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Can Vietnam Teach Lessons Useful in Iraq? A Symposium

Following is a symposium conducted by Jamie Glazov in FrontPageMagazine.com with:

David Kaiser, the author of Politics and War: European Conflict from Phillip II to Hitler, Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War and American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War;

Stephen J. Morris, a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at SAIS Johns Hopkins University and author of Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia;

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Previously an Iran and Iraq staff advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, he has spent 16 months in Iraq, first as an academic and later as a Coalition Provisional Authority political advisor.

Glazov: David Kaiser, Stephen Morris and Michael Rubin, welcome to Frontpage Symposium. Mr. Kaiser, let me start with you. Are there any legitimate analogies we can make between our Iraq involvement today and our Vietnam experience?

Kaiser: There are clearly big differences between Iraq and Vietnam. The terrain is very different, there's no North Vietnamese army to worry about, and Islamic political factions aren't as well-organized as Communist ones. However, in Iraq, as in South Vietnam, the United States wants to set up a stable, friendly government. And in both places, the raw materials seem to be lacking--actually more lacking in Iraq than Vietnam. Vietnam had had about eighty years of French rule when we went in and had a pro-western government and bureaucracy and army. They were too weak to handle the VC, but they existed. Iraq has essentially none of that, except among the Kurds, and a poll today shows 57 percent of Iraqis want us out at once. It's clear now that a lot of political organizing has gone on in the year since Baghdad fell, and most of it has created entities hostile to us, several of them willing to fight. That brings us to numbers. South Vietnam had 10-15 million people, and the ARVN and the US devoted hundreds of thousands of troops to pacification. Iraq has almost twice as many people and we only have 130,000 troops. Experts recognized from the beginning that that was maybe a third of what was needed.

News today is interesting. We will be in a quagmire if we insist on trying to crush all hostile forces, and a long-term effort with our current force structure will do huge damage to the military. However, Marine General Conway in Fallujah seems to have a new idea--working with the autonomous forces that spring up. That's policy based on reality, not fantasy. It could get us out. Voices on both the right and the left--I'm thinking of Daniel Pipes--are now saying that we have do deal with Iraq as it really is, not as we would like it to be. That's progress.

Glazov: Mr. Morris? What do you think of Mr. Kaiser's comparison of the Iraqi situation with Vietnam? And what are your views on the way to avoid a quagmire? Must we implement something similar to Nixon's Vietnamization? And should we abandon the effort to create a democratic Iraq?

Morris: I agree with David Kaiser's point that, unlike in South Vietnam, in Iraq we have no viable political structures in place to use as a base for reconstructing the country. But of course it also points to the difference between the French and Saddam: the French rule was never brutal, except against those engaged in armed insurrection, and even there it was discriminating (the French never massacred entire families of the insurrectionists). The French did not cut out the tongues of people for simply speaking in private against the regime. It did not cut off the hands of businessmen who were competing with the ruling family's monopolies. Saddam's rule was not just a dictatorship, it was a tyranny, as Aristotle described the concept, and a horribly brutal one. It was immeasurably worse than French colonialism and hence left few institutions morally untainted.

This leads to the controversy over whether we should have dissolved the army and government. I think the idea of dissolving either all (Defense) or nothing (State and CIA) was a mistake, typical of people with rigid positions to defend. We should certainly have dissolved all of Saddam's elite units (Republican Guards and Special Republican Guards), and arrested their officers for investigation into crimes against humanity. But the regular army should never have been dissolved. As for the government we should have removed all top level Baathists, but lower level Baathists should have been left in place subject to investigations. These discriminations would have made our task of governing today much easier.

Unfortunately the "either ...or" fight between the contending Administration factions is crippling our response and creating a quagmire. The fiasco at Fallujah boggles the mind. There are hundreds of foreign jihadis holed up in this town, along with Baathists and others. Whatever one thinks of the armed Baathists (and I think they need to be defeated militarily) there can be no debate about the (mostly foreign) jihadis: they must be wiped out.

So what is this Iraqi Fallujah army all about? Have the US commanders arranged for the Fallujah Baathists to capture or kill the jihadis for us? Or are they going to let them escape, just as our warlord allies let Bin Laden escape from Afghanistan? News reports suggest the latter. That means nothing will have been solved by this move, the brave Marines who have died there so far have given their lives for nothing, and the jihadis whom we could isolate in one area (Fallujah), will now spread to different locales around the country, to bomb more Iraqi civilians in mosques and market places. This kind of stupidity is the way quagmires are created. Somebody in Washington has signed off on this plan, and they should be fired.

I don't think we can now give up the idea of a democratic Iraq, since we have publicly committed to it, and most Iraqis want it.

Our first folly regarding Iraqi democracy was to think it could be created overnight. The second, and even greater folly, was not to realize that the overthrow of a regime leads to a power vacuum, and into power vacuums step forces of anarchy, including common criminals, or new aspiring dictators. The failure to prepare for the "postwar" power vacuum, especially when it was known that thousands of criminals had been released from prison in the fall of 2002, shows a glaring lack of basic political intellect among US policymakers. And didn't they think that Saddam's unguarded arsenals would be raided by all and sundry?

I thought that some of the Vulcans had studied history. What kind of history had they studied, or thought about, in preparation for the revolutionary situation of April 2003?

Rubin: I'm a bit skeptical of polls. In post-totalitarian societies, polls are volatile. Dislike of occupation and wishing us gone are very different things. Rather than a snapshot based on 3,000 people, I'd look instead to what Iraqis do with their pocketbooks and their feet: Iraqis are investing in their country; people are returning. That shows confidence.

We don't need 300,000 troops patrolling the streets. When Iraqis and Americans talk security, we mean two different things. Iraqis mean freedom from violent or random crime; Americans mean force protection.

Conway doesn’t provide the solution. We should not make local decisions for local reasons without thought to national repercussions. By bringing in a Baathist general complicit in a Karbala massacre and Kirkuk ethnic cleansing, we undercut Iraqi confidence in us.

I agree that the Republican Guard should have been dissolved, but how should we have kept the regular army together? They were Shi'a conscripts that didn't want to be there. The remaining generals were the abusive folks that Iraqis didn't want.

I agree that we can't cut-and-run. We haven’t gotten into whether Muqtada al-Sadr and other populists rose up now because they knew they couldn’t win through the ballot box. The biggest problem remains our failure to secure the borders. The black market price of Iraqi passports has increased as the cost of Iranian passports has dropped. That's supply and demand. We need to roll-up the Iranian Qods Force, as we did in Bosnia.

Putting aside Stephen’s recriminations, and looking instead at how to move ahead, the two big unanswered questions are whether it wouldn’t be wiser to have a Status of Forces Agreement prior to June 30, and whether direct elections should be party-slate or constituency-based. The devil is in the details, but details can be key.

Kaiser: Iraq is clearly a well-armed and very violent place. In the medium term, and maybe in the long term, it will be ruled by those who can exercise national, or regional, monopolies of force. And if Iraq is to be ruled as we had hoped, that force will have to be exercised by Iraqis friendly to us. I don't see such a friendly force emerging. As civilian and military authorities acknowledged during April, the police and army we had trained did not perform during the crisis. They did not want to fight other Iraqis alongside Americans. The Kurds share some of our objectives, but eventually we will have to confront their desire for independence.

I am not sure Steve Morris is right about the hundreds of foreign fighters in Fallujah. A recent NY Times op-ed by someone who seemed well informed suggested that the Fallujah tribes were so notoriously independent that even Saddam had never taken them head-on. Another report suggested there are actually only a few foreign fighters. Iraq has, as I understand it, traditionally been a fairly xenophobic place. The problem of the borders is real, but it is simply another index of the enormity of the task we have undertaken.

James Rubin's reference to a status of forces agreement raises another parallel with Vietnam, specifically from 1963 through the middle of 1965. As George McT. Kahin was the first to point out, much of the political turmoil in those years occurred because we simply couldn't find a South Vietnamese government that wanted to fight the war that we did. Diem and Nhu were already complaining that there were too many Americans in the country before their overthrow. Minh was accused (although I never found proof of this) of flirting with neutralism. Even Khanh by early 1965 wanted to have a coalition with the Buddhists, make a deal with the VC, and avoid a wider war--so we decided he had to go. (The Shi'ites present some parallel with the Buddhists--most of them don't want to fight us right now, but they don't want us ruling Iraq either.) I can't say I know this, but I strongly suspect that any authority to whom we transfer power is immediately going to start asking publicly when we are gong to withdraw, and that will create further problems. Even if we have to give up during 2005, we can still say that we eliminated a brutal tyrant and a regional military threat.

Glazov: So let’s crystallize this issue. Prof. Morris, is American military withdrawal in the near future a real option?

Morris: Those who wish the United States and the Iraqi people well need to think this through without wishful thinking. Withdrawal is not an option, since it will lead to civil war between Shia and Sunni, and the proliferation of foreign terrorist groups in Sunni zones.

Iraq will become like Lebanon in the late 1970s. In other words, US withdrawal will lead to a catastrophe for Iraq and for the region, not to mention US credibility around the world. Those who advocate withdrawal --- not only the western left, amongst whom I include the new prime minister of Spain, but also, predictably, the isolationist right, and General William Odom (recently given a full evening on ABC television's "Nightline")--- do not address this issue of consequences of withdrawal. When Odom says we have already lost in Iraq, he is either totally uninformed, or else engaging in the irresponsible hyperbole that was typical of the advocates of "cut and run" from Vietnam after 1968.

Most of the Shia might not love the US, but they seem to have a grudging appreciation of the necessity of the US role in overthrowing Saddam. Had we helped them overthrow Saddam in the south in 1991 -- when President George H. W. Bush encouraged their uprising but then left them to fight and die alone -- they may have loved the US then and now. Still, it appears that they do not yet hate the US, since they have not used their militias to rise up against the occupation. Moreover, now they seem to be accepting the US military suppression of the fanatical extremist Al-Sadr and his so-called Mahdi army.

The Baathists never have been democrats, and most are not likely ever to be democrats. They are likely to try to undermine any democratic process. That is why they had to be defanged militarily. Fallujah was and is the place where this can be done, since it is the major concentration point of their armed insurrection. In military terms it is their center of gravity. General Conway's plan doesn't recognize this. He is buying temporary peace in Fallujah and not solving the Iraqi Sunni problem, which is one of a social stratum that has lost much of its political, economic, and social power. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, Fallujah is critical because we have to crush the foreign jihadis there. The jihadis are not people who can be "bought," nor do they even belong in Iraq. How many jihadis there are inside Fallujah is anyone's guess. But they need a sympathetic environment in which to hide, and only the Sunni insurrectionary zones will provide that.

Whether General Conway is undertaking his Fallujah plan freelance, on the basis of his own political judgment, or at the behest of a higher political authority in Washington, is what I am unclear about. But it reminds me of the infamous bombing pauses that President Johnson approved, in the hope of generating goodwill and a conciliatory attitude amongst the communist enemy. Instead the communists took the bombing halt as a sign of weakness and used it to strengthen their position. Whatever his motive, General Conway is "kicking the can down the road" for the incoming elected Iraqi government to handle, with or without us. Yet I am not sure that the new Iraqi government will be able to handle it alone. We know that the US can crush the Fallujah insurrection now, albeit at a price in American lives, and perhaps at a price in Iraqi Sunni political support elsewhere in Iraq. But I believe we will have to face the problem sometime. Would it be better for the US to fight the Fallujah enemy now, or later, when American popular support for the fight in Iraq is likely to be further diminished?

Insulating the main battlefield from outside intervention was always a critical issue during the Vietnam war. Infiltration of Soviet and Chinese aid into North Vietnam, and North Vietnamese arms and men into South Vietnam, was always crucial for the communist ability to prevail militarily in South Vietnam. It is not as important in the Iraq war, since the open borders are the source of the foreign jihadis, not the main Sunni insurrection. But controlling the borders is still important, since the foreign jihadis are the source of the suicide bombings that cause such massive Iraqi casualties. I am not sure how the US can control the Iraqi borders, given their length, other than by mining them. That would be a fairly rough method, since non-terrorists (e.g. smugglers) also may be blown up by mines. But we have to do something. And I would suggest that having US troops stationed on the main roads of entrance and exit at the borders with Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria, combined with mines (with signs) along the rest of the border, is a necessary start.

Rubin: Kaiser overreaches when he implies the need for a Status of Forces Agreement [SOFA] cements the parallel to Vietnam. SOFAs simply determine relationships between host governments and foreign militaries. We have SOFAs with Italy, Turkey, Germany, Japan, and Korea, none of which are Vietnam. Kaiser is right on though when he implies Iraqi populists and Islamists may make the U.S. presence an issue. Before I left Iraq, Sunnis and Shi‘a both asked we negotiate a SOFA now, rather than wait until after June 30. Iraqis don’t want the issue to overshadow their election campaign. I wouldn’t assume Iraqis are going to ask us to withdraw. In Kirkuk and Nasiriya, for example, Iraqis say they want a permanent U.S. base at the airfield; they see it as a sign of our commitment.

Morris is right when he says withdrawal is not an option. Advocates of withdrawal tend to be those without experience in Iraq whose information is filtered through the press. With regard to the Fallujah deal, General Conway was freelancing. He made a short-term local decision that will have profound long-term national consequence. According to the situation reports of marines at Fallujah, many sought permission to move into the town. The State Department political officer in Fallujah even sent a dissent cable about Conway’s initiative directly to Colin Powell.

Iraqis who once patrolled the Iranian border are not shy about offering advice. While the border is mountainous, there is a military road from Mandali south to Basra which we could patrol. The Iraqi army had manned border posts every 30 kilometers. We’re not going to stop every infiltration, but in the first months of liberation, we didn’t even guard all the paved roads traversing the border. Iranians could come in by the truckload. Trusting the Iranian government to ensure Iraq’s security is about as wise as hiring a child molester to baby sit. There is also room for improvement along the Syrian border. General David Petraeus bragged about boosting Syrian-Iraqi trade before he had a sufficient mechanism to ensure the validity of Syrian or Iraqi documentation. His staff refused to change course even when it became clear that the Syrians were insincere in their guarantees and that the 101st’s reliance on former Baathists had backfired. Only on April 15, did the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledge that there was a real problem with infiltration from Syria.

Even if we solve the problem of border security, significant political problems lie ahead. I cringe when I hear all this talk of elections, because no one is willing to elaborate on whether elections will be conducted by party-slate, or by individual contests in constituencies. The former will lead to radicalism and tyranny of the majority; Iraqis tell me their best hope lies with the latter. The fact that Iraqis are giving us the way ahead shows that this isn’t Vietnam. The problem is, we refuse to listen to the democrats and liberals, and instead coddle our adversaries.