Thursday, June 15, 2006

Vietnam Talk

Matt Yglesias makes a good point about Iraq vs. Vietnam, and especially the recent meme going around on the left that conservatives are actually the ones more obsessive about how Iraq is like Vietnam.

If I may make a bold observation, I feel like the American right's thinking on national security policy is being deeply distorted by an obsessive overreaction to the Vietnam War. See, for example, Cliff May's theory that "We lost in Vietnam because we didn’t have the will and the skills to prevail" and that now we will "either develop the will – and the military and intelligence skills — to defeat the enemy we now face on the battlefield in Iraq, or we retreat not just from Iraq but from anyplace our enemies don’t want us." This is really a bizarre reading of history.

In the first instance, as a read of what happened in Vietnam it involves dropping all context and making it seem as if there was something unusual about an economically and militarily superior outside power finding itself unable to subdue a reasonably popular nationalist movement. In point of fact, what we got was an entirely typical result. That sort of thing happens all the time from England in America and Ireland, to France in Algeria, to Portugal in Angola, etc., etc., etc. The track record of success in such endeavors is extremely poor and the winning examples tend to involve the application of extreme brutality -- viz. the United States in the Indian Wars (and, I assume, Australia against the Aborigines), Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, the Sudanese government's current efforts in Darfur, etc. One imagines that something similar -- slow-and-steady extermination of the Sunni Arab population unless and until they entirely submit to Shiite/Kurdish domination -- would "work" in Iraq or that we could have killed the entire population of Vietnam had we been so inclined.

But we lack the "will" to employ such measures for the perfectly good reason that it would be sick and immoral, the gains totally out of proportion to the devastation thereby caused. In circumstances when victory was regarded as absolutely crucial -- the Second World War, for example -- the United States was not especially hesitant to deploy large-scale killing of civilians as a tactic but, thankfully, we haven't yet reached the point where anyone's explicitly advocating that for Iraq.

He continues to discuss how a lot of it involve neo-domino theory as well. While I don't necessarily agree with Yglesias' conclusions and positions on the War, his premises and analyses are always illuminating and move way beyond typical liberal claptrap. And I do think he's onto something, at least in terms of perception. I think a lot of people who want to remain in Iraq until the job is done (myself included) too easily fall back on arguments that parallel those made about Vietnam, communism, and the domino theory. And I think a lot of certain "stay the course" lingo doesn't help in that respect and doesn't build a case at all. Yglesias is also probably right, that a lot of the people who line up as pro-war still are of this opinion that we could've somehow brutalized Vietnam into submission had we the "will." That's completely fallacious thinking, and Yglesias has some other good historical examples there to explain why. And it WILL continue to be fallcious thinking in this situation. To think that we can just wait the insurgency out or somehow kill them all is an impossible feat. The goal has to be different, and that goal is helping to stand up and support an Iraqi government that can do that independently and on their own. More importantly that has to be a government supported by the people of Iraq that Sunnis will accept.

We still don't have that. Some breakthroughs have happened recently but it could arguably be too little too late. Fighting the insurgency, even killing Zarqawi and his Lieutenants, mostly just buys time. But time is NOT on our side in this capacity unless the political objectives in Iraq are achieved, which is still and will always be a tenuous proposition.