Craig recently commented that he thinks characterizations of the current situation in Iraq as a Vietnam-style “quagmire” are inappropriate. He asked there for “a rational and coherent analysis of how this really compares in any specific, factual way to Vietnam.”
“Rational” and “coherent” aren’t phrases that people normally apply to me, but I thought I’d give it a try anyway. Follow the link below, or scroll down, to read the result.
To avoid getting caught up in irrelevancies (“Vietnam is a country whose name starts with the letter “V”; there isn’t a single V in Iraq’s name!”), let me first explain in a little more detail what I’m referring to. In the wake of the Vietnam war, a widespread consensus emerged in this country that it had been problematic. Even for people who supported wars generally, or who supported that war in particular, there were things about the way it played out that were undesirable. People disagreed strongly about whose fault it was that the war had gone so badly, but everyone pretty much agreed that it had gone badly.
A big part of what went badly about it has come to be referred to by the (possibly too-glib) expression quagmire. That is, the war became, metaphorically speaking, a big, sucking, muddy, bog which we’d gotten ourselves stuck in and from which it proved extremely difficult to remove ourselves. In the course of dealing with that quagmire the nation spent tremendous amounts of time, money, energy, and, most tragically, the health and lives of a great many of its citizens — and in the end had very little to show for it.
As I said above, it wasn’t just peaceniks who held this point of view. It was pretty much everyone in the country, including the military brass who (perhaps unfairly) bore a lot of the blame for having failed to prosecute the war more successfully.
Colin Powell addressed these issues in the “Powell Doctrine” (see the list of sources on the lies.com wiki page IsIraqLikeVietnam for a link). The Powell Doctrine asserted that because of the terrible costs associated with going to war, our country should only do so when certain conditions had been met, and having chosen to do so, we should conduct the war in a certain way. Specifically, the Powell Doctrine asserted:
- War should be used as a last resort, when less-extreme solutions have proven ineffective
- War should be initiated with strong public support
- War should be undertaken only when there is a well-defined national interest at stake
- War should be executed with overwhelming force
- There should be a clear exit strategy
On its face, the Powell Doctrine is pretty hard to criticize. Anyone with an adult appreciation of the horrible costs of war would have a hard time arguing against any of these points. And yet an argument could be made that the Iraq war failed to a greater or lesser degree on all of them. Here’s my take on ways in which the Iraq war failed to live up to the spirit of the Powell Doctrine (recognizing that some or all of those points would be disputed by a war supporter):
- UN weapons inspections had not been proven ineffective (though the Administration asserted that they had)
- There was not strong public support for the war (at least where “strong” is defined as “based on an honest presentation of the available evidence,” since support based on lies will by definition be subject to swift erosion when those lies are exposed).
- Whatever national interests were being pursued were not “well-defined”; they were, in fact, exceedingly murkily defined.
- The force we used was overwhelming in terms of achieving the initial military victory, but apparently underwhelming in terms of the necessary post-war peacekeeping.
- Exit strategy? What exit strategy?
The Powelll Doctrine never represented official US policy, and Powell himself was a strong supporter of this war, both of which points lessen the impact of the above arguments. And even if the Iraq war gets an “F” on its Powell Doctrine grade, it doesn’t mean we’re necessarily in a quagmire. But it could be argued that by having so-thoroughly violated its principles we’ve certainly put ourselves at risk of one.
But are we actually in one? There are a couple of different perspectives we can use in looking at this question. On the one hand, we can look at the situation from the perspective of US military forces on the ground in Iraq.
Points in favor of saying Iraq is like Vietnam from their perspective:
- We face a significant insurgency, with daily snipings and RPG attacks.
- We don’t speak the language, don’t understand the local culture, and can’t effectively distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys when the latter aren’t actually shooting at us.
- We may lack sufficient force to achieve our (peacekeeping) mission, with statements by military leaders as to the required force being overruled by their civilian superiors.
- We have no clear idea of when, or even under what circumstances, we get to go home.
Points opposed to such a characterization:
- The death toll remains well short of Vietnam standards. At its peak the Vietnam War was taking 500 US lives per month, and did so for many years. We’re only losing about a tenth that many people per month at this point, and have only been doing so for a few months.
- Our Iraq opponents lack a secure base of operations. They have no equivalent of North Vietnam with its regular army, or the support of nuclear-equipped superpower China.
- Our opponents have no jungles to hide in. (They do, however, have the extensive urban areas that Tariq Aziz famously likened to them, at least for guerilla-concealment purposes.)
- All our troops in Iraq are volunteers. While there has been some talk of reviving the draft, and such talk may turn into reality if the needs of waging perpetual war and the reported low rates of reservist re-upping continue, we’re not there yet.
Now let’s look at things from the perspective of domestic politics. Points in favor of the Iraq/Vietnam connection:
- A president who arrived in office with questionable legitimacy (LBJ by way of assassination, Bush by way of an electoral “victory” in which he received fewer votes than his opponent).
- A war authorized by Congress in response to questionable, politically tainted intelligence (Gulf of Tonkin/Iraqi WMDs & al Qaeda connection).
- A lack of clarity by political leaders as to the war’s purpose, justification, duration, costs, and exit strategy.
- A disconnection between political pronouncements at home and realities on the ground, with ideology substituting for objective analysis in the generation of either overly dire or overly rosy predictions (we must stop Communism in South Vietnam or the other nations of southeast Asia will “fall like dominos”; the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will lead to a spontaneous wave of pro-US democracy-formation throughout the middle east).
- A bait-and-switch approach to escalating involvement; “mission creep”. Note how it is only now that the administration is beginning to publicly address the true length and cost of the Iraqi occupation.
Arguments against the Iraq-is-like-Vietnam characterization, with respect to the domestic political scene:
- The drawing of parallels is ludicrous on its face. It’s an apples and oranges comparison. We’re simply too early in the process to see how Iraq will play out politically over the long haul.
- Public support for the war remains high (although it has been dropping).
- Unlike Vietnam, where the threat of nuclear-equipped communist nations opposed to US interests could only be linked indirectly to the cause of waging war, the memory of the 9/11 attacks makes the waging of war on “terrorist nations” an easier sell today. The resulting domestic support will tend to give politicians a freer hand in using whatever means are necessary to avoid a Vietnam-style quagmire, as opposed to the incremental, “proportional” steps pursued by Johnson and Nixon in Vietnam. (Note, though, that this will require continued identification in the public mind of the Iraq war with the 9/11-inspired “war on terror”.)
So, where does leave us?
I think it leaves us in the murk. For someone like me, suspicious of Bush’s motives and willing to see every development in the worst light, the Iraq war shows every sign of developing into a full-blown Vietnam-esque quagmire. Under this scenario, the level of violent resistance to the occupation will continue to increase, the bodycounts will escalate on all sides, and civilian hearts and minds will increasingly turn against us. Our options will increasingly look like choices of the lesser of various evils, and the initial strong public support for the war will erode over time, leading to an eventual discrediting of those who sold it as a good idea (possibly not, however, until after pro-war sentiment delivers one or more landslide presidential victories, as happened in 1964 and 1968).
For someone like Craig, who is much more supportive of the president and the war, talk of a quagmire is wildly premature. Hostilities will subside as we continue the work of reconstruction; the Iraqi-in-the-street will come to see US forces as benign, or at least neutral; force reductions will bring our men and women home alive and healthy, rather than in bodybags and wheelchairs.
I believe there actually is a Truth that’s out there in this case; either we are seeing the initial stages of a Vietnam-style quagmire or we aren’t, and before too many more years have passed we’ll know which it was. But by then, whichever of Craig or me was wrong will have morphed his position to accommodate the unfolding reality, and probably will take no particular notice of having been wrong; he (or I) will be too busy railing against the perceived evils of the day to acknowledge such historical irrelevancies.
Which is too bad. Because when you get right down to it, it’s only by our ability to learn from our mistakes that we have any hope at all.
Anyway, numerous web links to opinions and source data are available in the wiki’s IsIraqLikeVietnam page. Please feel free to add your responses as comments here, or as edits there, and to add additional links to the sources. I’d be especially interested in people offering arguments refuting the Iraq/Vietnam comparison. Thanks.