US will thrive after Iraq; locals will suffer

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The Iraq war has dominated America’s mid-term elections. By Tuesday night we will know if, as the polls suggest, it has been enough to help the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives and maybe even the Senate.

If they win, then what? The White House will still make the big decisions on Iraq. But a Democrat-controlled House could be expected to unleash a series of embarrassing congressional investigations into the origins and conduct of the war. The funding of the American presence in Iraq might also come under pressure.

Recriminations, investigations, budget cuts – all set against the background of public anger about a bloody and inconclusive conflict. It all sounds uncomfortably like the last throes of the Vietnam war.

When the invasion of Iraq was in the offing, it was only the marginalised naysayers who brought up Vietnam. The dominant narrative offered by the Bush administration – and picked up by the war’s supporters – was the liberation of France in 1944.

But Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi opposition leader – originally cast in the role of de Gaulle by his sponsors in the Pentagon – says that America is now transfixed by “the image of Saigon in 1975”. He adds: “I fear we’re moving inexorably towards that.” The thought has also obviously occurred to President George W. Bush. In recent interviews he has discussed the parallels between the current surge of violence in Baghdad and the Tet offensive of 1968 – as well as reassuring journalists that, unlike Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam, this president is resisting the temptation to micro-manage military tactics.

If you read back through the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the parallels are not just suggestive – they are downright eerie.

In both cases, America went to war on grounds that were later discredited. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Similarly the Tonkin Gulf resolution of 1964 – which provided the legal basis for sending American troops to Vietnam – was a reaction to an attack that turned out never to have taken place.

In Vietnam, as in Iraq, America hoped to create a model democracy that might uplift a people and transform a region. The National Security Council spoke of turning Vietnam into the “cornerstone of the free world in south-east Asia”. President Johnson proclaimed that: “The task is nothing less than to enrich the hope and existence of more than a hundred million people.”

But high hopes and idealism swiftly gave way to bitter disillusionment. Allies seemed ungrateful and untrustworthy. The enemy fought harder than expected. Paul Warnke, a Pentagon adviser, concluded: “We guessed wrong with respect to what the North Vietnamese reaction would be. We anticipated they would respond like reasonable people.”

By 1968, Time magazine was summing up the conventional wisdom that: “Victory in Vietnam – or even a favourable settlement – may simply be beyond the grasp of the world’s biggest power.” Substitute “Iraq” for Vietnam and you have a pretty good summary of where we are now.

But, as Vietnam illustrates, deep pessimism about a war need not lead to swift withdrawal. In 1971, Richard Nixon was still arguing that America could not (to use today’s phrase) cut and run. If America withdrew prematurely, Nixon predicted, there would be a bloodbath in Vietnam and a “collapse of confidence in American leadership, not only in America but around the world”. The same fears prevail today about Iraq – as does the anxiety that if the US pulls out, a hostile regional rival will gain in power. Except that during Vietnam it was China, now it is Iran.

To avoid these outcomes, the US tried a policy of “Vietnamisation”. The idea was to train the South Vietnamese forces to take over from the American army. As historian George Herring wrote: “American advisers worked frantically to build up and modernise the South Vietnamese forces.” Sound familiar? Today, the same policy is in place – except it is called “Iraqisation”.

So, are we heading inexorably towards the same grisly end? An American withdrawal – leaving behind an unstable client government, which falls a couple of years later? The iconic image of the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 is of helicopters lifting desperate people off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. Oddly enough, America is currently constructing a vast new embassy in Baghdad. As one European diplomat puts it: “I’ve seen the site. There’s room for plenty of helicopters.”

The Iraq story cannot follow the narrative of Vietnam in every particular. There is no single adversary, which has the disadvantage of meaning that there is no obvious enemy with whom to negotiate – as Henry Kissinger negotiated with the North Vietnamese in Paris. But it also means that there is no single powerful force in a position to seize control of the whole country once America leaves. Both al-Qaeda and the Ba’ath party are based among Sunnis, who are in the minority in Iraq.

The outcome of American defeat in Iraq could still be extremely grisly. The centre of the country could be dominated by jihadis; the south could be dominated by Iran. A civil war might rage – and, if that happened, regional powers might be sucked in. America’s enemies around the world would be emboldened.

But it is also possible that America will get lucky – as it did after Vietnam. As Leslie Gelb, co-author of a history of the Vietnam war, recalls, he and many other pundits expected dire strategic consequences to flow from defeat in Vietnam: “I felt certain the dominoes would fall throughout Asia and destroy America’s strategic position there and elsewhere.”

It did not happen. America’s regional allies in the rest of Asia proved both more resilient and more willing to keep working with Washington than many feared. America’s strategic position around the world was ultimately unaffected. Within 15 years, the cold war was over and America had emerged triumphant.

There were terrible consequences that flowed from American failure in south-east Asia – including repression in Vietnam and a genocide in Cambodia. But they were felt mainly by the unfortunate locals. Perhaps the ultimate lesson of Vietnam is that the US can afford to lose a small war – or even just lose interest in a small war – and still have the resilience to come through relatively unscathed. It is the people who are left behind in the abandoned war zone who end up paying the heaviest price.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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