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Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam

Although President Bush has long denied that the Vietnam and Iraq wars are in anyway comparable, his mid-November visit to Vietnam forced him to confront the issue anew.[1]  While Press Secretary Tony Snow and Secretary of State Condolezza Rice were busy deflecting questions about the relevance of the U.S.’s experiences in the Vietnam War to the one in Iraq, the President told reporters that there was “one lesson.”  We Americans, the President said, “tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while....  We'll succeed unless we quit.”

Sadly, the President is a poor student of history.  To date the war in Vietnam is the U.S.’s longest.  Clearly the desire for instant gratification was not an issue in America’s defeat there.  More important, however, are the depressing similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.  Iraq has become another American Vietnam–a tragic, unnecessary, and divisive failure in counter-insurgency and nation-building.

Historians and other commentators in these pages have suggested many parallels and analogies between the U.S.’s war in Iraq and other conflicts (see HNN’s Hot Topics: Iraq Analogies: It's Vietnam. It's Lebanon ...).  While there are many significant differences between the wars in 1960s and 1970s Vietnam and Iraq today, the closest relevant American experience to the war in Iraq is the Vietnam War.  As Dale Andrade and Lt. Col. James H. Willbanks (ret.) point out in the U.S. Army journal, Military Review:  “Vietnam is the most prominent historical example of American counter-insurgency–and the longest.”  The U.S. should, they urge, “apply the lessons learned” there “to Iraq and Afghanistan.”  The wars in Vietnam and Iraq, as Andrade and Willbanks, suggest are very similar in several fundamental aspects. [2]

Both of these wars began as attempts to preserve American “security” through nation-building–the creation of pro-American, “democratic,” capitalist client states in Vietnam and Iraq.  As these two conflicts developed, they came to stand as the central front in the broader global ideological conflicts the United States government was fighting–the Cold War in Vietnam’s case; the war on terror in Iraq’s. 

In these two conflicts the U.S. government’s top policymakers were terribly ignorant of the political, social, cultural, religious, and historical realities of the countries that they were making war in.  This led them to colossal errors of judgment regarding the prospects for success in using military force to export American-style democracy and economic freedom to Vietnam and Iraq.  They compounded this error by making military force their primary instrument in nation-building.  This is a task for which the U.S. military was and still is ill-suited. 

Tragically, both wars were unnecessary.  Neither communism in South Vietnam in 1965 nor Baathism in Iraq in 2003 threatened American national security or any fundamental U.S. interests. 

The two wars were also undeclared.  Neither Presidents Johnson nor Bush bothered to follow the Constitution and ask Congress to declare war–something that might have resulted in a careful and reasoned public debate about what was at stake and whether American lives and treasure should be risked in pursuit of it.  And, the congressional resolutions authorizing the use of U.S. military force in Vietnam and Iraq were obtained by Presidents Johnson and Bush through deception.  Although they denied it at the time, the two Presidents were determined to go to war when they requested congressional action.

The Iraq war, like Vietnam before it, is a guerrilla war and a civil war.  The U.S. military today, like its predecessor in the 1960s, is designed to fight conventional (army-to-army) wars; this was despite its failure in Vietnam. Consequently, both wars found American officers and troops unprepared for combat with an enemy indistinguishable from the civilian population. With little knowledge of Vietnam, Iraq, or how to fight guerrilla war, American officers and soldiers adopted strategy, tactics, and behaviors that oppressed and humiliated the civilian population and thereby provided the insurgents with a steady stream of recruits and popular support.  Adding more American troops in Vietnam simply stimulated more opposition and escalated the level of violence.  The same holds true for Iraq today.

In South Vietnam the United States built up a weak, ineffectual, and corrupt client state that could not win popular support.  The failure of the South Vietnamese state meant that the American strategy to Vietnamize the war was doomed.  Corruption and incompetence pervaded the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)’s officer corps, while its soldiers were undisciplined and often unwilling to fight with the same fervor as their opponents.  Sadly, the current Iraqi government and army show the very same traits as their South Vietnamese counter-parts.

In both conflicts yawning credibility gaps opened between optimistic pronouncements of the presidents and their civilian and military spokespeople on the one hand, and the bloody realities of the war on the ground in Vietnam and Iraq on the other.  The deceptions by the Johnson (and Nixon) and Bush administrations, the obvious political and military failures in the field, and the tragic waste of life and treasure made the Vietnam and Iraq wars unpopular among the American people. 

The beginning of the end of the U.S.’s war in Vietnam came with the Tet offensive in January, 1968.  Tet made it abundantly clear that the Johnson administration’s claims of winning the war were wrong.  It also showed that all too many South Vietnamese did not want U.S. troops in their country and that they did not support the American vision for it.  After Tet increasing numbers of Americans saw the war as unwinnable, and turned against it.  By August of 1968 a Gallup poll reported that over half of the Americans it surveyed (53.46 percent) believed “the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam.” [3] A year and a half after the offensive 60 percent of Americans told Gallup’s pollsters that they wanted either to end the war or U.S. involvement in it. [4]  Without popular support in South Vietnam or the U.S., the U.S. government lost the Vietnam War. 

The U.S. was defeated in Vietnam, not because, as President Bush suggests–the American people were quitters without the necessary will to go the long haul, but because the war could not be won on terms that policymakers sold it to the American people–bringing democracy and economic freedom to South Vietnam.  The then Lieutenant John Kerry aptly summarized these sentiments in his 1971 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

we found that the Vietnamese whom we had enthusiastically molded after our own image were hard put to take up the fight against the threat we were supposedly saving them from.

We found most people didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy.... They wanted everything to do with the war, particularly with this foreign presence of the United States of America, to leave them alone in peace....

This history is being repeated in Iraq today. Iraqi Army units have mutinied rather than join U.S. forces a fight to end the sectarian violence in Bagdad.  A recent poll by the University of Maryland reveals that 78 percent of Iraqis believe the U.S. presence is "provoking more conflict than it is preventing," and 71 percent want the U.S. to withdraw in a one year.  The last six months of Washington Post/ABC News polls show that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war is not worth fighting.

The comments of President Bush, Secretary Rice, and other top officials regarding the lessons of the Vietnam War for Iraq suggest that America’s political and military leaders have long been in a state of denial regarding the Vietnam War and its relevance to the conflict in Iraq.  Their refusal to seriously and openly engage the historical experience of America’s Vietnam War and ask what went wrong with the U.S.’s war effort in Vietnam helped lay the foundation for the current debacle in Iraq.  The Vietnam War highlighted the great difficulties in nation-building and the limits of American power, particularly military power, to export American-style democracy and freedom.  The U.S. military could not compel the Vietnamese to support the government Americans sponsored and helped setup in South Vietnam.  The U.S. government’s civilian arm proved incapable in getting its Vietnamese clients to construct a government and economic system that won widespread support among the South Vietnamese people.  The result was the U.S.’s defeat in Vietnam.  Tragically, the U.S. government is losing in Iraq for many of the same reasons.

Although the final chapter on the Iraq War is yet to be written, the Vietnam experience suggests that exiting the Iraq quagmire poses serious challenges. The decisions taken in 1969 by President Richard Nixon and his National Secretary Adviser, Henry Kissinger (now one of President Bush’s trusted foreign policy advisers on Iraq), resulted in a widening of the war.  The rise of the Khmer Rouge and the conversion of Cambodia into killing fields was one horrific consequences of this decision.  Nixon (and Ford) and Kissinger’s failure to negotiate a sustainable peaceful settlement left the region ablaze.  Shortly after U.S. forces left (1973), its client state in South Vietnam fell to the Vietnamese communists in 1975.  It would take nearly 15 years of successive wars involving Vietnam, Cambodia, and China before relative peace was restored to this part South East Asia in the early 1990s.

Americans would do well to avoid a repeat of the bungled Vietnam War exit in Iraq.  Unlike South East Asia, U.S. prosperity and security depend on the free flow of Middle Eastern oil.  A series of wars following the U.S.’s withdrawal from Iraq would cost Americans dearly.  There is also the possibility, however remote, of the creation of an Islamist jihadist regime in Iraq, or in the Sunni part if the country fragments, that could sponsor terrorist attacks against the U.S.

The U.S.’s government’s repetition of the Vietnam War in Iraq makes its Middle Eastern war doubly tragic.  A detailed historical understanding of America’s Vietnam War on the part of the President and other U.S. policymakers could have helped the nation avoid the current debacle in Iraq.  Instead this history was denied, or at best received extremely superficial attention, as President Bush’s “instant success” comment indicates.  This enabled the Bush administration and large majorities in Congress to launch the U.S. on another mistaken nation-building venture that had little prospect for success.  The result is a war in Iraq like the one in Vietnam–another losing war effort with American and Iraqi blood and treasure being freely squandered in the process.  Iraq in short, has become Arabic for Vietnam.


1.   E.g.:

Q:  Do you see, as some of your critics do, a parallel between what's going on in Iraq now and Vietnam?


Q Why?

THE PRESIDENT: Because there's a duly elected government; 12 million people voted. They said, we want something different from tyranny, we want to live in a free society. And not only did they vote for a government, they voted for a constitution. Obviously, there is sectarian violence, but this is, in many ways, religious in nature, and I don't see the parallels.

(Press Conference of the President George W. Bush, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, June 14, 2006, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/06/20060614.html; “President Bush's Election News Conference,” CQ Transcripts Wire in washingtonpost.com, November 8, 2006,  http://www.washingtonpost.com).

2.   Dale Andrade and Lieutenant Colonel James H. Willbanks, “Cords/Pheonix: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam for the Future,” Military Review (March-April 2006), pp. 9, 22

3. The Gallup Poll #769, 9/26/1968 10/1/1968, Gallup Brain.

4.  The Gallup Poll #784, 7/10/1969?7/15/1969, Gallup Brain. This percentage is drawn from the 71.6 percent of those surveyed who answered yes to the question: “have you given any thought about what this country should do next in Vietnam?”