. Johnson, by contrast, was a reluctant warrior who, tragically, lacked the courage to get out of Vietnam. His presidential ambition, undermined by the war, was to build on the social and economic gains of the New Deal.
The Vietnam War was fought in mountainous jungle terrain, and the Vietnamese were tenacious and disciplined nationalists who, throughout their history, had fought off foreign invaders. The war in Iraq is being fought primarily in open desert-like conditions against a factious people. There is no way the Iraqis can militarily defeat the United States; nor can they cause massive Vietnam-like casualties. But the Iraqi war is ultimately about winning hearts and minds, not about superior weaponry. Our smart bombs are useless against the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics that the Iraqis are now using. Our "robust" attempts to liquidate the guerrillas will inevitably lead to more civilian casualties and more Iraqi opposition to our military occupation. American troops not only have to defend themselves, but they have to protect those Iraqis working with them. Are there enough troops on the ground to provide this level of security? Will the American people tolerate more troop call-ups?
Vietnam was a civil war in Southeast Asia. American leaders concocted the "domino theory" that if we "lost" Vietnam, other countries would fall to an international communist movement. This was balderdash, as critics of the war argued. Vietnam had no major implications beyond the area of battle. Unlike the hostile forces in the Middle East, the Vietnamese did not hate American society, and made no attempt to bring the war to American soil.
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Iraq represents a broader and more dangerous conflict. A segment of the Muslim world, represented at the extreme by Al Qaeda terrorists, hates the relative tolerance and freedom of American and Western secular society. Segments of the Islamic world also resent our economic supremacy and military power. We have forgotten the bloody history of Western dominance, dating back to the Crusades. They haven't.
Although much of the world, including many of our Western allies, tacitly opposed our Vietnam policy, they respected the internationalist assumptions of our overall policy. In ignoring and criticizing the UN and in refusing to support important international agreements, the Bush administration has broken with the internationalism of previous administrations, including those of his father, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. No one but the embattled Tony Blair in Britain is going to help us in Iraq. We're on our own, without friends, without credibility.
We lost the war in Vietnam but won the peace, as Vietnam was compelled to accept free markets. As long as we stay in Iraq, we'll have the military upper hand. Whether we'll win the peace is another matter.
Retired Marine General Bernard Trainor has criticized the Bush administration for its lack of postwar planning; precisely its inability to provide basic services, security, and stability to the Iraqi people. George W. Bush, during the 2000 presidential campaign, insisted that he had no interest in "nation-building." In this, at least, he was not lying.
Our troops in Iraq are trained for war, not for peacekeeping. According to press reports, morale is falling. The soldiers, both regulars and the National Guard, want to know when their work will be finished. Their families wonder too. How long will the American people tolerate daily casualties and growing hostility -- especially as they learn that the decision to go to war was based on phony evidence? How long will the Iraqis tolerate an American military presence that does not bring them the benefits of services, stability, and security?
If the U.S. stays in Iraq, it risks an increase in Iraqi hostility, with political fall-out at home. If public pressure forces us to leave Iraq before reconstruction is completed (the Somalia-syndrome), we will be seen as "paper tigers" and invite more attacks from anti-American and anti-Western terrorists and extremists.
The cause of this dilemma is not the morale, or skill, of the American military; nor is it the commitment of the American people. The problem is a result of the lies and deceptions of the Bush administration. The basic fact of this war is that it is wholly unnecessary.
Donald Rumsfeld is right. Iraq is not Vietnam and this is not the 1960s or 1970s. In Iraq at the beginning of the twenty-first century we face a foreign policy debacle potentially greater and more dangerous than the Vietnam disaster.