Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

It's the failed policy, stupid

In the pantheon of ignominious foreign policy adventures, none stirs strong emotions like the Vietnam War. It's relatively close in historical terms to our own time, unlike say, the Philippine Insurrection, and one would think our experience in Vietnam would result in some public discussion of what happens when it becomes clear that our policy has failed.

The Iraq War policy has failed. There were no WMDs, so the rationale for the war was undercut from the beginning. The bad planning, corruption and negligence that has marked every aspect of the neoconservative-engineered occupation is infamous worldwide.

Iraq is not Vietnam, but the United States is still the United States. Our country seems to have some long-held assumptions about war that many thought were forever vanquished after Vietnam, but as we have experienced, they were only slumbering. And so we find ourselves in a different failed war, but reacting in much the same manner.

As anti-war sentiment grew in this country in the late 1960's, the Nixon administration attempted a policy called "Vietnamization." Having promised a plan to end the war during the 1968 campaign, Nixon felt compelled to start trying to turn the war over to the Saigon government.

It's worth reviewing part of a transcript from "Vietnam Online," a companion to the acclaimed 1983 PBS series "Vietnam: A Television History." From the episode "Peace is at Hand: 1968-1973:"
NARRATOR: In July 1969, President Nixon had good news for the troops. They could soon go home, and leave the fighting to the South Vietnamese. He called the policy "Vietnamization."

MELVIN LAIRD (Secretary of Defense): The policy of Vietnamization was to turn over the responsibility for the ground combat and air combat to the South Vietnamese. It was a policy of giving them the equipment and the training so that they could follow up their responsibility to their country. You cannot guarantee the will and the desire of any country, but you can give them the tools to do the job.

NARRATOR: The Saigon administration faced a new political challenge -- the Vietcong pro-claimed themselves the Provisional Revolutionary Government. America was still committed to troop withdrawals.

HENRY KISSINGER (National Security Adviser): We made up our minds from the beginning that we were going to try to disengage from Vietnam. And, all of the debate afterwards were really about, with the moderate critics, were about rates of disengagement, not about the fact of disengagement. So it had to be a high priority.

MELVIN LAIRD: The pressures were on as far as the American people were concerned. The pressures were on as far as the Congress was concerned and, if we wouldn't have moved in the direction of Vietnamization, our whole military force structure would have been destroyed in the United States and we would not have been able to meet the NATO commitments and the other commitments which were treaty commitments that had been made but, had been made by the American government.

MORTON HALPERIN (National Security Council staff): The major preoccupation of Kissinger and Nixon was U.S./Soviet relations. They believed that world peace depended on getting the Soviet Union into a relationship with the United States so that it ceased to do things which threatened American security interests. And, it was in this context that they approached every issue from the Middle East to China to Vietnam.

Vietnam was important because the United States had made it important. Kissinger was always fond of saying that we inherited 500,000 troops in Vietnam. We didn't put them there.
Sound familiar? Change a few names around and you have a similar debate going on right now.

It was utterly clear to anyone who cared to look by 1968, or even earlier, that our war policy in Vietnam was doomed to failure. Corruption and incompetence in the Saigon government could not be offset by the sheer and brutal application of American force.

More importantly, by viewing the Vietnam War almost exclusively through the lens of the Cold War policy of containment (also known in shorthand as "the domino theory,") U.S. leaders failed to understand the fundamentally nationalist nature of the struggle in Vietnam. People like self rule. Even possibly self rule under a nondemocratic government.

And it should be noted even pro-war types had become disillusioned, a story told well and in heartbreaking detail in Neil Sheehan's 1989 classic A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.

While it continues to be a popular right-wing myth today, any claim that the US military "fought with one hand tied behind its back" in Vietnam ignores the use of free fire zones, strategic bombing against a rural enemy and the myriad other uses of force like Agent Orange and napalm.

You cannot defeat a determined nationalist movement with force, at least in perpetuity. The French learned this in Vietnam (then referred to as Indochina) and again in Algeria. While Congressional Republicans were busily denouncing French fries in 2003, the French people had to be (and were!) shaking their heads at the American conservative agenda.

While many pundits in the United States continue to focus on "al-Qaeda in Iraq," the fundamental aspirations of Iraqis to be free from foreign domination is largely ignored. While the chaos in Iraq has led to a foothold for Islamic terrorists, that particular genie is out of the bottle, and continuing a failed policy will do nothing to address it.

Anyone can certainly make the argument that by continuing this administration's failed policies, we are sustaining an environment that is hospitable to Islamic terror. It's a point worthy of debate.

What we don't need is another two years of discussing Iraq as if it is World War II or the Cold War. That was one of the biggest mistakes during the Vietnam War: presenting the war to the American public by drawing lines on a map and talking about "Munich."

Every time I hear a news anchor use the term "front lines" in regards to the Iraq War I wish to ask him exactly where the front lines are. Obviously the front lines are everywhere in Iraq.

Islamic terror is a real and present threat, but neither is it a conventional global superpower like the Soviet Union. Before we invaded Iraq, there was no Islamic terror in that country, and that is not to engage in saying "I told you so" but to point out that Iraqi society did not naturally foster a large Islamic terror movement. It may be true that Saddam "kept a lid on things," but hey, so did the Shah next door in Iran. Look what happened there.

To view Iraq solely through the lens of the "war on terror" would be just as mistaken as viewing Vietnam solely as one domino in a larger Cold War battle. Vietnam went communist, but Thailand didn't. Most of the ensuing tragedy in Cambodia was directly attributable to our meddling. Arguments that withdrawing from Iraq will result in some horrendous new hotbed of terrorism kind of miss the point--Iraq is already severely dysfunctional, and the Middle East is already a dangerous place.

To most Americans, democracy is a nearly sacred goal, one that any politician must pay homage to. But our notions of democracy are also closely linked to our economic view of the world, which led to absurdities in Iraq that have created lasting damage. Iraqis needed order, clean water, food and medicine, and the Young Republicans' Tigris Office tried to give them a flat tax and stop smoking clinics. Our arrogance is so deeply resented, just as in Vietnam, in some quarters in Iraq that it's hard to see how we can make amends.

This isn't going to be pretty, either domestically nor in Iraq. The factional fighting in Iraq shows no signs of abating, putting the lie to the ridiculous idea put forth by neo-cons that "it was all designed to influence the US election." Sadly, ordinary Iraqis will continue to suffer and die. And so will more of our troops.

Here at home, it is a safe bet that the administration will try to salvage something, anything at all, out of this fiasco in Iraq. Papa Bush is sending the grown-ups, but it's probably too late.

The far right in the US will employ some version of Dolchstosslegende in order to avoid culpability, and the media will probably buy into it to some extent. The "one hand tied behind our back" myth from the Vietnam era has survived over 30 years, after all.

So the question for progressives is this: is it better to continue the suffering on all sides in Iraq, suffering that stems in large measure from our continued presence, or is it better to avoid the "Vietnamization" phase altogether? If we engage in a similar attempt to "turn things over" to our clients in Iraq, and it lasts a comparable time as "Vietnamization," we will still have large numbers of troops in Iraq in 2011. A sobering thought.

While our political opponents here at home will continue to attack us as "not understanding the enemy," perhaps it would be wise for the US to shift its attention to Afghanistan. You know, that place next to Pakistan where the Taliban let Osama bin-Laden set up shop. It seems the Taliban is making a comeback while American politicians try to save face in Iraq.

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