Dohiyi Mir
    In Which NTodd Says His Peace

Sunday, December 28, 2003
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Screwing The Pooch, American Style


Strike up a conversation and the cabbies will most likely tell you what seems to have become the conventional wisdom today: not even Saddam Hussein could have screwed up this badly.

Yup, the reconstruction of Iraq proceeds according to plan. Or maybe according to the genius of our non-plan. Eh, what's the difference?

One might ask the same question about comparing Iraq and Vietnam. Robert Kaiser does a good job of answering that in today's WaPo:

"History doesn't repeat itself, at best it rhymes," Mark Twain is credited with saying. This is a wise warning. A close examination of Iraq and Vietnam quickly makes clear the limits of any analogy. There are just too many differences to justify putting these two entanglements in the same category.

But it's easy to find the rhymes...Sometimes the rhymes ring like chimes. For example:
  • Official optimism.

  • American isolation on the ground.

  • American isolation in the world.

  • The primacy of American political considerations.

Vietnam undermined the U.S. economy, nearly destroyed the U.S. Army and contributed to a generation or more of public cynicism and distrust of government. There are no grounds today for predicting consequences as grave from the war in Iraq. Indeed, a successful outcome, including a new democratic Iraq, remains possible. But the rhymes should give us pause.

This hits exactly the right note. I, for one, never have claimed Iraq and Vietnam are identical, yet I find the analogy between the conflicts to be generally instructive. Just as our own tragic chapter in Vietnam's history was presaged by France's quagmire, previous interventions can inform us with regard to our involvement in Iraq. Many proponents of the war in Iraq desperately try to dash any comparison to Vietnam, with objections ranging from the fairly reasonable (e.g., the Iraqi resistance ain't the Viet Cong) to laughable strawmen (e.g., Iraq doesn't have any jungles). All of these really miss the wider lessons of Vietnam: an indigenous force will ultimately always defeat an occupier; not even a superpower can win a war in isolation; lying to gain support for a war is a dangerous propositon.

Of course, all analogies break down at some point. Take the appeasement argument that led LBJ to increase our involvement in Southeast Asia. Johnson felt we needed to stand up to North Vietnam, lest we reward the commies for their aggression. As Jeffrey Record observes in a Air War College paper:

[T]he differences between Hitler's Germany of the 1930s and 1940s and Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam of the 1960s were so profound as to make Munich an enemy of sound judgment by the United States on Vietnam.

Munich has been invoked regarding Iraq many times by the pro-war camp, ignoring the myriad differences between Hitler and Hussein just as they ignored the obvious differences between Hitler and Ho. Not surprising, given the binary worldview that only saw inaction or war as the two options in dealing with Saddam. Casting successful containment of Iraq as "appeasement" came naturally to them.

No matter what analogy you prefer, the tragedy in Iraq continues: Iraq blasts kill 2 U.S. soldiers, 2 Iraqi children. Since Saddam Hussein was captured, A couple dozen coalition troops have been killed, and who knows how many civilians.

And lest we forget our other botched exercise in nation building: Suicide bomber kills 5 in Kabul. Only a superpower like America has the ability to invade and screw up two countries simultaneously.

I have no idea how our two quagmires will turn out, but I know this: we need to stop sticking our feet into them. Howard Dean might fall into the same traps, and will definitely create rhymes of his own, but I'm very optimistic that his foreign policy will be more reasonable than Bush's, and will offer us the best chance to avoid such pitfalls because it won't be so reckless.


[Update: I've made a few edits to fix a couple formatting things or other stuff that annoyed me.] 

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A non-violent, counter-dominant, left-liberal, possibly charismatic, quasi anarcho-libertarian Quaker's take on politics, volleyball, and other esoterica.

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