Sunday, September 2, 2007

Bush’s drivel on Iraq

It ill behoves an administration led by two who assiduously avoided the Vietnam War to lecture the nation now on the lessons of its consequences. President George W. Bush said last week that those who succumbed to calls to end the war would be responsible for the same tragedies that the end of Indochina wars unleashed.

"Will today’s generation of Americans resist the allure of retreat?" he asked. Or will we bug out and leave Iraq to Khmer Rouge-like horrors?

For those of us who spent some years in Indochina, living through that drawn-out catastrophe, there are indeed parallels with today. The President’s rousing claim that "a free Iraq" is within our reach is the same drivel as was the "light at the end of the tunnel" to a previous generation.

Robert McNamara, the Donald Rumsfeld of the Vietnam War, admitted, even tearfully, years afterward that we had little business sending soldiers to die in a country where we knew so little about its culture or history. Of course there were knowledgeable people who tried to tell McNamara, but, like Rumsfeld, he had his own illusions of American military capability, and didn’t want to hear anything that ran counter to his preconceived conceptions.

There are parallels in the arrogance and hubris of those whom David Halberstam called the "best and the brightest," the men President Lydon B. Johnson inherited from John Kennedy — smart to a fault and, like Paul Wolfowitz and his soulmates, totally wrong. There are parallels in the corrupt and ineffectual leaders that America tried to prop up in Saigon, then, and in Baghdad today. In the end they were always handicapped by being seen as lackeys to a foreign power.

Nationalism and patriotism, two powerful forces in Indochina as they are in Iraq today, always favoured the other side. The US presence, and the destruction that is the natural business of foreign armies, could always create more recruits for the other side than we could kill.

The calls in Congress, and by presidential hopefuls, to dump Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, because he is following his own interests instead of the interests of the United States, reminds me of the efforts to unseat President Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam. At first, Washington had praised Diem to the skies, but when he didn’t do things our way he had to go. Our efforts succeeded. He was murdered in a coup, but neither the war nor the political situation improved for us.

There are parallels in the ability of US troops to clear, hold, and build in any given area for a while, but the moment the Americans are gone the other side moves back in. In most cases the other side was never absent — just lying low.

I was amazed after the Henry Kissinger-negotiated ceasefire in Vietnam, when I travelled in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, that areas we had considered to be safely on our side raised the Viet Cong flag. All the schools we had built, the hospitals, the roads we had used as benchmarks of our success meant nothing.

We can win every battle and yet lose the war. Does anyone really think that we have really won the hearts and minds of Falluja, just because things are comparatively quiet there now?

The President is right that many of us underestimated the consequences of our failure in Indochina, and the consequences of our failure in Iraq will be much worse for us geopolitically and strategically.

But the horror of Cambodia was the result of war, not our leaving it. When societies are torn asunder under the stress of war, dark forces — like diseases when the immune system fails — come to the fore. The Khmer Rouge would never have come to power if the war had not come to Cambodia, any more than Mao would have come to power in China were it not for the Japanese invasion, or Lenin in Russia had it not been for World War I.

But the most important parallel that Colin Powell, and others, learned from Vietnam is that the American public will not sustain a war that drags on for years with no discernible progress.

Historians may one day write that the Iraq War was lost right after Baghdad fell and we failed to stop the disintegration of the country. It’s too late to speak of winning now. We should be concentrating on mitigating the failure.