Iraq and Vietnam. For someone my age it's not exactly déjà vu all over again. More like being forced to watch Robin Williams in The Birdcage having seen La Cage aux Folles a generation before.
For the past 30 years, left-right debate over America’s wars has traveled a well-worn rut. The Left says whatever war is in question is “another Vietnam,” while the Right denies it. After three decades of being serially wrong, in the Iraq war liberals might be making their first-ever correct diagnosis.
Okay, so right off the bat we get something with no corollary. It could be that in the 60s Birchers and editors of the National Review were claiming that Liberals had just been itching to oppose a war since the first Roosevelt administration, but the truth is that in those simpler times most people aspired to not make glaring howlers in their opening paragraphs. Quaint, I know.
2006 - 30 = 1976. The Mayaguez Incident was '75, and is officially considered part of the Vietnam War. I bring it up only to prove I was paying attention back then. * Then there's Jimmy Carter who, if memory serves, did not send troops anywhere except on the Ill-Fated Hostage Rescue Mission, which conservatives blamed on Vietnam. As always we were dabbling in Central America, but nobody was supposed to know, so no Vietnam comparisons there. There was the Olympics boycott of '80, which Paul Krassner or Marlon Brando or somebody called "the decathlete's Vietnam", I think, but it didn't stick. Next Reagan invaded Grenada, apparently because he misunderstood something Claudette Colbert said into his bad ear, and the US lanched the largest Armada since D-Day against 80 Cuban bricklayers who were menacing some American medical students. Thanks in no small part to our position as the world's premier military power we managed to land our troops in such a way that it put the Cubans between us and the students, but fortunately no one was walled up. The planning here may have recalled Vietnam, but it was over too quickly for any real sloganeering to gain a foothold. Reagan also tried to kill Libyan strongman Muammar Kaddafi, who foiled the attempt by changing the spelling of his name. We're insisting on a strict "No ground troops, no 'Nam" rule here. "There are no quagmires in the air," as Curtis LeMay once said. And, again, there was some stuff going on in Central America, but it was pretty much kept out of the papers.
Which brings us to Bush I, and, in no particular order, Iraq War I ("The Last Good Undeclared War"), the attempted musical irritation of Manuel Noriega, and Somalia, which conservatives liked when Bush started it but hated once Clinton became President. Of these, only Iraq I might have qualified for the Vietnam tag, but at the time "No Blood for Oil" was felt to be catchier. Clinton had Haiti, and the Balkans, but those wars had a different marketing strategy altogether and proved to be, if not wildly popular, at least cult favorites.
So we're sorta left with Afghanistan and Iraq II, and perhaps it's time to point out that those wars do not go back nearly 30 years, and that the Vietnam analogy applies in some respects to both. I think we're safe in saying that the Left has gone no worse than 1 for 3, depending on who's keeping score, while some individual Lefties might claim 2-0 with some justification. The Right, meanwhile, goes 1-1-1. And Rich Lowry's full of shit.
In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we face a vicious insurgency that has worn down the will of the American public.
...and a government which has lied about that insurgency from Day One, and insisted all this time that the end was no more than six months away, tops. The distinction being that the former is a natural result of conflict, while the latter is inexcusable hubris
Quick game of Spot the Vietnam Myth, anyone? How about the notion that insurgencies facing an overwhelming military superiority turn to fighting a battle in the American media? It's a stupid conceit, and it has led--for 30 years now, some might say--to the sort of National Review "We're Winning" cover and all other forms of mind erasure.
Try it for yourself--go out and organize your own insurgency based on the idea that over the course of a decade, with great sacrifice and perhaps the approval of the diety of your choice, you might gradually dishearten the newspaper readers of some other country. Insurgents fight invaders. The North Vietnamese may have learned how to manipulate American news operations--somewhat; not even the President can do that as consistently as the Right claims our enemies do--but the idea that they defeated us by disturbing our natural buoyancy with wave after wave of bad news is just excuse #417 in the conservative post-Vietnam playbook.
Then there's the argument disguised as bland statement of fact--that the "will of the American people" was fully behind both adventures. But most Americans couldn't have pointed to Vietnam on a map before 1966, if then, and the idea that it was the "will" of the people to invade Iraq is just bluff and bluster, exhibit A being the administration's cowardly refusal to ask for tax increases and military conscription. It's not the public will which has collapsed in the past three years; it's the public's acceptance of what it was told in the first place vs. the harsh reality that has slowly dawned. But yes, this is exactly like Vietnam. So's the attempt to obfuscate it.
In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we have failed to cut off the enemy from re-supply.
This is the difference between a hypothetical and a full-blown case of ergot poisoning. First, for the first several years of US involvement the major source of supply for the North was...us. Captured weapons supplimented a large cottage industry in gunsmithing. The Soviets were very hesitant to get involved, as were the Chinese, and some older readers may recall the two didn't actually like each other much. It was only after the North Vietnamese proved they could embarrass the US that Soviet supplies started rolling over Chinese railroads.
There is one bit of truth to be uncovered here. Had we at some point, as a nation, risen up, seized everyone who ever suggested so blithely that we should have carried the war in Vietnam--or Korea, for that matter--into Chinese territory, tied them in a large bag and sunk it in the Marianas somewhere there'd have been a lot smaller fantasy component to our foreign policy these last forty years.
In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we have had ever-shifting military strategies.
That's simply not true about Vietnam, and I doubt there's much truth to it in Iraq. Military thinkers adapt to changing situations, of course; you wouldn't want it any other way. In Vietnam we had basically three strategies, in succession, and they were related to how the military saw the situation: pacification followed by large-scale attrition followed by super-scale bombing. None of them worked (though Lowry will claim attrition would have,) but they were hardly "ever-shifting".
God knows we've had shifting rationales in Iraq, two or more a day at its height, but military strategies? Don't think so.
In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we have had trouble building effective, clean governmental institutions in the soil of an alien culture.
Of course the real democrat in Indochina was Ho Chi Minh; he asked the US for help at the end of the First World War, and again after being our ally in the Second, and was rebuffed both times because we only believed in self-determination for Europeans. Beyond that, of course, we simply obfuscated any cultural details that rose above public indifference (and few if any did). We blocked the July '56 elections in Vietnam, backed Diem's brutalities, kept the utter corruption in the South as quiet as we could, then okayed Diem's assassination and backed a series of corrupt strongmen. I'm still trying to figure out just why that didn't work.
One difference is that in Vietnam the various administrations from Eisenhower to Nixon never spoke of the religious differences at the heart of the conflict, while in Iraq the Bush administration didn't give a shit.
The consequences of that defeat would be remarkably similar to those in the wake of Vietnam. The prestige of the U.S. government would sink around the world, emboldening our enemies and creating a period of American doubt and retreat. A humanitarian catastrophe would likely befall Iraq, just as it did Vietnam. The only significant difference is that in Iraq, radical Islamists harbor ambitions to come to our shores and kill Americans, whereas the Viet Cong never wanted to follow us home.
Well, Rich, it's a great time to be thinking of all that, now isn't it? Though I might object that now, as then, our prestige has already plummeted as a result of a brutal and idiotic foreign policy; defeat won't do much to worsen it. As for humanitarian catastrophe, I'm pretty sure it, like a few million pounds of high explosives, has already befallen Iraq. All over the place.
The consequences of the latest defeat, lad, are the responsibility of those of you who were so all-fired sure we'd get to redeem the earlier one.
* That and the fact that the Khmer were using captured Swift boats. It's always good to mention Swift boats, and it's double good to mention them to a critter-pated "conservative" who's just objected that we didn't halt military supplies to the Communists.