Roundup: Media's Take
This is where we excerpt articles from the media that take a historical approach to events in the news.
J. Sean Curtin, a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global Communications, in Japan Focus (April 2004):
The dramatic abduction of three Japanese civilians in Iraq -- hostage bargaining chips -- is reverberating throughout Japan, casting a long shadow over the future of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his Iraq policy of dispatching troops on a humanitarian mission to help the United States there. It evokes memories of hostage-taking during Lebanon's civil war, cases that dragged on for years with scant progress and abundant tears.
Koizumi is facing his darkest hour, and as one of the US' closest allies, is coming under tremendous pressure to withdraw Japan's 550 troops from Iraq, a move that would further, and very significantly erode the already shaky credibility of the US-led coalition in Iraq. Japanese public opinion -- divided over dispatching troops in the first place -- currently is split over whether Japanese soldiers should quit Iraq. Meanwhile, Japanese and most other foreigners are fleeing Iraq en masse as the country descends into what some fear may become a Lebanese-style quagmire of hostage-taking.
To most Japanese, the sudden explosion of violence and hostage-taking has made their country's strictly humanitarian mission seem futile, since nearly all their troops are now tightly barricaded in a heavily protected fort about 10 kilometers outside the southern city of Samawah. Some commentators are even describing the current situation as Lebanon, Vietnam and the Palestinian intifada all rolled into one.
Dr Pierre Serhal, a leading Beirut surgeon and son of a prominent lawmaker, is pessimistic about the hostage crisis. He believes that the foreign captives may be in for a protracted ordeal because US foreign policy is creating instability in the entire Middle East.
"From a Lebanese perspective, Iraq is turning into the same kind of hostage nightmare we had in Beirut during the 1980s," he told Asia Times Online."I am very worried for the Japanese and other hostages, because I can only see things getting worse. I am a Christian, not a Muslim, but I feel American policy is a complete disaster for the whole region. The occupation of Iraq and the total neglect of any meaningful advances in the Israel-Palestine conflict are inflaming Arab opinion so much that it threatens the stability of every country in the region. Unless things radically change, there is little hope for the hostages, or indeed for the people who live here."
James Bennet, in the NYT (April 10, 2004):
Americans struggling to make sense, or maybe political hay, out of the violence convulsing Iraq turn almost reflexively to the searing experience of the Vietnam War.
Israel is haunted by another parallel: its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which for Israelis of a certain generation was their Vietnam. It, too, was envisioned as a bold mission to combat terrorism and reshape part of this region to be stable and friendly to the West.
"In Lebanon, we tried to figure out what was similar to what went on in Vietnam," said Avraham Burg, a member of the Israeli Parliament who went to Lebanon as an officer in the paratroopers and returned to lead a movement against that war."You have a circle here: it's Vietnam, Lebanon and Baghdad."
The uncertain combat zones of Vietnam and Lebanon posed nightmarish challenges to soldiers. Those challenges may seem familiar to marines in Iraq as they try to sift enemies from civilians, without alienating most Iraqis.
"People look at the map and they say, `This is a desert, this isn't a jungle,'" said Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University."The point is there are functional equivalents to jungles. In this case, they're cities. They're just as impenetrable to us as the jungles were 40 years ago."
Dr. Norton, an expert on the Middle East, fought in Vietnam and later served as a United Nations peacekeeper in southern Lebanon.
At a grander level, a level of global strategy and even myth-making, Iraq has echoes of Vietnam, which was presented by the White House as a test of American resolve against a rising international menace, Communism.
But in terms of specific, stated objectives for the application of military force, Iraq looks more like Lebanon.
In Vietnam the Americans had a clear if shaky client, the South Vietnamese government, and an enemy, North Vietnam, with a strong political structure.
In Lebanon the Israelis, like the Americans in Iraq, plunged into a vacuum — or more precisely into a maelstrom of political and religious rivalries.
"The problem of how to rule a society that is divided, a country that does not exist as a state with a central authority with legitimacy — this is a problem Israel faced in the 1980's in Lebanon, and the United States now faces in Iraq," said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.
When they invaded, the Israelis were showered with rice by Shiites who lived in fear of Palestinian militants. Within a year, they were being bled by the Shiites, whom they failed to enlist as allies."In the Middle East — as in many places around the world — the enemy of my enemy can be my enemy as well," Mr. Burg said.
Noting that tens of thousands of Americans died in Vietnam, Dr. Norton said,"The Vietnam parallel is a bit of a stretch, in terms of scale. But I do think the Lebanon one is striking."...
Paul Krugman, in the NYT (April 16, 2004):
Iraq isn't Vietnam. The most important difference is the death toll, which is only a small fraction of the carnage in Indochina. But there are also real parallels, and in some ways Iraq looks worse.
It's true that the current American force in Iraq is much smaller than the Army we sent to Vietnam. But the U.S. military as a whole, and the Army in particular, is also much smaller than it was in 1968. Measured by the share of our military strength it ties down, Iraq is a Vietnam-size conflict.
And the stress Iraq places on our military is, if anything, worse. In Vietnam, American forces consisted mainly of short-term draftees, who returned to civilian life after their tours of duty. Our Iraq force consists of long-term volunteers, including reservists who never expected to be called up for extended missions overseas. The training of these volunteers, their morale and their willingness to re-enlist will suffer severely if they are called upon to spend years fighting a guerrilla war.
Some hawks say this proves that we need a bigger Army. But President Bush hasn't called for larger forces. In fact, he seems unwilling to pay for the forces we have.
A fiscal comparison of George Bush's and Lyndon Johnson's policies makes the Vietnam era seem like a golden age of personal responsibility. At first, Johnson was reluctant to face up to the cost of the war. But in 1968 he bit the bullet, raising taxes and cutting spending; he turned a large deficit into a surplus the next year. A comparable program today — the budget went from a deficit of 3.2 percent of G.D.P. to a 0.3 percent surplus in just one year — would eliminate most of our budget deficit.
By contrast, Mr. Bush, for all his talk about staying the course, hasn't been willing to strike anything off his domestic wish list. On the contrary, he used the initial glow of apparent success in Iraq to ram through yet another tax cut, waiting until later to tell us about the extra $87 billion he needed. And he's still at it: in his press conference on Tuesday he said nothing about the $50 billion-to-$70 billion extra that everyone knows will be needed to pay for continuing operations.
This fiscal chicanery is part of a larger pattern. Vietnam shook the nation's confidence not just because we lost, but because our leaders didn't tell us the truth. Last September Gen. Anthony Zinni spoke of"Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies," and asked his audience of military officers,"Is it happening again?" Sure enough, the parallels are proliferating. Gulf of Tonkin attack, meet nonexistent W.M.D. and Al Qaeda links."Hearts and minds," meet"welcome us as liberators.""Light at the end of the tunnel," meet"turned the corner." Vietnamization, meet the new Iraqi Army.
Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, and the author of The Two Faces of Islam, in frontpagemag.com , in (April 14, 2004):
...Some wishful-thinking enemies of Iraqi liberation even sought to compare the disorders with the Tet offensive of 1968, when a massive North Vietnamese attack on South Vietnamese and American forces contributed significantly to domestic U.S. disaffection with the Vietnam engagement. But the "Shia uprising" had various aspects that, from its beginning, doomed it to failure.
It was nothing like Tet, which involved tens of thousands of North Vietnamese regulars, well-trained, well-armed, disciplined, and highly motivated. The so-called "Army of the Mahdi" cobbled together by the power-hungry young Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and launched against the coalition, is an irregular militia.
In addition, the 30-year old al-Sadr lacks the political credibility of the North Vietnamese, to say nothing of the more charismatic figures in recent Shia Muslim history, such as Ayatollah Khomeini. Muqtada al-Sadr launched his bid for disruption precisely because he lacks religious credentials and public standing among the Iraqi Shias.
Shia Islam embodies a seniority system of leadership. Young aspirants count for very little in Shi'ism; all power, respect, and decision-making resides in the hands of the ayatollahs, who are greybearded, veteran scholars admired and even venerated for their learning, writing, and theological sophistication. In this regard, Shia Islam most resembles the Orthodox tradition in Christianity; Muqtada al-Sadr has no more capacity to mobilize a majority of the Iraqi Shias than a lone Greek priest from the island of Crete would have to challenge the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul.
Al-Sadr has only one asset: his family name. His father, uncle, and two brothers were prominent Shia clerics murdered by Saddam Hussein's minions. But although martyrdom is the central motif in Shia Islam, family glory is insufficient for the young al-Sadr to usurp authority from such figures as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the dominant figure in Iraqi Shiism, even though Sistani is Iranian, not Iraqi.
Al-Sadr has challenged Sistani's authority since the liberation of Iraq was accomplished. The younger man's lust for power is also now seen behind the tragic murder of another youthful Shia cleric, Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, in the holy city of Najaf a year ago. Al-Khoei was known for moderation and modernism. His father, Grand Ayatollah Abul Qasim al-Khoei, who died in 1992, was best known in the Islamic world for rejecting Ayatollah Khomeini's scheme for clerical rule, known as "wilaya ul-faqih." Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei argued that religious and political leadership should remain separate from one another. The al-Khoei legacy supported reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran, and the al-Khoei Foundation maintains offices in New York and London.
Louis Freeh was and remains an intelligent, talented man and a true patriot. But that cannot stop us from judging his performance at the helm of the FBI – and the verdict is dismal. The problem was Freeh identified too well with the rank-and-file agent, according to investigative reporter and author Ronald Kessler.
“Freeh viewed his job as directing major cases, which would be like the chairman of GE designing a jet engine or sitting in for Tom Brokaw on NBC's Nightly News ,” Kessler writes in, The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI . “From procurement of computers to the services the bureau provides law enforcement, Freeh ignored what goes on in the rest of the bureau. With only six years as an agent, Freeh had never supervised a case, yet he considered himself the bureau's premier case agent.”
By ignoring the less glamorous duties of his post, Freeh put the FBI in a terribly disadvantaged position. The FBI's intra-office computer system was old and ineffectual. The 56k modems the agency used were so slow, agents frequently communicated using faxes instead. Inevitably, many of these memos were lost. There were so few around that numerous agents had to share computers. While Freeh diverted millions of dollars overseas to establish FBI bases (a desirable goal), the agency's headquarters here in America were falling into disrepair. The Information Technology programs the FBI did undertake went millions and millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. In the absence of results even by the pathetic standards of the U.S. Congress, further monies were withheld. Freeh himself, despite his pro-technology rhetoric, booted the computer out of his office on day one and, incredibly, never used e-mail during his tenure as Director.
Freeh, then as now, complained that the real problem was the stinginess of the U.S. government. But a look at the numbers suggests otherwise. Between fiscal year 1992 and 1997 the FBI's budget increased 45 percent, from $2 billon to just under $3 billion. By 2001, the Bureau's budget stood at $3.4 billion. Freeh himself bragged about these increases as he left office. Those substantial increases point to a problem in management. A December 2002 audit by the Justice Department's Inspector General complained of the bureau's “inability to effectively complete IT projects within budget and schedule,” which had “reduced the FBI's credibility in the eyes of Congress.”
Just how bad did it get? Many of the FBI's computer systems not even have the technology to incorporate a mouse. “To store a single document on the Automated Case Support system required twelve separate computer commands,” Kessler writes. “On these green screened machines, the FBI could search for the word ‘flight' or the word ‘schools' – retrieving millions of documents each time – but not for ‘flight schools.' The CIA, in contrast, had been able to perform searches for ‘flight schools' on its computers since 1958.”
Having a former agent as Director was turning out to not be the plus it once was suggested to be, either. The distaste for supervisors he nursed as an agent came bubbling back to the surface. In The Bureau , Kessler quotes Freeh telling his assistant directors that he wanted them to “talk straight” with him. “If I'm full of sh-t, I want you to tell me,” he said, according to Kessler. Staff quickly learned that Freeh was not sincere about his desire for such dissent. Those who told him what he wanted to hear moved up the FBI ladder quickly, those who did not were ignored, shunned, and given “icy glares.” He would tell people their questions were “stupid,” rather than answering them. “Freeh killed the messenger,” one agent told Kessler. “After a while there were no more messengers.” Freeh's distaste for managers led him to decrease the number of agents assigned to headquarters by 37 percent. On the surface, the idea of putting more agents on the streets is attractive, but in practice it led to disarray at headquarters, which made everyone's job more difficult.
On Tuesday, Freeh told the 9/11 Commission he believed “that al-Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1996.” (And admittedly, he took a great deal of interest in the investigation into the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia the same year.) However, Freeh's congressional testimony in 1999 gives the lie to that. It appears his view of terrorsm took the PC posture of the Clinton administration. In that testimony two years before September 11 – and three years after he believed Osama bin Laden had “declared war” – Freeh said that the United States had “little credible intelligence at this time indicating that international or domestic terrorists are planning to attack United States interests domestically.” Instead, he insisted Americans were more threatened by “extremist splinter elements of right-wing groups.”
Among these domestic terrorists, Freeh included “militias,” “white-separatist groups,” “anti-government groups” (like Rush Limbaugh listeners), the “anti-abortion” (the overwhelmingly church-going, pro-life) movement, and “tax protestors.” That is, Freeh and Clinton were wary of being attacked by the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Despite the handicaps imposed by flawed leadership, the FBI's hardworking agents prevented 40 major terrorist attacks during the 1990s, saving thousands of lives. But even now, Freeh doesn't accept that the FBI had a blind spot on September 11. To this day, he maintains that he ran the agency well despite the allegedly tight-fisted ways of Congress. After years of ignoring the ever-depreciating technology in the FBI, citizen Freeh now insists before Congress that the Bureau's encryption software must be brought up to date. Why was this item not on his agenda during his eight years as Director?
The first George Bush once said he thought the Gulf War would cure America of the Vietnam syndrome. He was wrong. There is no cure for the Vietnam syndrome. It will only go away when the baby-boom generation does, dying off like the Israelites in the desert, allowing a new generation, cleansed of the memories and the guilt, to look at the world clearly once again.
It was inevitable that Iraq would be compared to Vietnam. Indeed, the current comparisons are hardly new. During our astonishingly fast dash to Baghdad, taking the capital within 21 days, the chorus of naysayers was already calling Iraq a quagmire on Day 8! It was not Vietnam then. It is not Vietnam now....
Iraq is Vietnam not on the ground, but in our heads. The troubles of the last few weeks were immediately interpreted as a national uprising, Iraq's Tet Offensive, and created a momentary panic. The panic overlooked two facts: First, Tet was infinitely larger and deadlier in effect and in scale. And second, Tet was a devastating military defeat for the Viet Cong. They never recovered. Unfortunately, neither did we, psychologically. Walter Cronkite, speaking for the establishment, declared the war lost. Once said, it was.
The other major difference between Vietnam and Iraq is the social terrain. In Vietnam, we confronted a decades-old, centralized nationalist (communist) movement. In Iraq, no such thing exists. Iraq is highly factionalized along lines of ethnicity and religion.
Until now, we have treated this as a problem. Our goal has been to build a united, pluralistic, democratic Iraq in which the factions negotiate their differences the way we do in the West.
It is a noble goal. It would be a great achievement for the Middle East. But it may be a bridge too far. That may happen in the future, when Iraq has had time to develop the habits of democracy and rebuild civil society, razed to the ground by Saddam. ...