The history of the Vietnam War teaches that to preserve American strength and prestige, we must begin withdrawing from Iraq now.
This past August, President George W. Bush stood at a lectern in a VFW hall in Kansas City, Missouri, and launched an attack on critics calling for an early withdrawal from Iraq. Invoking “the legacy of Vietnam,” he rued the prospect that Congress would “pull the rug out from under” American soldiers “just as they are gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq.” And even though many expert commentators, including Boston University professor and Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich, have roundly discredited it, the Vietnam analogy is not likely to fade away. Voicing the Bush Administration’s stance last month in the Washington Post, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman asserted as the “widely accepted narrative of the endgame in Vietnam” that “there was a much-improved balance of forces in Vietnam, reflected in the 1973 Paris agreement, and that Congress subsequently pulled the props out from under that balance of forces–dooming Indochina to a bloodbath.” Rudolph Giuliani, the frontrunner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, draws the same comparison in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. “The consequences” of withdrawal, he writes, “were dire, and not only in Vietnam: numerous deaths in places such as the killing fields of Cambodia, a newly energized and expansionist Soviet Union, and a weaker America. The consequences of abandoning Iraq would be worse.”
Recalling the jingoistic post-Vietnam T-shirt blurb, “Good Soldiers Betrayed By Gutless Politicians,” this view holds that the Vietnam War was lost at home and could have been won on the ground, and that such a victory would have ineluctably rendered the United States better able to meet the broader challenges of the Cold War. The ensuing lesson for the present day is that proceeding to military victory in the Iraq War will enable the United States to flatten the transnational Islamist terrorist threat, and that now is no time to cut and run. But the truth is that the bitter stab-in-the-back Vietnam narrative that fuels the Bush Administration’s argument is grossly and demonstrably inaccurate. The decline of American prestige and leverage, and the destabilization of Southeast Asia occasioned by Vietnam, resulted not from withdrawing too soon but, rather, from withdrawing too late. If we are serious about salvaging our strategic position in the Middle East, then we need to be clear-eyed about what history teaches us about interventions gone wrong–especially the war in Vietnam.
The Analogy Game
The Vietnam comparison represents the culmination of a series of tendentious analogies waged by senior American officials to justify the continuing military presence in Iraq. General David Petraeus, commander of American forces in Iraq, repeatedly bruits about the British counterinsurgency effort in Northern Ireland as a successful model for the American enterprise in Iraq. But that model is easily invalidated: British troops in Northern Ireland peaked at 30,000, against active Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers numbering perhaps 500 (which yields a soldier-to-insurgent ratio of 60 to one); coalition forces in Iraq now stand at roughly 170,000, facing over 30,000 Sunni insurgents alone, for a ratio of less than five to one. And whereas Protestant “loyalist” terrorism in Northern Ireland was almost exclusively pro-British, broadly pro-state Iraqi Shia militias have targeted American troops as well as their Sunni enemies. Because the Northern Irish conflict was small and containable, claiming on average fewer than 40 British troops a year–P.J. O’Rourke once dubbed Northern Ireland “heck’s half-acre”–it was relatively easy to manage politically over the course of 25 years. Obviously, Iraq is not.
Undaunted by subtlety, the U.S. command in Iraq has glommed onto other models, like the 1950s British suppression of the Chinese communist insurgency in Malaya and the defeat of the bloody Salvadoran insurgency in the 1980s. These too are readily distinguishable. In Malaya, the British did an artful job of managing political and economic incentives, but they faced only an ideological minority of an ethnic minority, most of whom did not actively oppose the British and the ethnic Malay majority; the British likewise enjoyed an overwhelmingly superior force ratio. In El Salvador, there was a viable central government steeped in Western political traditions to defend, a relatively small number of insurgents, no sectarian dimension, and an operational requirement of less than 100 American military advisers. This made a “market solution” involving heavy economic aid and incentives singularly appropriate. Furthermore, in Northern Ireland, Malaya, and El Salvador, those whom we generally regard as the good guys won. The British government and the pro-British Northern Irish majority tamed the IRA sufficiently to open it to a political deal; UK-backed Malays prevailed over Chinese communist insurgents; and a pro-Western government remained in place in El Salvador at the expense of Soviet-supported rebels. The fact that these stories ended so well may explain the appeal of these purported Iraq precedents.
The Vietnam War has a different and more insidious relationship to the American psyche, one all the more seductive and resonant today because it does in fact bear objective similarities to the Iraq War. Both were major, large-scale American engagements against unexpectedly tough adversaries. Over time, both were met by dwindling public support. But there are also obvious differences. The Vietnam War evolved from a guerrilla insurgency into a major conventional conflict, while the Iraq War has taken just the opposite course. And Vietnam’s crowning characteristic is that the good guys lost. Indeed, the Vietnam War is often cast as the first American defeat. As such, it cries out for redemption of a cause betrayed. It is this last, highly emotive and nationalistic impulse, rather than the war’s pedagogical utility, that the Bush Administration seeks most acutely to exploit in implicitly vowing “never again.”
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