Saigon on the Tigris?

John Kerry's Vietnam experience may be disastrous in Iraq


With all due respect to John Kerry's experiences in Vietnam (where, by his own reckoning in 1971, he committed "the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers"), has anyone really wondered what the moral of that failed venture might mean for a President Kerry in Iraq?

When it comes to Vietnam, it was John Paul Vann who embodied stubborn faith in the possibility of victory in a war most contemporaries considered a lost cause. His biography, A Bright Shining Lie, earned Neil Sheehan a Pulitzer Prize. Yet Sheehan wrote about Vann with the affection, and hard eye, one reserves for the quixotic. Kerry, in contrast, gave up on the whole affair early, and it's fair to wonder whether his faith in victory in Iraq will prove as short-lived.

Kerry would disagree. His campaign website links to a speech he gave last April at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri (where Winston Churchill first mentioned the "Iron Curtain"). In the address, Kerry argued: "[W]e can accomplish the mission. And we must… failure is not an option in Iraq. But it is also true that failure is not an excuse for more of the same." Kerry had Vietnam on his mind when he remarked in a different context: "If we are stuck for a long period of time in a quagmire where young Americans are dying without a sense of [not failing] being… achieved, I think most Americans will decide that's failure."

True enough, but where is Kerry's cutoff point? When would he determine that the U.S. is caught in an Iraqi quagmire? Most importantly, how would this affect his policy—assuming he wins in November—on U.S. troops in Iraq?

In his acceptance speech before the Democratic Party convention, Kerry apparently had February 28, 1968 in the back of his mind. That's when the American commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, requested an additional 206,000 troops from President Lyndon Johnson, as well as the mobilization of reserve units. A little less than a month afterwards, Johnson effectively rejected the request by agreeing only to a token increase in forces, putting an end to major American troop escalations in Vietnam.

For Kerry, and many others, Vietnam taught that just funneling more troops into a conflict is not necessarily a solution. That's probably why he had this to say at the convention: "I will build a stronger American military. We will add 40,000 active duty troops—not in Iraq (italics mine), but to strengthen American forces that are now overstretched, overextended, and under pressure… To all who serve in our armed forces today, I say, help is on the way."

Excellent news, except apparently for those in Iraq. Kerry showed rare consistency by stating a few days after the convention, in response to a query as to whether he would increase troop numbers: "I don't envision it." In fact, on several occasions in the past months he made similar statements. Last September, for example, he said that more soldiers "would be the worst thing. We do not want to have more Americanization. We do not want a greater sense of American occupation."

The only problem was that in December Kerry said just the opposite. He told NBC's Tim Russert: "We cannot fail. I've said that many times. And if it requires more troops in order to create the stability that eliminates the chaos, that can provide the groundwork for other countries, that's what you have to do." In a Washington Post op-ed piece on July 4, posted on his website, he wrote: "We know that a chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Eric Shinseki, was right when he argued that more troops would be needed to establish security and win the peace in the weeks and months after Saddam Hussein's fall."

So, what exactly is Kerry carrying on about? He would increase troop levels by some 40,000, but has said they would not go to Iraq, where, he has repeatedly implied, U.S. forces are overstretched, overextended and under pressure. (Barring soldiers from an American theater of operations must be a military first.) But then again, we're not quite sure what Kerry intends to do in Iraq; in fact, we're not sure whether he even has a transition strategy there, or how American force structures would fit in with political developments.

That's because Kerry almost never speaks of the Iraqis as Iraqis. His denunciation of "Americanization" in Iraq harks back to the Johnson- and Nixon-era policy of "Vietnamization"—which was essentially an effort to place the burden of war on South Vietnam, so the U.S. could quietly head for the exits. If Kerry's goal is gradual "Iraqization", he's not wrong (and finds himself in bed with not a few influential neoconservatives). But shouldn't that mean the U.S. must leave something durable behind in Baghdad, so as not to replicate the debacle of April 30, 1975, when the American order in South Vietnam collapsed ignominiously?

It was remarkable that in his acceptance speech, Kerry mentioned not once what he intended for the Iraqis. Absent, too, was any mention of democracy in the Middle East. Why should a U.S. presidential candidate even bother with this? Because, as 9/11 showed, it has implications for American security. Kerry has largely avoided linking terrorism to political realities in the Middle East. That would mean addressing the neoconservative critique that only by democratizing the region and removing autocratic regimes whose stifling policies have helped generate Islamist violence can the U.S. guarantee its own long-term security.

Kerry needn't agree with the neocon hypothesis, but he must find a justifiable alternative to explain why the U.S. cannot fail in Iraq. The thing is that Kerry sees Iraq as little more than a headache that must be swiftly resolved. The broader implications of the invasion for U.S. national security and for a transformation of the Middle East are almost nonexistent in his campaigning. It may be a Kerry rarity, but he actually seems to mean it when he says that the goal in Iraq is "to get the job done and bring our troops home."

However, that begs the question: If Iraq serves no significant or enduring American objective; if the priority is solely to bring about stability (with the help of allies, Kerry insists, in a plan peddled as a silver bullet) to get out, then isn't that a pretty low threshold to validate remaining in the country if American casualties continue rising? As in Vietnam, a Kerry administration might soon conclude that a pullout short of success might, in fact, not be that damaging to U.S. interests.

Kerry is deluding himself if he thinks the solution in Iraq is bringing in allied soldiers so the U.S. can shrink its presence. No one, whether in Europe or the Arab world, wants to be cannon fodder for John Kerry. Worse, as they contemplate Kerry's absence of ambition in Iraq, as they try to decipher his contradictory statements on U.S. military policy there, as they ponder that his staying power in Iraq may be limited, and as they search for something substantive on the Middle East in his acceptance speech, the allies must be thinking that this is the guy who may turn Baghdad into Saigon, circa April 30, 1975.