Gabriel Kolko: Iraq Is Very Much Like Vietnam





Gabriel Kolko, writing in the Australian Age (Nov. 10, 2003)

There are 130,000 American troops in Iraq now - twice the number Bush predicted would remain by this month - but, as in Vietnam, their morale is already low and sinking. Bush's poll ratings have fallen dramatically. He needs more soldiers in Iraq desperately and foreign nations will not provide them.

In Vietnam, president Nixon tried to "Vietnamize" the land war and transfer the burdens of soldiering to Nguyen Van Thieu's huge army. But it was demoralized and organized to maintain Thieu in power, not win the victory that had eluded American forces.

"Iraqization" of the military force required to put down dissidents will not accomplish what has eluded the Americans, and in both Vietnam and Iraq the US underestimated the length of time it would have to remain and cultivated illusions about the strength of its friends.

The Iraqi army was disbanded but now is being partially reconstituted by utilizing Saddam's officers and enlisted men. As in Vietnam, where the Buddhists opposed the Catholics who comprised the leaders America endorsed, Iraq is a divided nation regionally and religiously, and Washington has the unenviable choice between the risks of disorder, which its own lack of troops make likely, and civil war if it arms Iraqis.

Despite plenty of expert opinion to warn it, the Bush Administration has scant perception of the complexity of the political problems it confronts in Iraq. Afghanistan is a reminder of how military success depends ultimately on politics, and how things go wrong.

Rumsfeld's admission in his confidential memo of October 16 that "we lack the metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror" was an indication that key members of the Bush Administration are far less confident of what they are doing than they were early in 2003.

But as in Vietnam, when defense secretary Robert McNamara ceased to believe that victory was inevitable, it is too late to reverse course and now the credibility of America's military power is at stake.

Eventually, domestic politics takes precedence over everything else. It did in Vietnam and it will in Iraq. By 1968, the polls were turning against the Democrats and the Tet offensive in February caught President Lyndon Johnson by surprise because he and his generals refused to believe the CIA's estimates that there were really 600,000 rather than 300,000 people in the communist forces. Nixon won because he promised a war-weary public he would bring peace with honor.

Bush declared on October 28 that "we're not leaving" Iraq soon, but his party and political advisers are likely to have the last word as US casualties mount and his poll ratings continue to decline.

Vietnam proved that the American public has limited patience. That is still true.

The real lessons of Vietnam have yet to be learned.


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