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Iraq and Vietnam

One of the things that came up on C-SPAN was a comment Richard Holbrooke apparently made where he said Iraq was a "worse strategic failure than Vietnam." I'm not a big fan of historical analogies in general, and Iraq-'Nam comparisons in particular get me down because there are a lot of people out there who, in virtue of having lived through the Vietnam War, know more about it than I do, whereas I know a lot more about the Iraq War than do most people. Certainly, I know more about Iraq than I do about Vietnam, so explaining the former in terms of the latter doesn't make much sense to me. That said, it's the way these things get talked about, so it's worth discussing some.

As I said on the show, I think Holbrooke's got this right in an important sense. The thing about Vietnam is that it turned out in the end not to have made much difference. This isn't to minimize the importance of the war for the tens of thousands of US troops who fought in it (obviously it was especially significant for those who died, suffered serious physical or psychological wounds, or their families). And, especially, one shouldn't minimize its importance for Vietnam. Huge numbers of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on both sides were killed or maimed. The aftermath of the war was not pretty for a large number of South Vietnamese who were associated with the United States or the South Vietnamese regime and suffered major reprisals after the North Vietnamese takeover. And the war, of course, did much direct -- and much more indirect -- damage to the people of Cambodia and Laos.

All that said, however, the fact that the United States ultimately cut and run, ultimately cut off support for South Vietnam, and ultimately watched Saigon overrun by the North Vietnamese Army didn't do much to alter our strategic position.

Iraq is different. Iraq lies at the heart of a region that's of enormous strategic importance to the United States. Our policy there threatens to develop into several possible outcomes (or some combination of outcomes) that could dramatically worsen our position in the war on terrorism. In particular, we're very likely to see the emergence of a belt of territory from Syria and Lebanon across southern Iraq into Iran and extending into western Afghanistan that is controlled by regimes aligned with the hardliners in Teheran. We are likely, meanwhile, to have developed sufficiently hostile relations that rather than achieving Iran's preferred outcome as of 9-12-01 (Iranian cooperation with the USA against the Sunni global jihad movement) we'll instead have achieved bin Laden's preferred outcome as of 9-12-01 (transcendance of the Sunni-Shiite divide in pursuit of hostility toward the United States).

We're also seeing the possible emergence of a belt of territory around central Iraq that will be controlled by violent Salafi groups aligned ideologically, if not operationally as well, with bin Laden's movement. Last but by no means least we risk finding ourselves stuck in a conflict with -- of all countries -- Turkey over the fate of northern Iraq. The same Turkey which one would have hoped to see emerge as a model for the evolution of other majority-Muslim polities into reasonably liberal, reasonably democratic states.

These outcomes may be avoidable, but avoiding them will require us to substantially abandon hope of pressing regional actors (Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.) on other issues that are likewise of crucial importance in the war on terrorism. Meanwhile, in addition to creating an operational environment for Sunni jihadis, we've distracted resources from fighting al-Qaeda, provided a boon for radical recruiting efforts, and managed to totally discredit the United States as an agent of positive change in the Muslim world, and totally discredit any figures in the Arab world who care to take public positions sympathetic to the United States of America.

The good news is that it's hard to see US casualties -- and especially US fatalities -- getting anywhere near the levels reached in Vietnam. On just about every other front, however, we've made a bigger mistake -- even if we manage to "win" in whatever sense that's now realistically possible.

September 18, 2004 | Permalink


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» Iraq-Nam from Lawyers, Guns and Money
No, the real long term downside of the Iraq invasion is to the people who live in the Gulf, not us. They will suffer more from strengthened radicalism than we will, and the Iraqis in particularly will probably face a very bloody civil war that will m... [Read More]

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» Argument Refined (Part 1) from Lawyers, Guns and Money
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Tracked on Sep 18, 2004 10:13:50 PM