Opinion

Vietnam's real lessons

International Military InterventionsArmed ConflictsWars and InterventionsIraqNational SecurityUnrest, Conflicts and WarPhilosophy

FINDING IN THE DEBACLE of the Vietnam War a rationale for sustaining the U.S. military presence in Iraq requires considerable imagination. If nothing else, President Bush's speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier this week revealed a hitherto unsuspected capacity for creativity. Yet as an exercise in historical analysis, his remarks proved to be self-serving and selective.

For years, the Bush administration has rejected all comparisons

between Iraq and Vietnam. Now the president cites Vietnam to bolster his insistence on "seeing the Iraqis through as they build their democracy." To do otherwise, he says, will invite a recurrence of the events that followed the fall of Saigon, when "millions of innocent citizens" were murdered, imprisoned or forced to flee.

The president views the abandonment of our Southeast Asian allies as a disgrace, deploring the fate suffered by the "boat people" and the victims of the Khmer Rouge. According to Bush, withdrawing from Iraq constitutes a comparable act of abandonment. Beyond that, the president finds little connection between Vietnam and Iraq. This is unfortunate. For that earlier war offers lessons of immediate relevance to the predicament we face today. As the balance of the president's VFW address makes clear, Bush remains oblivious to the history that actually matters.

Here are a few of the lessons that he overlooks.

In unconventional wars, body counts don't really count. In the Vietnam War, superior American firepower enabled U.S. forces to prevail in most tactical engagements. We killed plenty of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. But killing didn't produce victory -- the exertions of U.S. troops all too frequently proved to be counterproductive.

So too in Iraq -- although Bush insists on pretending otherwise. His speech had him sounding like President Lyndon Johnson, bragging that, in each month since January, U.S. troops in Iraq have "killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 Al Qaeda terrorists and other extremists." If Bush thinks that by racking up big body counts the so-called surge will reverse the course of the war, he is deceiving himself. The real question is not how many bad guys we are killing, but how many our continued presence in Iraq is creating.

There's no substitute for legitimacy. Wars like Vietnam and Iraq aren't won militarily; at best, they are settled politically. But political solutions imply the existence of legitimate political institutions, able to govern effectively and to command the loyalty of the population.

In the Republic of Vietnam, created by the United States after the partition of French Indochina, such institutions did not exist. Despite an enormous U.S. investment in nation-building, they never did. In the end, South Vietnam proved to be a fiction.

So too with Iraq, conjured up by the British after World War I out of remnants of the Ottoman Empire. As a courtesy, we might pretend that Iraq qualifies as a "nation-state," much as we pretend that members of Division I varsity football programs are "scholar-athletes." In fact, given its deep sectarian and tribal divisions, Iraq makes South Vietnam look good by comparison.

In his VFW presentation, Bush described Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki as "a good guy." Whether Maliki is a good guy or even a heckuva good guy is beside the point. The real question is whether he presides over a government capable of governing. Mounting evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.

As a lens for strategic analysis, ideology distorts rather than clarifies. From Dwight D. Eisenhower through Richard M. Nixon, a parade of presidents convinced themselves that defending South Vietnam qualified as a vital U.S. interest. For the free world, a communist takeover of that country would imply an unacceptable defeat.

Yet when South Vietnam did fall, the strategic effect proved to be limited. The falling dominoes never did pose a threat to our shores for one simple reason: The communists of North Vietnam were less interested in promoting world revolution than in unifying their country under socialist rule. We deluded ourselves into thinking that we were defending freedom against totalitarianism. In fact, we had blundered into a civil war.

With regard to Iraq, Bush persists in making an analogous error. In his remarks to the VFW, the president described Iraq as an "ideological struggle." Our adversary there aims to crush "freedom, tolerance and dissent," he said, thereby "imposing this ideology across a vital region of the world." If we don't fight them "there," we will surely have to fight them "here."

Radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden do subscribe to a hateful ideology. But to imagine that Bin Laden and others of his ilk have the capability to control the Middle East, restoring the so-called Caliphate, is absurd, as silly as the vaunted domino theory of the 1950s and 1960s.

Politics, not ideology, will determine the future of the Middle East. That's good news and bad news. Good news because the interests and aspirations of Arabs and non-Arabs, Shiites and Sunnis, modernizers and traditionalists will combine to prevent any one faction from gaining the upper hand. Bad news because those same factors guarantee that the Middle East will remain an unstable mess for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes people can manage their own affairs. Does the U.S. need to attend to that mess? Perhaps not.

Here the experience of Vietnam following the U.S. defeat is instructive. Once the Americans departed, the Vietnamese began getting their act together. Although not a utopia, Vietnam has become a stable and increasingly prosperous nation. It is a responsible member of the international community. In Hanoi, the communists remain in power. From an American point of view, who cares?

Bush did not even allude to the condition of Vietnam today. Yet the question poses itself: Is it not possible that the people of the Middle East might be better qualified to determine their future than a cadre of American soldiers, spooks and do-gooders? The answer to that question just might be yes.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is a Vietnam War veteran.

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