In Iraq as in Vietnam, ultimate success depends upon political, not military, factors. The goal of a free, united and democratic depends upon a government enjoying broad support, just as the goal of an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam depended upon a government stronger than the Viet Cong. Neither was, or is, possible. The Viet Cong were too well-organized and too effective at neutralizing and infiltrating the South Vietnamese Army and government for any Saigon Administration to overcome them, and none of the major political groups in Iraq want what we want--they all stand for the interests of one of hte principal ethnic groups. What is extraordinary is how we are traveling over the same futile paths in Iraq that we did forty years ago in Vietnam.
The chief symptom, of course, is our search for the leader who will magically achieve our goals--the search that took us in Vietnam from Diem to Khanh to Ky and to Thieu, and that has already taken us in Iraq from Chalabi (who never took office) to Alawi to Jafari to Al-Maliki. Changes of government are punctuated by attempts to make the incumbent change his spots. The Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations repeatedly asked Diem to broaden his political base, but he always refused, and when it had shrunk to his own family, he was overthrown. Khanh became a neutralist, and thus had to go; Ky gave way to Thieu, who won an election (albeit with barely more than a third of the total vote) in 1967, and then arranged to run unopposed in 1971. (Some reports have stated that the American Ambassador offered Big Minh a very large sum of money to run in an attempt to give that election more legitimacy.) At the critical juncture of late 1964, the Johnson Administration initially adopted a plan that required improved South Vietnamese government performance before the US began military action. The improvement did not however take place, and the Administration stood the problem on its head, arguing that American bombing of North Vietnam would give the South Vietnamese the morale boost necessary to begin putting their house in order.
The "surge" in Vietnam evidently reflects exactly the same policy, as enunciated by Stephen Hadley in his famous November memo. Prime Minister Al-Maliki, he noted, had failed to broaden the base of his government by reaching out to moderate Sunnis--and the memo actually argued that an American troop increase in Baghdad might give him the maneuvering room to do so. The surge is duly taking place, but the Bush Administration actually provided Congress with a list of "benchmarks" which the government was supposed to meet in order to show that it was doing its part, including a new oil law, the reform of the constitution, a new de-Ba'athification law, and local elections. Yesterday it had to admit that the benchmarks had not been met by the assumed deadline, that they would not be met at least until the end of this year, and that therefore, the surge would probably last longer than anticipated.
There are two problems with this approach. First, Maliki's Shi'ite coalition has no interest in making at least most of these changes--it is founded on de-Ba'athification and a constitution providing for federal reasons. Secondly, the Sunni insurgency (which, I notice, the government and mainstream press are finally acknowledging is still getting larger) doesn't want a protected minority status in a Shi'ite-led government. In short, the government won't do what we want, and it probably wouldn't help anything if they did. As in Vietnam, an American troop presence remains the only way to stave off catastrophe--Communist victory in that case, or civil war among Islamic extremists in this one. Meanwhile, the new draft oil law, which gives foreign companies unprecedented rights, will surely anger all nationalist Iraqis.
The American military, meanwhile--having tried, but failed, to start bringing the Iraq adventure to a conclusion late last year in an effort to restore the health of American ground forces--is laying the groundwork for a new effort along those lines. Pentagon generals have recently been quoted as advocating the "Salvadorean option," that is, 55 advisers, for Iraq. But El Salvador had a government that controlled a good deal of its territory--and in the end it managed to settle its war with communist guerrillas (something necons in the 198os had claimed was not possible.) Advocating the Salvadorean option, it seems to me, amounts to recognizing that our Iraqi adventure is going nowhere and arguing that it is time to wind it up. I agree, but we should make a political effort to create a federal Iraq first, rather than simply watch the country descend into a much worse civil war.
The Administration is also busily floating nightmare scenarios about the consequences of withdrawal, including Al Queda terrorist bases in "Sunnistan" after we leave. That is a possible consequence, but I see no reason to believe it is likely. That Al Queda has found Iraq a fertile recruiting ground and propaganda weapon does not mean that Sunni Iraqis would want it to play a major role when their insurgency is over, any more than Saddam Hussein did. We have many enemies in the Middle East but they are not unified--which is why more sensible Administrations managed to maintain a foothold in the region for the last few decades. As soon as we abandon the re-creation of the Middle East in our own image, we will have diplomatic options to exploit. But that seems at least two years off.