Saturday, April 15, 2006

Iraq Watch

Twice in the last year I have given talks comparing Vietnam and Iraq, and I am scheduled to do so again later this week. The Iraq war has now reached the length—more than three years—at which the Vietnam War became the consuming issue of American life, and it seems no closer to any conclusion than Vietnam did in the middle of 1968. Because it is costing less than one-tenth the number of American lives, none of them draftees, it is having much less impact. That, for the national security establishment—and especially the military—was Vietnam’s enduring lesson: overseas military adventures had to be either casualty-cheap or quick. Yet it is extraordinary to note that by the end of this year American participaton in the Iraq war will have lasted as long as our participation in the Second World War, and that it is already longer than the Korean War. But not only is the end not in sight, even the shape of the future is more confused than ever. Only two things seem relatively certain: the American vision of the outcome is retreating further and further into the background, and American leadership doesn’t know that.

Two weeks ago the New Yorker published another long article by George Packer, the author of The Assassin’s Gate, which I reviewed last fall. Much of the article described Packer’s experiences around Tal-Afar with Colonel H. R. McMaster, who has a Ph.D in history thanks to his book on the origins of the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty, which argued that senior generals failed to tell Lyndon Johnson what they really thought before going to war. (Having covered the same ground in my own book, I must register my dissent: the problem was not that generals did not say what they thought, but rather that neither generals nor civilians understood the situation in Vietnam and what the impact of American military intervention was likely to be. I suspect there was far more actual understanding of the difficulties of going into Iraq than of those in Vietnam.) In any case, McMaster has made an important effort to pursue genuine counterinsurgency in Tal Afar, sending his men out on patrol to keep order and trying locally to bring Shi’ite and Sunni factions together to govern the city. That was the good news.

The bad news, however, is that Tal Afar is one of the exceptions. Essentially the American military has been making the same mistakes that it made during the first four years of the Vietnam War, and for the same two reasons. Rather than actually occupy populated areas, the American divisions in Iraq have constantly moved from place to place, staying for a few weeks at a time to put out fires. As in Vietnam, we lack the forces to remain in place, and the Iraqi insurgents can always find a safe haven. Meanwhile, we are trying to rely more heavily on air power—an almost untold story, whose actual results are unknown to the general public, except when one of our mistakes, such as wiped-out wedding party or house full of civilians, comes into view. (John Paul Vann, one of the more famous military critics in the Vietnam War, liked to remark that the rifle was the best weapon in counterinsurgency because it was the most discriminate. Unfortunately, for the last 100 years modern armies have relied upon it less and less.) Moreover, Army doctrine still has little place for counterinsurgency operations. The Army’s response to Vietnam was not to learn to fight such wars correctly, but to make sure that it didn’t have to fight them again. That SOP worked for almost 40 years—coincidentally (or not) until virtually no Vietnam veterans were left in the military. Packer discovered that any counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq had been pursued purely as local initiatives by commanders like McMaster—there has been no overall counterinsurgency plan coming out of Central Command, much less Washington. Indeed, Secretary Rumsfeld still hates the use of the word “insurgency” to describe Iraq. And indeed, Packer reports that the United States is withdrawing most of its troops into huge new bases (like Da Nang in Vietnam) and planning to withdraw a good many. Vice President Cheney, he noted, is preparing the Administration’s defense if things go badly: to blame the media for reporting nothing but bad news. (Reading Packer, I concluded that the remarkable drop in American casualties over the last three months probably reflected the withdrawal into bases. That drop, however, has been reversed, spectacularly, this month. We lost only 33 men killed last month; we have already lost 44 in the first half of April. Fighting with insurgents is reported today in Fallujah, the city whose destruction in November-December 2004 was supposed to deal a death blow to the insurgency. And even Basra, where the British initially were thought to be successful, is increasingly under violent Shi’ite militia control.

The other and perhaps even worse news in Packer’s article came from his descriptions of the political meetings McMaster held. They showed no trust whatever between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and no political basis for the united Iraq that we want. The same drama, of course, has now been played out for four months in the failed attempt to create a new government. Condolezza Rice and Jack Straw journeyed to Baghdad two weeks ago to tell Prime Minister Al-Jaffari to withdraw. After they left, all factions agreed that this remarkable intervention into the democratic process upon which we insisted had made things worse. More importantly, there is no alternative to Jaffari who promises to be, from our point of view, any better. He leads the Al-Dawa party, and his Shi’ite Rivals, SCIRI (the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq) is tied even more closely to Iran than he is. Today’s papers talk of replacing Al-Jaffari with another member of his own party. There is not the slightest reason to believe that such a person will be less Islamic and more pro-American than the incumbent, or that he will command any more respect from the Sunnis.

Controversies over Iran, including two long stories on plans for air strikes on that country last weekend in the New Yorker and the Washington Post, have temporarily taken Iraq off the front page. (At times the Administration seems to have a knack for diverting the public’s attention from one disaster to another.) Meanwhile, half a dozen retired generals are calling publicly for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation—perhaps, in my opinion, because of fears that Iran will be next. (There is little that Rumsfeld’s resignation could do to help the situation in Iraq now.) But at the same time, yesterday’s papers reported that we are building the largest Embassy complex in the world in a corner of the Green Zone in Baghdad. The President has announced, in effect, that large numbers of Americans will still be in Iraq on the day he leaves office—although what he thinks they will be doing there is a complete mystery. (We have already given up on reconstructing the country.) American policy, in short, seems more out of touch with reality than ever.

In my talk on Vietnam and Iraq, I used quotes from the two Texan Presidents who led us into those wars. Both the similarities and the differences are interesting. Here is President Johnson in late September 1967.

“So your American President cannot tell you--with certainty--that a Southeast Asia dominated by Communist power would bring a third world war much closer to terrible reality. One could hope that this would not be so. But all that we have learned in this tragic century strongly suggests to me that it would be so. As President of the United States, I am not prepared to gamble on the chance that it is not so. I am not prepared to risk the security--indeed, the survival--of this American Nation on mere hope and wishful thinking. I am convinced that by seeing this struggle through now, we are greatly reducing the chances of a much larger war--perhaps a nuclear war. I would rather stand in Vietnam, in our time, and by meeting this danger now, and facing up to it, thereby reduce the danger for our children and for our grandchildren.”

And here is President Bush last January.

“In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat. By allowing radical Islam to work its will -- by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself -- we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil .”

As I have noted here again and again, my generation and the President’s (he is 11 months older than I) has been characterized for forty years by a terrifying certainty. Lyndon Johnson, for all his faults, was willing to acknowledge at least that he might be wrong, and to paint his decision to continue as a difficult one. President Bush is not. He has a terrifying faith that has led him to reaffirm his confidence in Donald Rumsfeld. And like President Johnson, he will never be convinced to pull Americans out of Iraq until he has been convinced that we have won. That, it turns out, is why Johnson agreed in late October 1968 to offer North Vietnam a full bombing halt and begin peace talks: that Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk and persuaded him that the enemy was ready to cave in. It seems that for a few years at least, American troops will remain in enclaves in Iraq while the country continues its descent into civil war. The Democrats, who seem quite likely to regain control of Congress in November, should try to find the courage to propose an alternative policy and lay some foundation for a more hopeful future.

1 comment:

Matthew E said...

Not to nitpick, and of course I know you know this, and I know why you wrote it the way you did, but World War II lasted six years, not four.