Which Past War Is Iraq?

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Analogies are designed as a shortcut to reality, but as everyone knows, shortcuts often lead elsewhere than their planned destination. So it is with President Bush’s attempt to link our current predicament in Iraq and past failures in Vietnam.

Analogies are designed as a shortcut to reality, but as everyone knows, shortcuts often lead elsewhere than their planned destination. So it is with President Bush’s attempt to link our current predicament in Iraq and past failures in Vietnam. The analogy, meant as a warning against withdrawal, relies on an abusive rhetoric that evokes the “unmistakable legacy” paid for by “millions of innocent [Vietnamese] citizens.” Previously, Bush had used the Vietnam analogy, though less explicitly, to warn against escalation against an enemy that is “never tired, never sated, never content with yesterday’s brutality.”

Clearly, the President and his senior advisers, who had shown little awareness of geography while planning for war five years ago, could also use lessons in history as they insist on putting some fancy clothing on an unappealing present. Whether Iraq was a war of choice or a war of necessity can be argued on moral and national security grounds; but not repeating in Iraq the undisputable show of failure that ended the war in Vietnam responds to both a moral and a national security imperative that can be argued more effectively than by returning to a failed past.

For once, Mr. President, the facts are on your side. Unlike Vietnam, where the fear of failure reflected a frame of mind that bore little resemblance to reality, the predictable consequences of retreat in Iraq are real. The war in Vietnam was a civil war that was turned into an American war; the war in Iraq is an American war that has become a civil war. To that extent Iraq is the true quagmire that Vietnam did not have to be. A precipitate withdrawal would unleash Iraq’s civil war into ever larger killing fields of vital significance not only to the United States, but to the rest of the region and beyond.

Admittedly, the U.S. retreat from Vietnam nearly 30 years ago caused political chaos in the United States, a crisis of authority within the Atlantic Alliance, and a global Soviet challenge that seemed to peak as America was said to be declining. But a few years proved to be sufficient to still the political chaos at home, restore U.S. leadership in the alliance, and bury the Soviet challenge abroad. By comparison, an abrupt retraction of U.S. military power from Iraq would plunge the world into a lastingly significant political crisis, create nearly chaotic conditions in the Middle East, exacerbate dangerous tensions in East Asia, and compromise current efforts to contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction. On this score at least, history delivers an inescapable verdict: Whatever is thought of a strategy of preponderance, it is not nearly as bad as a strategy of preponderance that fails.

No small cause for the inadequate — if not inept — management of postwar Iraq grew out of another earlier analogy. Some in the Bush administration thought of Iraq’s future in terms of Germany’s past, an allusion favored by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The best that could be said of that analogy — and the least that should have been known about post-Saddam Iraq — is that Iraq lacked the vital dimensions of Germany’s recovery after 1945: a national will to reinvent itself, a homogenous people and a home-grown leadership of unusual vision — as well as a geographic location in a region that had, on the whole, lost its taste for war. Absent these conditions, a more apt analogy for postwar Iraq should have been with post-1919 Germany (and Europe), embittered and bent upon revenge as opposed to post-1945 Germany, defeated and bent on redemption.

However divided, angry, concerned and even fearful we may be in the United States over why we went to Iraq and why we are still there, it is all too clear that leaving will be hard, slow and dangerous. Withdrawal, not to be confused with retreat, can begin at once, and it probably will. But pointedly enough, all leading U.S. presidential candidates now agree that it will not end any time soon, pending a number of factors. Iraq needs a measure of self-induced security that would progressively rely on the contributions of better trained, equipped and motivated Iraqi military (and even police) forces; it needs a partial reconstruction of the country’s infrastructure and economy, in parallel with improved and improving security conditions; and ultimately it should aim at the rehabilitation of the Iraqi state as the loose federation recommended by U.S. Senator Joe Biden.

The future holds no “date certain” for withdrawal, although, and without a doubt, the earlier the better. But the past offers even less of a date certain for redemption, and going back to Vietnam as an alibi for explaining a delayed withdrawal from Iraq only serves to obfuscate further a war that the administration failed to explain when it was launched, and now fails to understand after it has failed.

The author holds the Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies and a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. His next book, Architects of Delusion: Europe, America, and Iraq, will be released this fall.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in these publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.

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