Foreign Policy

Iraq Is No Vietnam

But Vietnam holds lessons for Iraq

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Assessing American attempts to suppress the insurgency and establish a viable regime, a prominent American scholar cut to the heart of the problem with icy acuity. "We are so powerful that [the insurgency] is simply unable to defeat us militarily," he writes. "By its own efforts, [it] cannot force the withdrawal of American forces." The trouble is that the insurgents don't need an outright military victory. "Their tactic is to use terror and intimidation to discourage cooperation with constituted authority." Their aim is "largely negative: to prevent the consolidation of governmental authority."

The insurgents know that the American military cannot stay forever. And when it leaves? "Unfortunately, our military strength has no political corollary; we have been unable so far to create a political structure that could survive opposition from Hanoi after we withdraw."

Hanoi? The author was Henry A. Kissinger, then a Harvard professor (writing in Foreign Affairs); the time was January 1969; the war, Vietnam.

Iraq is not Vietnam. From a military point of view, they could hardly be less alike. In an indispensable May paper, security analysts Jeffrey Record and W. Andrew Terrill of the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute compare the two cases. They note that, unlike the Vietnamese Communists, Iraq's insurgents do not have clear aims, central direction, a sophisticated air-defense system, half the country as a sanctuary, and the sponsorship of two major powers.

In Iraq, America faces thousands of enemy fighters, versus hundreds of thousands in Vietnam. Daily U.S. combat fatalities in Vietnam were about 10 times as high as they are in Iraq. Although the Iraqi insurgency benefits from an inflow of foreign jihadis, on balance America's military position is vastly stronger in Iraq than in Vietnam. To draw simple comparisons would be foolish.

Nonetheless, Vietnam, for all its differences, holds lessons for Iraq. Not to study those lessons would be equally foolish. Foremost among them are these: Iraq can only be won politically, not militarily; only Iraqis can win it; and the United States has some influence but little control, perhaps even less than we now think.

Begin with a distinction. Is Iraq a disaster, or only a mess?

A mess is a bad situation with good options. With skill, you can use your options to turn things around. Messes happen all the time and often work out for the best. A disaster, by contrast, is a mess without good options. Messes are manageable, but disasters are merely containable. You pray they don't happen, and when they do you can only move on and hope to recover.

If Iraq were Vietnam, today would be 1966—"still two years away from the Tet offensive, and almost seven years away from the final U.S. military withdrawal," write Record and Terrill. In 1966, Vietnam was still a mess, in the best sense of the word. Americans looked ahead with trepidation but optimism. In 1967, Gen. William Westmoreland declared that the war was being won militarily and that American forces might begin coming home in late 1968. President Johnson said that pacification was progressing satisfactorily.

By 1969, Vietnam was looking distinctly like a disaster. With the Tet offensive of January 1968, the insurgents showed they could sustain immense losses and still strike all across the country. They were still in business after almost three years of massive American assault. Tet was a lopsided military victory for the United States, but also an equally lopsided psychological and political defeat. After Tet, the United States concluded it would have to negotiate terms with the North Vietnamese. Washington still hoped that military power could force Hanoi to accept a deal, but even that hope proved chimerical.

As Kissinger suggested in 1969, the fundamental problem for the United States in Vietnam was not psychological or military; it was political. Unless the United States could stand up a South Vietnamese government that could defend itself and that was worth defending, America could neither leave Vietnam safely nor accomplish anything by staying. Alas, the South Vietnamese government, write Record and Terrill, "was crippled from the start by three main weaknesses that no amount of American intervention could offset: professional military inferiority, rampant corruption, and lack of political legitimacy." The military situation in Vietnam was a mess, but the political situation was a disaster.

Iraq is a mess, for sure. If the United States had found weapons of mass destruction, or if we had invaded with broad support and legitimacy in the world's eyes, or if we had briskly pacified the country, we would be in much better shape today. To be zero for three is the perfect storm of a mess. Still, if our luck changes, Iraq, the Middle East, and the world may yet eventually emerge better off. It is much too early to proclaim the outcome a disaster.

But then, in 1969 there was still room to hope that Vietnam might work out for the best. Vietnam was becoming a disaster of a different sort: By the late 1960s, the United States had run out of good options. Washington had become dependent on luck. Whenever the country loses control over its central foreign-policy commitment, that is a problem in its own right. American foreign policy becomes like the passenger trapped in a hurtling car who is unable to steer and unable to escape.

"Now we have Vietnam," says William L. Nash. A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Nash retired in 1998 as an Army major general after serving in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Bosnia. "You've got a sovereign government over there, a big embassy, and 140,000 U.S. soldiers. And our ability to influence political decisions is finite. [U.S. Ambassador John D.] Negroponte can't issue a proclamation."

For the United States in Iraq, as in Vietnam, strength does not equal power. "Don't underestimate our influence, but it's very clear we don't have control," says Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (and also an officer in the Army Reserve). In a counterinsurgency operation, "the military instrument is a facilitator for actions in the political frame. You're not trying to engage and destroy military forces. You're engaged in a struggle for the loyalty of a large proportion of the public. Military achievements will only be ephemeral if you don't have a conducive political and economic environment."

America has significant influence on Iraq's security and economy, Eisenstadt says. "But on the political plane, we really have a limited role to play there."

The point is not that the United States is destined to lose in Iraq as it lost in Vietnam. The point is that the bottom line is the same: Only if the people of the country have a government that is worth supporting and capable of self-defense can stability withstand America's inevitable withdrawal. "Political development is prime," says Nash. "This is about politics, not military."

To call the situation challenging is an understatement. To some extent, Washington may undermine an Iraqi government's legitimacy in the very act of supporting it. Worse, says Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the presence of the U.S. military stimulates the insurgency. "That's the dilemma. We may be part of the problem, but without us things might get even worse." The dilemma, he adds, is inherent in the dynamics of the situation. Changing presidents, commanders, tactics, or "how much electricity you run" does not fundamentally alter the equation.

Fortunately, the example of Vietnam also provides cause for hope. In Vietnam, the United States failed to understand the war's political dimension until too late. By the time Washington woke up and changed tactics (with some success), the people of South Vietnam and the United States had irretrievably lost confidence in their respective governments' ability to win the war.

By contrast, April's double-whammy uprisings by both Sunnis and Shiites had something of the shock effect of Tet— but early enough in the conflict to do some good. Until then, says Eisenstadt, American officials and commanders still sometimes talked as if the rebels could be dealt a knockout military blow, preferably before the handover of sovereignty. "Since then there's been a very steep learning curve and we've come a long way," he says. "There is an emerging Iraqi politics now which forces them to act and be seen as acting as independent actors pursuing Iraqi interests which are not always identical to our own interests. And actually I think the Iraqi government has done very well and we've adjusted very well, after a very rough start."

Better, at least, than in Vietnam.

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