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Revisiting Vietnam

As recently as last week, I wrote that I did not believe Iraq and Vietnam were the same war, and I have defended that proposition across the blogosphere, despite my intense opposition to getting into the invasion in the first place.

Today, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who lived through the Vietnam era and initially supported the invasion of Iraq, writes that he sees parallels emerging, particularly in President Bush's speech Tuesday night. From Cohen's column:

The similarity is most striking in the language the president used. First came the vast, insulting oversimplifications. The war in Iraq was tied over and over again to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, although that link was nonexistent. The Sept. 11 commission said in plain English that there was no connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Even a line such as we must "defeat them abroad before they attack us at home" had a musty, Vietnam-era sound to it. Whether it's true or not, it is an updated version of the domino theory: if not Saigon then San Francisco.

And so on. I still don't buy the theory that Iraq is the second coming of the Vietnam War, but Cohen makes me think that the parallels might be there again: the ill-defined mission objectives, the obfuscatory rhetoric, a potentially nationalist insurgency making trouble for American troops, the prospect of a long occupation.

Is Iraq becoming a new Vietnam?

I actually have a bifurcated answer to that.

First, Iraq does not seem to be a new Vietnam. While the word "terrorist" substitutes nicely for "communist" in wartime rhetoric, there are still greater differences. Chief among them is that the United States now has the benefit of fighting Vietnam, and has hopefully learned the lessons of that war. Second is that the mission is subtly different; the United States has made it clear, through action, that it is not merely trying to build a puppet regime in Iraq.

Indeed, the United States could have easily propped up a new strongman, handed him a revamped Iraqi military, and said, "Congratulations, Iraq, this is your new leader, make sure you send us plenty of oil." But the United States didn't choose to do that, instead embarking on the rather difficult task of midwifing an Iraqi democracy.

But, like I said, my answer is bifurcated. Even if this is America's new Vietnam, what difference does that make? While the timetable-setters might not like it, the United States does have at least a moral obligation to try to leave Iraq in a better condition than it was at the end of the invasion.

The cost of this obligation -- both in terms of American lives and American dollars -- is certainly great. And this endeavor, if mismanaged, may ultimately prove unsuccessful. The insurgency might triumph, American political will might bend, and the U.S. military might depart Baghdad in a chopper while an American soldier and his Iraqi lover sing about suns and moons.

If the Iraqi venture fails, then it will fail. But it cannot be allowed to fail when America has put barely any energy into the endeavor. U.S. troops have been stationed in Iraq for a mere two years. Overcoming an insurgency and rebuilding a nation certainly take much longer than that. The true outcome of this operation -- whether for good or for ill -- cannot be assayed in as short a time as two years.

Those who favor immediate (or short-term) withdrawal from Iraq seem deathly afraid that Iraq will turn into another Vietnam, a political embarrassment for the United States. But if this feverish push for a withdrawal succeeds ... then Iraq will certainly become another Vietnam.

Postscript
I hold a somewhat unique position on the Iraq invasion. Early on, I strongly opposed it for a variety of reasons, among them my belief that the United States should not assume the long-term burden of occupying and rebuilding Iraq. But now that the United States is in Iraq, I strongly oppose calls for withdrawal because I do not believe the United States has made sufficient effort to meet those obligations.

It is a position that does not find favor with either side of the Iraq debate.

When Pennywit isn't clubbing baby seals, he writes at Pennywit.com


Comments (15)

Well, Congress -did- connec... (Below threshold)
htom:
I hold a somewhat unique... (Below threshold)
mantis:

I hold a somewhat unique position on the Iraq invasion. Early on, I strongly opposed it for a variety of reasons, among them my belief that the United States should not assume the long-term burden of occupying and rebuilding Iraq. But now that the United States is in Iraq, I strongly oppose calls for withdrawal because I do not believe the United States has made sufficient effort to meet those obligations.

Hey, that's my position too!

It is a position that does not find favor with either side of the Iraq debate.

That's because "you're either with us or against us."

In the end, though, there are still important questions regarding how long this will take, with what monetary cost, and with how much/long commitment by the armed forces. While I agree that it is now our responsibility to leave Iraq better than we found it, does that also mean that our deficit will grow at the rate it has for the next "5,6,8, or 12 years"? If the recent recruitment problems become prolonged recruitment problems how will they be resolved? Will we ever consider handing over military/peacekeeping operations to the UN (if possible)? What will happen to Iraq if a real aggressor starts making trouble? Will we be able to commit to another theater while maintaining our presence in Iraq, or will we abandon that country, leaving them to descend into civil war (assuming that the situation in Iraq does not change before this hypothetical)?

"No connections"? Hardly. T... (Below threshold)
Peter:

"No connections"? Hardly. These articles appear in today's Weekly Standard. Stephen Hayes is brilliant in his reporting on the subject. His book is equally engaging. A must read, particularly for those who continue to insist that Hussein's secular gov't would not interest OBL and al Qaeda. Cohen is full of garbage as usual. Read, please.

On Rockefeller's flip-flopping on the subject:
http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/005/780plthl.asp

Evidence on numerous connections:
http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/005/780plthl.asp

"And so on. I still don't b... (Below threshold)
jreid:

"And so on. I still don't buy the theory that Iraq is the second coming of the Vietnam War, but Cohen makes me think that the parallels might be there again: the ill-defined mission objectives,"

GW has defined the mission over and over. A representitive government in a free Iraq.

"the obfuscatory rhetoric,"

He has not changed, he just has to keep repating the same thing over and over because some do not listen.

"a potentially nationalist insurgency making trouble for American troops,"

The terrorists are less and less nationalist if the recent reports have any credibility. Foriegn jihadists are killing Iraqis. This is not a winning strategy.

"the prospect of a long occupation."

How long is long? Do you think we will be there as long as say Bosnia, Germany, Japan, or Korea? I think not.

Well, Mantis, I think a lar... (Below threshold)

Well, Mantis, I think a large part of putting down teh insurgency is getting the Sunnis and the foreign Salafists to start fighting each other. You're already seeing some of that, as the Sunnis are trying to get in at the ground floor with the new government.

The next step, I think, is for the United States to lose. Not to lose to the insurgency, but, perhaps, to very publicly lose some sort of dispute over tactics or similar with the existing Iraqi government, more to prove that it's not a puppet than anything else.

Next, I'd say set deadlines, but set them right ... (and I know Bush et. al. are doing this already). You set them not as deadlines for U.S. withdrawal, but as deadlines for the Iraqi government to accomplish something (say, write a constitution) or as deadlines for U.S. forces to meet milestones (say, train six Iraqi divisions).

It's a neat way to split the baby -- give a sense of accomplishments, planning, and a possible "withdrawal date," but not actually setting a withdrawal date.

As for deficits ... I say, whatever it takes. The United States has an opportunity to build an ally here, and can probably accomplish it with good planning.

--|PW|--

This is interesting<p... (Below threshold)
Baggi:

This is interesting

"The Sept. 11 commission said in plain English that there was no connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein."

Either he has problems with reading comprehension or he is a liar. The Sept 11 commission said in plain English that there was no cooperation between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein to commit the atrocity of 9/11. The 9/11 commission said nothing about there being no cooperative relationship between Saddam Hussien, Iraq and Al Qaeda. The connection and relationship has been made many times.

You can tell when someones position on something is tentative. They have to lie or deceive in order to make a point.

I can see why Kevin asked y... (Below threshold)
BR:

I can see why Kevin asked you to guest host, Pennywit. Yours is well written.

But Cohen's logic fails. As I recall, the domino theory pertained to Communism spreading from country to country, threatening freedom and therefore the US had to stop it. I would say this time the roles are reversed: the US is not trying to "stop terrorists as dominoes"; instead, the outward thrust of Western civilization starting with the early democratic steps of Greece has come full circle through Europe, the US and now back to the doorstep of Greece, with Lebanon's blossoming democracy, emboldened by the US presence and changes in Iraq.

We're never going to see a planet where everybody dutifully sits at home being apathetic angels. How dull. So, in the game of Action, outflow/attack is the best defense. Last century, the USSR and China had their turn with Communism (unfortunately also a product of western civilization out of Germany and London - Marx), and now it's Democracy's turn. It may turn out to be more fun for all, unlike Alexander's campaigns.

I, too, lived through the V... (Below threshold)

I, too, lived through the Vietnam war, voting as an 18 y/o in my first election in '72.

And the thing I'm finding most apparent with the like of Cohen and my older brothers and sisters on the Iraq is ALMOST Vietnam screed is really not horror but wistful nostalgia. They want Iraq as Vietnam, they want to recapture the heady days of tie-dye shirts, daisies, Woodstock, marching in the streets chanting "hey hey LBJ..." all covered with sepia-colored clouds of pot and the erroneous impression THEY caused the US defeat in Vietnam.

The day Saigon fell I was ashamed for my country -- an ugly, disgraceful retreat. I don't want that to happen again.

Liar.

I agree that withdrawing fr... (Below threshold)
Inquiring:

I agree that withdrawing from Iraq now, or dropping support drastically, will turn Iraq into the next Vietnam (hate that phrase, people need to get over Vietnam, it was horrible, it is an everlasting mark of shame for all the peaceniks out there, but it was far from unique).

Of course there are parallels to Vietnam, every single war in the history of mankind has parallels to Vietnam. It is like saying oranges have parallels to tangerines. That is the nature of war, each war is eerily similar to the last while having a uniqueness all its own.

If a person felt up to it they could sit down and draw tons of parallels between Vietnam and the French and Indian War, or the Mongol invasion of Japan (first one, the second was blown away by a typhoon before they reached shore), or the Anglo-Zulu war. They all have elements similar to Vietnam, just like they all have elements that are dissimilar.

Drawing parallels between wars, societies, or even just technologies is nothing more than (pathetic) intellectual masturbation if one is simply going to repeat lessons already learned while spouting off doom and gloom.

We have learned the lessons of Vietnam, just like we learned the lessons of the Korean War, World War II, World War I, the Civil War, etc, etc, ad infinitum. These are lessons about how to successfully wage war when it becomes necessary, how to not repeat the mistakes of previous wars if possible. Unfortunately while we learn the lessons some people just simply do not care, and they will stand in the way and obstruct those who not only know what needs to be done, but are also willing to do it.

mantis:

"While I agree that it is now our responsibility to leave Iraq better than we found it, does that also mean that our deficit will grow at the rate it has for the next "5,6,8, or 12 years"?

That depends far more on domestic spenditure than on the Iraq war. Blame Congress for being utterly incapable of creating a balanced budget. Maybe if we were to stop funding incompetent organizations like the UN the economic cost of Iraq would not felt so much, which brings me to the next item:

"Will we ever consider handing over military/peacekeeping operations to the UN (if possible)?"

Given the United Nations absolutely horrific record in regard to the Congo, the recent tsunami disaster Thailand, and the evident corruption reaching all the way to the Secretary General, may all the elders of Lovecraftian thought forbid that we ever consider, even in passing, turning Iraq over to the UN. The UN's record for the past decade (longer, even) has been so utterly deplorable that the institution’s continued existence is a disgrace. It serves as nothing more than a mouthpiece to justify the atrocities of tyrants and despots while exhorting those countries that actually manage to eke out an existence without wholesale quashing of its citizens/subjects.

Giving Iraq to the United Nations without the UN having undergone some very serious, very broad reforms would be worse than just simply packing up and leaving Iraq right now.

"What will happen to Iraq if a real aggressor starts making trouble? Will we be able to commit to another theater while maintaining our presence in Iraq, or will we abandon that country, leaving them to descend into civil war (assuming that the situation in Iraq does not change before this hypothetical)?"

Not sure what you mean by real aggressor, what exactly constitutes a real aggressor? Further, would this real aggressor be in the Middle East, or in another region of the world (as location would greatly affect your hypothetical)?

If you mean, say, China, or North Korea... well, those kinds of aggressors are going to draw broad support against them, especially North Korea. In fact, Japan is in a prime position to begin armament again if need be to deal with such a threat, and Britain, as well as Australia, would no doubt be with us again, so it is not like we would be totally alone.

Either way it is useless speculation, because the only answer is "we'll cope." If we have to leave Iraq we will, as much as we need to to get the job done. If that means they are left with only half of our current forces, or totally high and dry is totally and completely unpredictable.

There are few parallels bet... (Below threshold)

There are few parallels between the Vietnam War and Iraq, if you want a recent parallel you would have to cite the invasion of Lebanon by Israel. Same pattern, in the “war” phase they kicked ass and took names, then came the occupation… well we all know what happened then,

"a potentially nationalist ... (Below threshold)
Faith+1:

"a potentially nationalist insurgency making trouble for American troops,"

On this point I totally agree. There is a group of American nationals who seemed determine to make trouble for troops at every turn with lies and accusations that there are brutal torturers, compare them to facists regimes and openly hope for their failure as a military force.

Most of them we call liberals though, not Sunnis.

iraq could become another v... (Below threshold)
ac:

iraq could become another vietnam, but it would take serious political missteps. Vietnam was easily "winable" in 63-65 but the administration of the US choose to support a leader in South Vietnam already disliked by a wide swatch of the population. His power grabs destabilized the vietnamese army and support for his government wavered. The US had to take an ever increasing role in Vietnam month after month due to inaction of Southern troops. During the early part of the war, as far back as French involvement, the South never fought with much will, instead letting someone else fight their battles.

Flash forward to today. The US went in like gang busters, and now we are handing over the task to the Iraqi forces. Very different than Vietnam. The Iraqi's are also stepping up quite well to the task, again very different from Vietnam in some respects. There is also the terror attacks against large segments of the population. While similar to Viet Cong tactics there are subtle differences. While US and South Vietnamese attacks against civilian targets helped push large segments of the Southern population to assist the Viet Cong, and thus give the NVA time to organize, build, train and plan. The same isn't happening (yet) in Iraq.

There are some things that ... (Below threshold)
bullwinkle:

There are some things that are similar. In both cases mistakes by democrats got the ball rolling on the wars, and as soon as they realized a republican might just win it they withdrew their support. Clinton's lack of doing anything useful after 6 attacks on Americans was nearly as impotent as Johnson's trying to run a war with a set of rules of engagement that hamstrung our forces in Viet Nam. In both instances the left has sworn to support our troops while calling them war criminals in the same breath, Dick Durbin is the John Fraud Kerry of Iraq. We even have our resident moonbat s9 calling iraq Jay's war, ala John Kerry calling Viet Nam Nixon's war. I doubt the democrats will be successful this time, we have a president with guts that won't let a very vocal minority force us to walk away and abandon the Iraqis. So I'd have to sday there have some things in common, mostly a dishonest , spineless left, some things never change.

Hmmm.Are there par... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

Are there parallels to Vietnam? Sure there are. The biggest parallel is that, and people forget this, the Vietnam War was actually won by America. The history is extremely clear on this issue.

The South Vietnamese Army, after the US had pulled most of it's combat troops from South Vietnam, had successfully smashed a major offensive by the North Vietnamese. By 1972 the Viet Cong had been completely eradicated as a force because of anti-guerilla actions and the disaster of the Tet Offensive. The Winter War of 1972 saw General Giap, the hero of Dien Bien Phu, get his ass kicked so hard he was dismissed from his post.

To counter this obvious success the Democratic controlled Congress decided to shut down all funding for the South Vietnamese, including funds for the South Vietnamese Army. Without money, food, fuel or ammunition the South Vietnamese Army disintegrated ending with the fall of Saigon.

Is there a parallel? Yes there damn well is. The Democrats are willing, yet again, to sacrifice anything and anyone for political points.

The history is clear on this.

There are few parallels ... (Below threshold)

There are few parallels between the Vietnam War and Iraq, if you want a recent parallel you would have to cite the invasion of Lebanon by Israel. Same pattern, in the “war” phase they kicked ass and took names, then came the occupation… well we all know what happened then,

Coming so soon after Darleen's "wistful nostalgia" observation, Rick, your comment is actually amusing.




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