OPE-L Gabriel Kolko Iraq already looks ominously like Vietnam

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Mon Nov 10 2003 - 19:50:56 EST


The Age (Melbourne)     November 10, 2003

Iraq already looks ominously like Vietnam

By Gabriel Kolko

There are great cultural, political and physical differences between Vietnam
and Iraq that cannot be minimised, and the geopolitical situation is
entirely different. But the US has ignored many of the lessons of the
traumatic Vietnam experience and is repeating many of the errors that
produced defeat.

In both places, successive American administrations slighted the advice of
their most knowledgeable intelligence experts. In Vietnam they told
Washington's decision-makers not to tread where France had failed and to
endorse the 1955 Geneva Accords provisos on reunification.

They also warned against underestimating the communists' numbers,
motivation, or their independent relationship to China and the Soviet Union.
But America's leaders have time and again believed what they wanted, not
what their intelligence told them.

The Pentagon in the 1960s had an uncritical faith in its overwhelming
firepower, its modern equipment, mobility, and mastery of the skies. It
still does, and Donald Rumsfeld believes the military has the technology to
"shock and awe" all adversaries. But war in Vietnam, as in Iraq, was highly
decentralised and the number of troops required only increased, even as the
firepower became greater. When they reached half-a-million Americans in
Vietnam, the public turned against the president and defeated his party.

Wars are ultimately won politically or not at all. Leaders in Washington
thought this interpretation of events in Vietnam was bizarre, and they
ignored their experts whenever they frequently reminded them of the limits
of military power.

In both Vietnam and Iraq the public was mobilised on the basis of cynical
falsehoods that ultimately backfired, causing a "credibility gap".

The Tonkin Gulf crisis of August 1964 was manufactured, as the CIA's leading
analyst later admitted in his memoir, because "the administration was
seeking a pretext for a major escalation". Countless lies were told during
the Vietnam War but eventually many of the men who counted most were
themselves unable to separate truth from fiction.

Many US leaders really believed that if the communists won in Vietnam, the
"dominoes" would fall and all South-East Asia would fall under Chinese and
Soviet domination. The Iraq War was justified because Saddam was alleged to
have weapons of mass destruction and ties with al-Qaeda, but no evidence for
either allegation has been found.

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

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

"Iraqisation" 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
utilising 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 defence 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 honour.

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

The real lessons of Vietnam have yet to be learned.

Gabriel Kolko is professor emeritus of history at York University in Canada
and the author of Anatomy of a War, a history of the Vietnam War.

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