Even before the US-led coalition had fired its first shot in the war that saved Iraq from Saddam Hussein there were some who predicted that the exercise would become “another Vietnam.”
The “another Vietnam” chorus included radical American intellectuals such as Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Sean Penn along with such figures on both the extreme right and the extreme left in Europe as Jean-Marie Le Pen, George Galloway and Harold Pinter. Since then, the prediction that Iraq was becoming or had already become “another Vietnam” has hit the headlines every three or four months.
The “another Vietnam” chorus is at its loudest whenever there is an upsurge in terrorist insurgency or sectarian violence in Iraq and at times when the US is holding an election.
It is, therefore, not surprising that October should have witnessed the return of the “another Vietnam” chorus at its loudest.
October has witnessed the worst violence in Iraq in 18 months. The joint efforts of the US forces and the new Iraqi army to end sectarian killings and terrorist attacks in Baghdad have failed. There has also been a series of defeatist declarations by a number of US and British politicians and military figures. Add to all that the fact that the US is headed for a crucial mid-term election early next month, and October becomes the ideal month for an upsurge in “another Vietnam” predictions.
The problem, however, is that because we are never told what the phrase “another Vietnam” actually means, the analogy may be misleading.
To start with the US and its allies in Vietnam were defending an un-elected and corrupt regime in Saigon against its enemies in both the south and North Vietnam. In Iraq, however, the US-led coalition is on the side of an elected government that represents virtually the entire Iraqi nation. There is no equivalent of the Hanoi regime in Iraq to offer the Iraqis an alternative vision and a flag under which to fight the government in Baghdad. The Al Qaeda figures in Iraq and the remnants of the Saddamite clan could hardly be compared to Hochi Minh and his associates who had won their credentials during decades of struggle against French colonialism.
In Vietnam, the US and its Western allies had some 600,000 troops committed to the war. In Iraq that number is around 150,000.
The US task force in Vietnam was a conscript army while the one in Iraq is an entirely voluntary one. In Vietnam the US lost an average of 25 men each day. In Iraq the figure is two a day.
In Vietnam, apart from the north that was under Communist rule, the Vietcong controlled large chunks of territory both in the Mekong delta and close to the Laotian and Cambodian borders. In Iraq, however, Al Qaeda and the Saddamites control no territory.
As far as treasure is concerned, the Vietnam War was nine times costlier for the US in comparable dollars than the Iraq operation has been.
In Vietnam, Hanoi and the Vietcong received support from the Soviet Union and China. In Iraq, support for opponents of the democratic system comes from Iran and Syria.
Also unlike the era of Vietnam, there is no grass-root movement in the US in sympathy with either Al Qaeda or the Saddamites; Not even the most determined anti-Bush figures in the US are prepared to openly side with Saddam Hussein and Abu-Ayyub al-Masri.
There is one other major reason why Iraq will not be “another Vietnam.” That reason is George W Bush, possibly the most stubborn US leader since President Harry S Truman. Bush is not a cut-and-run type, especially at a time that he enters the second half of his final term in office and must be thinking of his place in history.
Having said all that Iraq may yet become “another Vietnam” in only one sense. The Americans may still decide to snatch defeat from the jaws of military victory just as they did in Vietnam. There are many in the US political and cultural elite who want Iraq to fail with an almost pathological ardour solely to get at George W Bush and his supposed cabal of “neoncons”. A Democrat controlled Congress could cut the budget for the US troops in Iraq, forcing their withdrawal.
But even if there is a new Congress controlled by the Democrats it is not at all certain that it would cut the troops’ budget and send that last helicopter to get the last Americans out of Baghdad. Apart from a lunatic fringe, no one in the Democrat Party is advocating a cut-and-run policy in Iraq.
This is because they know that Iraqis not another Vietnam. In Iraq, the US and its allies have achieved all their political objectives that included the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s machinery of war and repression and the restoration of power to the Iraqi people. In Vietnam, however, the US failed to dismantle the Communist-Vietcong machinery of war and repression, and certainly did not restore power to the people even in the southern half of the country
A precipitous US withdrawal from Iraq is certain to complicate matters for the newly created democratic system.
But it would not mean a seizure of power by Al Qaeda and the Saddamites. The terrorists and the insurgents could continue killing people and causing mayhem for many more years just as their counterparts did in Algeria, Egypt and Turkey among others. But one thing is certain: Al Qaeda and Saddamites will never rule in Baghdad.
If the Iraqis wish to end the coalition’s military presence they have an opportunity to do so at the end of this year when the UN mandate under which the US-led forces are in Iraq comes to an end. But if the Iraqi parliament decides to extend the US-led coalition’s mandate, that decision should be respected and supported.
When it invaded Iraq, the US-led coalition entered into a moral contract with the Iraqi people. Under that contract the coalition to destroy the Saddamite tyranny and transfer power to the people of Iraq. In exchange, the Iraqi people were required to create a pluralist system based on power sharing among all the communities. The Iraqis have laid the foundations of precisely such a system. The US-led coalition must help defend this new system against its enemies until new Iraq is in a position to protect itself.
The best judgment at present is that new Iraq will need the coalition’s support for another 18 months or so. What is important is that, despite the violence and numerous social and economic problems, the new pluralist system in Iraq is deepening its roots, while a new political culture is taking shape. In other words there is something worth preserving, something worth fighting for. While new tactics may be needed to adapt to new conditions on the ground, especially in dealing with a highly protean insurgency, the strategy in Iraq remains as valid as it was four years ago. This is a strategy of creating an Iraq that belongs to all Iraqis and will never again be dominated by a single clan, let alone a brutal despot.