US President George W. Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq has invited further comparisons with the US debacle in Vietnam in the 1970s. Bush did warn the so-called “Iraqi government” that US military commitment was “not open-ended”. But that was apparently meant to preempt suggestions that, as in Vietnam over 30 years ago, the US would be bogged down in an endless war in Iraq.
Bush’s decision to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq—which he called a “surge”—was promptly described as an “escalation” of a war that’s also been called a “quagmire”. Both terms were commonly used during the war in Vietnam, which the US lost in 1975. Thus Bush’s effort not to couch his strategy in those terms—and to insist that there is a limit to US intervention in Iraq.
But Bush’s own defense secretary, Robert Gates, did not himself seem to take the “not open-ended” part of his speech seriously. The very next day (January 10) after Bush’s unveiling of his “new” Iraqi strategy, Gates said in a press conference announcing the expansion of overall US troop strength that “no one could really predict” how long US troops would be needed in Iraq.
Bush’s order to boost US troop strength in Iraq, Gates said, “is viewed as a temporary surge, but I think no one has a really clear idea of how long that might be.”
Bush had implied that the US might consider withdrawing from Iraq as early as November, when Iraqi security forces are supposed to assume full control of Iraqi security. Bush in fact warned that “If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people, and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.”
Gates thus sounded as if he looked at these statements as no more than rhetoric. If Gates is correct, the “new” Bush strategy would not be new, having been tried, and having failed, in Vietnam. During that war, in which US armed intervention lasted for nearly two decades from the mid-1950s to 1975, the US kept sending troops until their number reached the half million mark.
In Vietnam in the early 1970s as in Iraq today, the US was “not losing” but was not winning either—until, despite its half million troops and some 50,000 casualties, the US was eventually forced to leave the country in 1975.
Further reinforcing the Iraq-is-Bush’s-Vietnam thesis is the Bush government’s admission that it has no alternative plan to implement in case the “new” strategy fails. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice refuses to entertain the possibility of failure, and only Gates has publicly conceded that possibility.
Most analysts believe that whatever hopes for a Bush government change of course in Iraq, or even for a total withdrawal, the November 2006 elections encouraged were misplaced. Bush’s “surge” is itself in opposition to the wishes of 61 percent of the US population. It is thus unlikely that he will withdraw from Iraq even if the Iraqi government should fail to halt sectarian violence by curbing the militia groups..
While political, economic and strategic reasons drove the US into Vietnam, the peculiar personae of the officials dominant in the Bush government have also been, and continue to be, formidable barriers to any sane alternative in Iraq. The basic impulse—the “full spectrum dominance” goal of the Dick Cheneys and Donald Rumsfelds—that drove the US to invade Iraq under the pretext and outright lie that it was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and harbored weapons of mass destruction continues to drive the Bush administration.
In Iraq as in Vietnam, the US was driven by a world view that sought then, and today even more forcibly seeks, to impose its will on the rest of the world through force. It is a view upheld and supported by a broad range of US thought that includes so-called “liberals” like Paul Berman, author of Liberalism and Terrorism (2004), who argue that the US not only has the right but also the duty to dismantle authoritarian, specially Islamist regimes, and to see to it that their successors develop into democratic governments.
With this view even elements in the government the US has installed in Iraq disagree. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was himself lukewarm in his response to the Bush plan, and emphasized that his government must take over security operations, indirectly implying that US troops must withdraw.
Maliki’s principal backer, Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands the Shiite militia group called the Mahdi Army, was more forthright, and warned through a spokesman that more US soldiers will “return home in coffins” once Bush sends in more troops. The Mahdi Army is among the militias engaged in the sectarian violence that pits the minority Sunnis against the majority Shiites
“The problem in Iraq,” said the spokesman, “is the US presence, and increasing this presence will double the problem.”
These are Washington’s putative allies speaking, the Sadrists being Shiites who fought Saddam Hussein and cheered his hanging last month. And yet they share with the Sunnis the conviction that the US presence is the problem in Iraq. The US may have thus doubled its problems by sending in more troops and continuing to overstay its welcome—and that could mean double the casualties and double the costs. The echoes of Vietnam in Iraq are undeniable.