Forget Vietnam

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Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, Stephen Biddle proposes a new silver bullet in Iraq, one that has the good sense to argue that revisiting the experience of Vietnam makes no sense at all. Biddle observes that whereas Vietnam was a "Maoist people's war" whose goal was national liberation, in Iraq what is taking place is something quite different: a communal civil war. Therefore, "Iraqization", which the United States is implementing today, comes in a very different context than "Vietnamization", which the Nixon administration tried to apply after 1968 (though Biddle only briefly touches on whether Vietnamization was a success, therefore worth imitating).

Biddle's argument is that building up the Iraqi army and security forces (as the U.S. did in South Vietnam) is likely to generate more instability than the contrary, since these institutions have been mainly filled by people linked to Shiite and Kurdish political parties, and are therefore perceived by Sunnis as threats. Rather than urge an acceleration of the process to expand the army and police, Biddle insists it must be slowed down until a broad political accord between Arab Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds is reached. He also proposes that the U.S. "threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to coerce them to negotiate" such a compromise.

Finally, he proposes that the Americans "avoid setting any more arbitrary deadlines for democratization." While democracy is the long-term goal, in the present fragmented context too much of it will only exacerbate sectarianism. Better to move toward constitutional compromise first, in order to give a democratic system more solid foundations. As Biddle writes: "Resolving the country's communal security problems must take priority over bringing self-determination to the Iraqi people–or the democracy that many hope for will never emerge."

While Biddle doesn't unpack what he means by "manipulating the balance of power" between the communities (though he may have Bosnia in mind, where Muslims and Croats were allowed to re-establish a military equilibrium with the winning Serbs, as an effort to push the latter to what would become the Dayton accord), he is indeed correct that Iraqization is a policy that fails to address the real issue in Iraq today–the minority syndrome. It is bound to fail, moreover, if its only aim is to ease an American drawdown of forces. (In that context, read Joel Rayburn's essay in the same issue of the magazine on the pitfalls of Britain's pullout of Iraq, and its parallelisms with the U.S. situation.)

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  1. Of course Biddle’s most stunning omission, especially for comparison sake, as that “Vietnamization” didn’t work either.

    As for his recommendations of “putting pressure” on the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Well, just how do you put pressure on terrrists/insurgents anyway? It hasn’t worked with the Palestininans, so just how does he expect it to work with the Sunnis?

    What kind of pressure? The kind where the Middel Eastern press accuses us of blowing up and killing innocent wedding parties? Money for people who have a fanatical religious agenda?

    As for threatening to manipulate the military balance of power…Biddle’s naive assertion ignores that we’ve been doing just that for the past 30+ years throughout the region. And we suck at it. We’re undoubtedly STILL trying to do that now. And we still suck at it.

    It’s largely why many of the good folks of the Middle East hate us so much. We don’t know how to even talk with these people let alone put pressure on them or manipulate them.

  2. sunnis are arabs shia are arabs, sunnis are muslims shia are muslims….i really don’t see the problem.

    But i never really understood the protestant cathlic hatred thing either…or course the 30 years war was real.

    hell maybe there needs to be a reformation.

    maybe human beings are incapable of solving such things without all out sectarian war.

    Anyway ….so where is that civil war again that was promissed to us after the bombing of the shia holy place??

    its is nice to play these games with the whole sunni shia thing and civil war but the reality is that there is no war and there is unlikely to be one.

  3. Ah, for the heady days when Mr. Young used to post about democracy on the march through Lebanon, and Syria, and…on and on and on.

    Now he is relegated to shifting through the shit of our “you broke it, you bought it” Iraq policy choices, all of which suck massive donkey dick.

    Sign me “A proud FIRST guesser”….

  4. Offtopic quite a bit:

    I love it! I don’t know how long it will last but check out the two ads on the right adstrip over there ——-> Forget about the carpet humper. The two below that work well paired together. On top you have the Libertarian Reform Caucus, cycling between their tag line A Rational Plan for Restoring Liberty, and this little tickler paragraph:

    “Restoring liberty in the near future is feasible. Given the constraints of the U.S. political system, the logical course of action follows:”

    Then under that you have the ad for Endless Pools, the Treadmill for Swimmers. The poor little Libertarian swims frantically against the flow forever and gets nowhere.

    Absolutely perfect.

  5. I agree with madpad. “threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds”…wow, what a novel idea.
    However, Biddle does bring up an interesting point about the focus on increasing the size and training of Iraqi security forces. Why is this assumed to be such a great thing? Saddam had a security force that was fairly large and well-trained (for a small country) and no one was really happy about that. China keeps increasing their military power, technology, and training and Lou Dobbs’ head is about to explode. The idea that Democracy can only blossom after a police state is established refutes itself.

  6. The idea that Democracy can only blossom after a police state is established refutes itself.

    What was that thing about the US having military force stronger then the next fifteen strongest?

    How does that jive with the freedoms I enjoy everyday?

    And it is hard to contend otherwise that the times before the invention of the rifle had far stricter rule then after…in fact the more capable weapons become the larger the proportion of poeple on the planet live free and the more prosperious they become.

    I do not contend that the gun is the soul and only reason for my (and your) historic degree of freedom and prospertity…but the evidance is so far in my favor versus your statment that it allows me to laugh fully in your face.

  7. If by “success” you mean getting our troops the hell out of Vietnam, I’d say Vietnamization was tremendously successful. I’d rank Nixon’s Vietnamization just as successful as I imagine a John Kerry Iraqization would have been. Perhaps the original goals would not have been met, but considering that the original goals were foolishly conceived, the end result would be the best that can be hoped for under the circumstances.

  8. If by “success” you mean getting our troops the hell out of Vietnam, I’d say Vietnamization was tremendously successful.

    No argument there, jf. But since at least part of what we should mean by success is leaving a stable nation state, in that regard Vietnamization wasn’t because we didn’t.

  9. I agree with the sentiment, although an argument could be made that Vietnam has been a highly stable nation since unification.

  10. jf, you’re on fire tonight. Again an astute point, consisely stated.

    Being that “Vietnamization”, as it were, had little effect on the country’s ultimate success, perhaps your point is evidence that Biddle is wrong and maybe we should consider getting out of Iraq ASAP.

  11. joushua corning,

    “Anyway ….so where is that civil war again that was promissed to us after the bombing of the shia holy place??”

    Exactly where the non-Baathist insurgency was in 2002 (remember “a few dead enders?”), the region-wide jihadist mobilization was in 2003, the deep rooted sectarian insurgency was in 2004, and the ongoing, sustainable, far-from-beaten insurgency was in 2005: RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE, WHERE YOU CAN’T SEE THEM.

  12. Biddle’s first line just goes to show how out of touch with public opinion Washington really is.

    “Contentious as the current debate over Iraq is, all sides seem to make the crucial assumption that to succeed there the United States must fight the Vietnam War again — but this time the right way.”

    Uh, no, the “side” that consists of a plurality, if not an outright majority, of Americans considers the Iraq War to be an irredemable mistake. But such thoughts cannot even be acknowledged by the Beltway Conventional Wisdom mavens.

    Remember when Howard Dean was an extremist, beyond the pale, because he didn’t find the case for Iraqi WMDs to be convincing?

  13. Does anyone else see parallels to Yugoslavia – another state comprised of different ethnic groups that was kept together only at gunpoint?

    I suppose since we didn’t really have many troops in the former Yugoslavia, it doesn’t have the same resonance that Vietnam does. However, other than the fact the insurgents are using guerilla warfare, I’ve been at a loss as to what any relevant comparisons between Iraq in 2006 and Vietnam in, say, 1966 might be.

    Do people not want to consider the idea of a deconstructed Iraq, broken into Kurdish/Sunni/Shia states? Given the Iranian influence on the Shia population, the Turkish problems with the Kurds, and the fact that the Sunnis are currently leading the insurrection, this may be understandable. Also, the fact that Iraqi oil is not evenly distributed throughout the country means that placing the borders would be more contentious than if it were ‘merely’ a matter of historical precedent and national/ethnic pride.

  14. Exactly where the non-Baathist insurgency was in 2002 (remember “a few dead enders?”), the region-wide jihadist mobilization was in 2003, the deep rooted sectarian insurgency was in 2004, and the ongoing, sustainable, far-from-beaten insurgency was in 2005

    simply becouse Cheney exagerates US success in Iraq by no means deminishes the exageration that “a civil war has engulfed iraq creating a region of ungovernable chaos”*

    *quote from straw man I know but not that unreasonable of a strawman

    I guess a far better strawman would be “Iraq is the new Vietnam”…which exagerates the situation in Iraq far more then Cheney saying “A bunch of dead enders”

    I guess on the Hawk side the description of the pendulum would be 8 degrees to the right while the dove side has that sucker at 90 degrees to the left horizontal.

  15. From the article and from comments there seems to be this blind spot to not only how Iraq will end up anyway but also the obvious solution:

    which is let the majority shia rule.

  16. “From the article and from comments there seems to be this blind spot to not only how Iraq will end up anyway but also the obvious solution:

    which is let the majority shia rule.”

    I also think that will be the end game scenario for Iraq.

    What get me about this whole Iraq thing is

    “Gen. John Shalikashvili, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress that the United States should go to war in Iraq only as a last resort.” (Sourcewatch)

    He warned everybody that it was going to take a hell of a lot of people to do what the US wanted in Iraq. He basically got handed his sword and ended up riding a rail out of town. The US went in shorthanded and now they have their hands full and it ain’t very pretty.

    The Iraquis welcomed us as liberators for a little while, but we have worn out our welcome with them. We did not find any WMDs, the country is not running anywhere close to the way the US thought it would be, with all that oil wealth and cool stuff like democracy.

    Flimsy evidence, media manipulation, messy intertribal warfare, bad public relation management and no exit strategy. Sounds like we are in second or third place in this one. Kind of reminds me of a tee shirt my uncle had. “Participant Southeast Asia War Games, Second Place.”

  17. which is let the majority shia rule.

    Except for the Kurd-controlled north, isn’t that exactly what’s already going on – in spirt and intent.

    And it’s pretty much like Isreal for the past 30 years.

    Like Judd Hirsch from Ordinary People said…”Control’s a tough nut.”

  18. joshua-

    A liberal republic requires far more than majority rule. And when you say to “let” the Shia majority rule, I suspect you mean that they should be given free rein to take off the gloves in dealing with the Sunni insurgents. If taking off the gloves means a strong but judicious and intelligent use of force against militants, then I’m all in favor. If, however, it comes to mean an unchecked police state that engages in acts of aggression against Sunni non-combatants, then that is obviously problematic. An illiberal state aligned with Iran is hardly an improvement in the regional situation.

    It may very well be that letting the Shia majority rule is the least bad option. It may be that an illiberal regime is inevitable. But it is hardly something to greet with nonchalance. Resignation? Perhaps. Indifference? No.

  19. Personally, I think a better solution than majority rule would be federalism, with a central government that concerns itself with as few matters as possible and operates by consensus rule (supermajority) rather than majority rule.

    Which is what the Iraqi Constitution more or less spells out on paper. Of course, the way a government operates in real life is often very different from how its described on paper. My hunch is that in practice the interprovince commerce clause will be used to incarcerate medical hashish users. šŸ˜‰

    OK, seriously, my hunch is that the Kurds will retain considerable autonomy, and the Shia majority will prove to be rather illiberal towards the Sunni minority. And by illiberal I don’t just mean that they’ll be harsh on terrorists. I mean that they’ll be rather indiscriminate. A lot of innocent Sunnis will find themselves targets of retaliation, and the security apparatus will operate with few checks or balances, and enjoy free rein to engage in practices like torture.

  20. clarification: The Shia Arabs will be illiberal towards the Sunni Arabs. The Kurds are also Sunnis, but I think the Shia Arabs will leave them alone.

  21. It may very well be that letting the Shia majority rule is the least bad option. It may be that an illiberal regime is inevitable. But it is hardly something to greet with nonchalance. Resignation? Perhaps. Indifference? No.

    hope…or as joe describes it blind and dangerous faith. šŸ™‚

    But seriously even in a liberal democracy the majority rules and i think it is high time after 30 years of rulership the sunnis realize this as well as the pundits in the US. (I think as libertarians we best should understand the possition of a minority in a liberal democracy.)

    I guess I am not at all convinced that shia majority rule will result in an illiberal democracy…in fact I more skeptical of disproprtionate share of power going to the sunni resulting in a liberal democracy. (the libertarian argument has always been individual rights over group rights and bestowing special rights to group affiliations is asthima to clasical liberal governace)

    One thing is certian though that if Iraq remains one unit and a democracy that shia will be the majority come liberal democracy or illiberal democracy…all this pussy footing around this issue is pointless dithering. And as a majority the shia will have control of the military, national police and, at least in the south the oil. Any attempt to upset this enevitabilty will harm the chances of liberal democracy emerging in Iraq.

  22. Personally, I think a better solution than majority rule would be federalism, with a central government that concerns itself with as few matters as possible and operates by consensus rule (supermajority) rather than majority rule.

    agreed…everyone seems so hell bent on keeping Iraq one peice I didn’t want to open that can of worms

  23. thoreau:

    To simplify, Iraq is SNAFU no matter what.

    My hunch is that what didn’t work with Yugoslavia might have a better shot with Iraq, although the United Nations would have to be willing to take responsibility for maintaining order between the newly created states.

    As a non-political/ambassadorial-type, it seems to me that an extremely loose confederation of three states (Kurdistan, Sunnistan, Shiastan, for lack of better names) would work best. Complete autonomy for each state, with oil rights evenly divided among all three. A federal government could exist in a NATO-style mutual defense arrangement, with an explicit guarantee that the federal forces could not be used with the borders of the former Iraq, and oil dividends could be collected and paid to each citizen by the federal government much like the current arrangement in Alaska. In addition, a federal “Supreme Court” could exist to mediate disputes between the states.

    It is also quite possible that watching the Oscars tonight sapped my brain of all rational thinking.

  24. Shia majority will prove to be rather illiberal towards the Sunni minority. And by illiberal I don’t just mean that they’ll be harsh on terrorists. I mean that they’ll be rather indiscriminate. A lot of innocent Sunnis will find themselves targets of retaliation, and the security apparatus will operate with few checks or balances, and enjoy free rein to engage in practices like torture.

    This is exactly the war we signed up for…I realize i will be called a monster but how do you think liberal democracies emerge?

    can you name one that did come from war? And what is the alternative? Place a dictator in power who will commit the same tortures but even at a grander scale? Which by the way is why the middle east is in this fucking mess becouse we, the west, thought it prudent to promote stability in the region over political development.

    If we are in the buissness of making liberal democracies then perhaps we should admit the limitations of human nature and the tools of politics in creating them.

    I would suggest that you go back and read your jefferson…the stuff about blood sacrifice on the alter of democracy…but i suspect that you know it well and simply wish Bush had read it and came away with feelings about it closer to your views rather then mine.

  25. Hmm…i really sounded like a monster in that last one but I should point out that in the article the author suggests that we hold back on building up the military and police of iraq on the grounds that if the shia are given these institutions without first ending the sectarian violence the shia may be tempted to use them against the sunni…

    This is absurd. The reality is that mobs are already being used against the sunni as retrobution against terrorism. Mobs and militia are inefficint tools while a trained and profesional military and police force are not. They can be directed and *gasp* held under control. These abilities are fundemental in ending sectarian violence and to advocate slowing thier progress is pure insanity…if not a call for worsening the situation.

  26. Hmm…i really sounded like a monster in that last one

    No. You sounded more realistic than the vast majority of people I see posting around here. It really is just like you said.

    how do you think liberal democracies emerge?

    can you name one that did come from war?

    There aren’t any that aren’t the aftermath of war. But we Westerners — who created the UN — would like to pretend that isn’t the way things really work.

    If we are in the buissness of making liberal democracies then perhaps we should admit the limitations of human nature and the tools of politics in creating them.

    If we’re going to be in this business, then what we must admit is that this kind of attitude

    If taking off the gloves means a strong but judicious and intelligent use of force against militants, then I’m all in favor. If, however, it comes to mean an unchecked police state that engages in acts of aggression against Sunni non-combatants, then that is obviously problematic.

    never did and never will produce the end result we say we’re after (nice stable democracy with individual rights).

    The foundation of every great civilization is a grave yard. If you want to build a Rights fearing democracy, that’s reality. If you can’t take the heat, get the hell out of the kitchen (and if you get out, then you aren’t allowed the indulgence of coaching from the couch in the living room).

    My biggest argument against going into Iraq was, from the start, that we in the West will never be willing to do the things that must be done, if the goals we claim to want are going to be achieved.

    I would suggest that you go back and read your jefferson…the stuff about blood sacrifice on the alter of democracy..

    Go back and read Machiavelli, who said the problem is that men are not willing to do the evil that good requires. There is much truth in Machiavelli.

    But seriously even in a liberal democracy the majority rules and i think it is high time after 30 years of rulership the sunnis realize this

    Right on.

    This is absurd. The reality is that mobs are already being used against the sunni as retrobution against terrorism.

    Sure, a trained police and military could do it more efficiently. And you nailed it right on the head above.

    The Sunnis are not afraid. They will not stop fighting, hence there will not be peace, until the Sunnis are made to be afraid. They’re going to have to get their asses kicked in a serious way, for some amount of time.

    And there will be “innocent casualities” in the process. Lots of them, on both sides before it’s done.

    You can choose between this, in an all-out, get it over with in a few years deal. Or you can do like the rest of the ME has done for decades, and piss the whole stream along indefinitely.

    Incidentally, the Shias will probably leave the Kurds alone because a) geography makes them harder to control and b) they’re a huge step closer to “live and let live” than the Sunnis anyway. The Kurds probably won’t need an ass whipping the way the Sunnis do.

    If we want to settle Iraq down, then we’re going to have to break the eggs that must be broken. If we aren’t willing to break them, then get the hell out now.

    Anything in between is futility.

  27. btw, as someone who is married to a native Vietnamese that was in Siagon when if fell in ’75 (and didn’t come here until ’89), I’ve read and learned a lot about the Vietnam war. I’ve talked to many of the South Vietnamese who were in the military during the war, and are now here.

    There is one huge parallel between Iraq and Vietnam that we should never forget. In Vietnam we won militarily but lost politically and idealogically.

    I see the same thing happening in Iraq.

    Beyond that, the similarities rapidly evaporate.

  28. Pax Romana: several centuries of peace, relative justice, and economic prosperity over a vast swath of the planet.

    Was it worth spilling all that blood that had be spilled in order to achieve it?

    That’s a question we ought to be thinking very hard about. It’s the question staring at us in Iraq.

    And if that isn’t enough, consider what kind of government may end up establishing itself in Iraq if we don’t, and what the consequences of that could very well be. Imagine a bunch of OBLs with the resources of a huge oil reserve at their disposal. Imagine a nuclear Iran and a nuclear Iraq.

    Iraq may have been a debatable security threat once upon a time. Now that we’ve broken it, I don’t think the threat is nearly so hypothetical anymore.

  29. And now, joe can once more swear never to speak to me again. I’m a barbarian, you see….

  30. …and an ignorant one at that. Rome at its height = peace and justice over a vast swath of the planet?

    Dude, read a book.

  31. Some people want to remake the world. If they were to propose that at home we’d call it social engineering and denounce it as doomed to fail. But if they propose doing it outside our borders we call it national defense.

  32. Some people want to remake the world.

    That’s what empire building has always been all about. If there’d never been any successful empire builders in history, then we wouldn’t have the civilizations we’ve had in history.

    If they were to propose that at home we’d call it social engineering and denounce it as doomed to fail. But if they propose doing it outside our borders we call it national defense.

    It’s a tad more complicated than that. But the fact remains that people have almost never just sat down at a table and decided to form a country. They’ve formed a country because some ignorant barbarian empire builder put an army together and kicked everybody’s ass — and didn’t give them any choice about matters.

    Conditions in the US and conditions in Iraq are fundamentally different. We’re used to law and order here. Iraq has not seen stable (or just) law and order since sometime during the Ottoman days.

    In forming a new nation, if you want people to be a part then they must be willing to obey the government. Obeying the government is a matter of habit.

    If the people do not have the habit, then the first thing that must happen is they must fear the government.

    Until they do, all you’ll ever get is Iraqs and Palistines. If you want to call instilling the fear required to obey “social engineering”, then so be it. But if you argue that, then I also argue that the way we raise children is also “social engineering”.

    I’m not in favor of Orwell’s 1984, and I appreciate the fear of social engineering that you’re raising. I brought this up partly because you’re generally pretty rational/reasonable. But I’ve always felt there was an issue lurking here that you weren’t seeing. Well, here it is bare-naked.

    I’m pointing out a truth that I still say the Western world would (these days) like to pretend doesn’t exist: in the formation of a nation there is an element of “social engineering” involved. The morality required to maintain simple law and order is, in the very beginning, imposed at gun point, just as it is later defended at gun point. If you don’t do the engineering and the imposing, then you don’t get the end product of a nice stable country.

    We ignore this truth at our peril in the current case. I’ll leave it to the philosophers to resolve (if they can) the apparent dichotomy between “social engineering” in the US — or in raising children — and “social engineering” in the context of a place like Iraq.

  33. Some people want to remake the world. If they were to propose that at home we’d call it social engineering and denounce it as doomed to fail. But if they propose doing it outside our borders we call it national defense.

    Fundementally I have to agree with you here, but to get the United States to withdraw from the world; stop all state funded forign aid pull out of the UN and bring all the troops (including those in south korea and europe) home from everywhere is unrealistic…not that I don’t want it that way just that I have no idea how to make it that way.

    We are empire (thank you very much democrats or the 20th century) and as such we should cunduct ourselves in such a way as to limit death of inocents and promote liberal democracy…the ideas presented in the article are counter productive to achiving these goals. Slowing down development of the military and police forces will cause far more deaths and encurage more retaliation violance between the sunnis and shia then otherwise.

  34. Madpad-

    Biddle’s unwillingness to discuss Vietnamization would only be a “stunning omission” if he were arguing that we should we be doing something similar in Iraq. Whether it worked in Vietnam is irrelevant, because he’s advocating against it in Iraq. There’s no reason to bring it up, because it’s irrelevant.

    What he means by manipulating the balance of power, is helping the Sunnis to realize that without us, they will likely be annihilated by the Shiite, and helping the Shiite realize that without us, they will undoubtedly be spending the next several years or longer fighting a nasty war against the Sunnis. What he’s talking about is nothing like what you say, relating to balance of power politics between states.

    Please don’t be insulted by this, but anyone who wants to talk about Biddle’s plan would do well to read the article in Foreign Affairs thoroughly, and try to integrate what we’ve been hearing into it. It makes remarkably more sense than any plan I’ve heard so far.

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