Forget Vietnam


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.)