Tuesday, June 06, 2006

# Posted 11:30 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A THOUGHTFUL ANALOGY BETWEEN IRAQ AND VIETNAM: While reading Andrew Krepinevich's book about US strategy in Vietnam, I found considerable evidence to support a wayward thought in the back of my mind. Then I discovered that someone else had that thought well before I did, also a result of reading Krepinevich:
[Amb.] Zalmay Khalilzad, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and now the president himself have all been touting the clear-and-hold strategy as the solution to America's woes in Iraq.

But it's not. To begin with, Iraq is populated by Iraqis, not Vietnamese. Unlike, say, in Western Iraq, the population of South Vietnam wasn't uniformly hostile to the U.S. presence. "The peasant in Vietnam cares as little about the ideology of the [Viet Cong] as it does about the ideology of the [South Vietnamese government] counterinsurgency," expert William Corson wrote in 1968. What this meant was that, in theory at least, it was possible to secure the population from the insurgency. In the Sunni areas of Iraq, by contrast, the insurgency amounts partly to an authentic expression of popular will.
That's Lawrence Kaplan writing in TNR.

In The Army and Vietnam, Krepinevich writes about the remarkable success in the early 1960s of the Marines' Combined Action Platoons (CAPs), which worked hand-in-hand with Vietnamese militia and local officials. (pp.172) Later in the war, the combined civil-military Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development (CORDS) program achieved many similar successes. Sadly, the Army ignored the Marines success and dismantled their program. Later, they underfunded CORDS in order to focus on massive search-and-destroy operations.

Reading Krepinevich's book is often like banging one's head against a wall. If only our generals had been a little more open-minded, Vietnam was theirs to win. Thanks to atrocities of the kind pointed out by Patrick, the Viet Cong often antagonized the population at least as much as the Americans. But they were also much better at intimidating.

One theory holds that the Viet Cong won over the population of South Vietnam by wrapping themselves in the mantle of Vietnamese nationalism. But that doesn't come across at all in Krepinevich's book, and he is hardly reluctant to identify reasons that the Army failed in Vietnam.

The flip side of the Kaplan's analogy above is that there was no equivalent to the Shi'ites in Vietnam. In other words, there was no sixty percent of the population who saw the Americans' presence as beneficial to their basic interests, regardless of the numerous complaints they had about the army of occupation.

This strikes as perhaps the most important difference between Iraq and Vietnam. Terrible as things are in Iraq, we've grounded our strategy in an approach that aligns us with the majority. If I were to point out one oversight in Krepinevich's book, it is that he never explores the strategic impact of the United States' self-defeating support for unstable military regimes in South Vietnam.

Perhaps the question didn't seem important in 1986, but what if the United States had made a real effort to promote democracy in Vietnam? What if, instead of an electoral facade, we really let the people of Vietnam choose their own government? Some might suggest Vietnam would've gone Communist. I don't believe it, but I guess we'll never know.
(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

If we respected the 1955 Vietnam election there would have been Vietnam war, period. Instead, we helped Ngo Dinh Diem nullify the election of Ho Chi Minh and set the Viet Minh insurgency in action. That act did more to turn the Vietnamese people off to American designs than anything else. Diem was also viciously anti-Buddhist and pro-Catholic, which grated on the hearts of tradition-minded Vietnamese peasants. It's true that most peasants cared little about the great Cold War ideological battle. But the VC was a lot more effective at both propaganda and intimidation than the US. Read Le Ly Hayslip's memoir, "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places," for a sense of how the propaganda battle worked among the Vietnamese peasantry.
I'm sorry, I meant "no Vietnam War, period." Should have checked...
I should add a point about Vietnam-Iraq comparisons. One problem here is simplifying the Iraq conflict into a Sunni insurgency vs. the US-backed Shi'ite government. It's much more complicated than that now. There's a sectarian war, a religious war, an intra-Shi'ite war, and a simmering Kurdish-Turkman-Arab war in the North all going on at once. These operate with their own dynamics, though sometimes they overlap. There is also a complete vacuum in state authority right now in the capital, something which did not happen in Saigon until 1975. Vietnam was a fairly straightfoward Communist, anti-colonial (or neo-colonial as it were) insurgency, with major external powers backing internal actors. There were dozens of Vietnam-type conflicts around the globe during hte Cold War.

Iraq is much more complicated because there aren't two polar global ideologies at work here (liberal democracy and Islamism come close, but their meanings are too much in flux in the Middle East context right now to reduce the conflict to these dimensions). And then there are those criss-crossing militias and Taliban-style forces. Iraq is considerably more chaotic than Vietnam. Probably more like Lebanon, actually. And the danger is that it becomes more like Eastern Congo and 1990s Afghanistan combined.
You know, the West was told that if we lost in Vietnam, South East Asia would fall to pieces. And we did lose in Vietnam, and yet South East Asia has been booming along ever since. The only losers of the Vietnamese war were the people of Indochina and America's confidence.

So maybe the consequences of leaving Iraq to its own devices might not be so horrific after all? Just a thought.
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