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Why Iraq, Like Vietnam, Is Immoral and Unnecessary

There are numerous parallels between America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Both were unnecessary, unjust wars that severely damaged the international reputation of the United States. While it contravenes the vision of American exceptionalism, the U.S. is reviled for its preemptive, unilateralist foreign policy that is characteristic of state-sponsored terrorism. It is no accident that Europeans consider the United States a major threat to international peace and security.

A Pew Global Attitudes Project's poll conducted in France, Germany, and Britain found widespread disapproval of the United States with favorability ratings of 37 percent, 38 percent and 58 percent respectively. Sixty years after American forces helped liberate Europe, most French and Germans feel unfavorably toward the United States. Even Osama bin Laden has favorable majorities in Pakistan (65 percent), Jordan (55 percent) and Morocco (45 percent) which are considered allies and “moderate” Muslim states. A serial unilateralism had already tarnished “the shining city upon a hill”: rejection of the Kyoto Treaty, withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and non-recognition of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Yet it was the invasion of Iraq that sealed its rogue-state image among the international community. Even John Lewis Gaddis, the realist historian, noted in Foreign Affairs (Jan.-Feb. 2005): “From nearly universal sympathy in the weeks after September 11, Americans within a year and a half found their country widely regarded as an international pariah.”

America invaded Vietnam to prevent decolonization after World War II. It was fueled by the messianic Kennan containment policy, NSC 68, a puerile vision of falling dominoes and a Manichaean bipolarity of “Atheistic Communism” v. the “Free World.” America’s Cold War strategy transmogrified 1840s Manifest Destiny from continental subjugation to global imperialism. The demise of Nazism and Japanese militarism gave rise to a new militaristic hegemon whose objective was global domination under the dissembling guise of containment.

The architects of illusion construed Ho Chi Minh as a cog of monolithic communism, and not as a valiant nationalist seeking independence after a millennium of colonization by China and France. There was no just cause. Vietnam was a preemptive war against a nation that sought unsuccessfully to obtain American assistance for independence in 1945. U.S. unilateralism eviscerated international efforts at conflict resolution with its cynical subversion of the comprehensive Geneva Accords (1954). In Iraq, Dr. Hans Blix’s UNMOVIC weapons’ inspections were interrupted as neoconservative militarists rushed to war.

Iraq was invaded for multiple reasons: for oil, to avenge a dictator who resisted American domination and to gain strategic control of the Middle East. The Project for the New American Century lobbied for war in 1998, and its advocates became the national-security elites of the Bush administration. Their casus belli was not extending democracy and freedom but anticipatory-self defense based upon the fantasy of Saddam Hussein’s strategic threat to the United States. The climax of this disinformation was a “Stevenson moment” in reverse when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations, on February 5, 2003, that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear-weapons program and even displayed a mock vial of weaponized anthrax . He averred:

My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence. I will cite some examples, and these are from human sources.

Vietnam and Iraq were crusades of exaggerated virtue. In Vietnam, the U.S. declared that its war aims were containing communism and extending freedom to Southeast Asia, yet for much of the war African-Americans could not vote, practice miscegenation in many states, use “white only” drinking fountains or unfetter themselves from Jim Crow cars. America’s war against Islam is buttressed by Judeo-Christian ethnocentrism with its inevitable clash of civilizations. Muslims are construed as backward, non-democratic, antimodern “Axis of Evil” that should emulate secular-western democracies and adopt Chicago-school free-market capitalism.

The Iraq war is waged with incompetent tactics and excessive force that guarantees failure and caused needless deaths for more than 1,500 American soldiers and 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Generals usually plan for the last war, and in Iraq and Vietnam, America expected conventional wars where superior firepower would shock and awe the opponent into capitulation. However, instead of victory with Iraqi crowds blowing kisses and draping rose garlands on M1A1 tanks, American forces are mired in a guerrilla war like Vietnam. Both the Weinberger Doctrine (1984) and Powell Doctrine (1991) were influenced by the Vietnam quagmire and recommended that before committing ground forces, war should be a last resort and backed by significant domestic support. Both doctrines ignored the need for international support, which never materialized in either conflict. In addition, the Powell Doctrine urged that prior to war, there must be a clear exit strategy that is starkly absent in the Iraq quagmire.

In Vietnam, America was defeated by a guerrilla insurgency of Vietcong and North Vietnamese. In Iraq the resistance fighters are Baathist revanchists in the Sunni triangle, supported by a coalition of the willing including Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. However, as in Vietnam, the resistance is overwhelmingly indigenous. “Guerrilla” is Spanish for “little war.” Guerrillas have no air force, navy, marines or $500 billion war budgets. Guerrilla strategy deploys small-fighting units that scrupulously avoid set-piece battlefield engagements that would insure annihilation. Insurgents avoid defeat and patiently wait for the stronger foe to quit the field of battle. Ho Chi Minh once warned a French general: “You will kill ten of our men and women, but we will kill one of yours and in the end it is you who will tire.”

During the Tet offensive in 1968, when Hue was destroyed, counterinsurgency relied on massive firepower which is self-defeating. This also occurred in Falluja where 300,000 civilians fled for their lives prior to its destruction beginning on November 8, 2004, a week after President Bush’s reelection. Although America can win conventional battles, the greater force it deploys against guerrillas that live among the people, the more alienated the civilian population becomes. According to Mao Zedong, “Guerrillas are like fish, and the people are the water in which fish swim. If the temperature of the water is right, the fish will thrive and multiply.”

The U.S. pursued nation-building in Vietnam with Strategic Hamlets, pacification and Nazi-style assassination Phoenix programs. It forcibly segregated peasants from the Vietcong and coerced them to support a reclusive Diem or a megalomaniacal Ky. Nation-building failed. Guerrilla wars are waged for the hearts and minds of noncombatants: an invader cannot impose democracy on a nation chafing under occupation. The U.S. slaughtered two to three million Vietnamese, was never defeated in battle and lost the war. The U.S. invaded, captured Saddam and cannot win this war. William Pfaff succinctly observed in the International Herald Tribune ( Dec. 21, 2004):

[We are] dealing with politically motivated revolutionaries, in the case of Al Qaeda, and nationalist and sectarian insurgents in the case of Iraq. [We have] an army, good for crushing cities. But the [opposition] is not interested in occupying cities or defeating American armies. Its war is for the minds of Muslims.

Ending the carnage requires renouncing permanent bases and developing a timetable for withdrawal. Iraq will tragically experience continued security challenges but without United States military forces. A Shiite alliance may cobble a majority within the provisional National Assembly but will lack legitimacy under U.S. occupation. Withdrawing American forces may unleash civil war with possible intervention from Turkey or Iran. A successful exit strategy is elusive because wars solve nothing, but the heavy hand of the American occupation must be lifted. From the 1991 Gulf War, the twelve year No-Fly-Zone-War, the crippling sanctions and the current conflict, more Iraqis died, perhaps, than under Saddam Hussein’s autocracy. Greater instability and deprivation exists without adequate electricity for homes, cooking gas for kitchens and even gasoline for cars!

Establishing a Palestinian state would mitigate the consequences of withdrawal. Without dismantling all Israeli settlements and allowing the right of return for some of the Palestinian diaspora, continued instability will dominate the region and threaten U.S. interests. The Arab world sees striking parallels between the American occupation of Iraq and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Withdrawal from Iraq would improve U.S. relations with Syria and Iran, and create greater stability for Iraq. These are Iraq’s neighbors and there is little incentive for Iran to abandon its putative nuclear ambitions with a nuclear-armed Israel and the menacing presence of American forces in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan. Syria may yield on its occupation of Lebanon but will defy American diktat with 150,000 American troops on its eastern front and Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.

Ending the war might diminish American militarism as well. At Abu Ghraib a thousand photographs served as trophies of achievement. Photos of Iraqi prisoners hooded and slung over prison railings, tethered to leashes as animals and piled naked in human-trash heaps were digitalized and emailed to friends and family back home. The late Susan Sontag compared them to lynchings of African-Americans when pictures of corpses adorned postcards and souvenir photos. Bob Dylan begins “Desolation Row” with: “They're selling postcards of the hanging.” Soldiers were immune from compassion as defenseless, non-resistant prisoners were mercilessly tortured and killed. This is war—the dehumanization of the enemy. In Vietnam insurgents were called “gooks” and “slants.” In Iraq they are dismissively called “terrorists” and by Professor Gaddis as “gangs” without considering their grievances or vital interests.

Reverend Jesse Jackson appropriately described Mr. Bush’s War as “without moral, legal or military legitimacy.” Hopefully, Americans will demand a reorientation of American external relations toward diplomacy and peaceful coexistence and reject the neoconservative craving for power maximizing with its legacy of war, torture and national dishonor.