RealClear Politics features a bevy of columnists on Iraq today. Claudia Rosett‘s WSJ column today is entitled, “Is Iraq Like Vietnam? The Vietnamese should be so lucky.”

Vietnam is one place where the great American superpower is entirely unlikely to come clamoring for a rematch in the cause of freedom. For most of the Western world, Vietnam lives on not as a real country inhabited today by 80 million real people, but simply as a sort of eternal shorthand for lost causes, a TV talk show sound bite: “Pick-yer-debacle: The next Vietnam?”

But with all these instant counterinsurgency experts so hot to hold up Vietnam as the yardstick for Iraq, it seems worth a look at what’s actually happening today in Vietnam itself–not the Vietnam of Apocalypse Then, but the Vietnam of tyranny now. It offers some badly needed perspective on Iraq.


Even after Hanoi’s communist regime began its doi moi economic reforms in the late 1980s, even after the U.S. lifted the trade embargo in 1994 and normalized relations in 1995, Vietnam remained a political sinkhole. The ruling Communist Party tightly restricts freedom of religion and speech, permits no rival parties or groups, and throws its critics, like Dr. Que, in prison. Out of 192 countries surveyed earlier this year by New York-based Freedom House, Vietnam ranked among the 16 most repressive regimes.

Compare this with today’s Iraq, where, despite the complaints, there has been no stampede for the exits. People are now free to speak as they please, worship as they choose, print independent newspapers, read them, and raise their voices in the debate over the framing of a new constitution.
Ah, but along with their new freedoms, Iraqis are suffering violence, insecurity, and terrorist attacks. True, and horrible. But before defaulting to Iraq-the-next-Vietnam, compare the toll today with what it was under the workaday “stability” of Saddam. Even setting aside Saddam’s wars against Iran and Kuwait, which killed hundreds of thousands, even taking separately the gassing of the Kurds, which killed thousands, even dismissing any terrorist attacks abroad that Saddam may yet prove to have been party to, even if all we blame on Saddam are those 300,000 Iraqis estimated to have been buried in some 260 mass graves, Iraq with Saddam removed from power is still ahead of the game.

For Saddam to have presided over the slaughter of 300,000 during the course of his rule meant killing, on average, about 34 human beings per day, or more than one an hour, every hour, around the clock, for 24 years. To put that in perspective, note that the terrorist bombing in August of the United Nations compound in Baghdad–an atrocity that killed 22 people–would have qualified in the ledgers of Saddam’s regime as a below-average day of murder. Add to this the Iraqis traumatized by state-sanctioned rape, mutilated by torturers, and terrorized for decades into the kind of self-betrayal and submission that sickens the soul.

Getting over that just might need more than eight months. And perhaps the mission of equipping a newly liberated people to defend their own freedoms is not solely a matter of facts and arithmetic. But to whatever extent we are now engaged in a war of passions and ideas, we’d get further on all fronts not by brooding over Iraq-as-the-next-Vietnam, but by looking for ways to telegraph to a Dr. Que, and his countrymen, that we still hope for the day when Vietnam will at last enjoy the freedoms now in reach in Iraq.

The old joke is that the best way to economic recovery is to get into a war with the United States. You apparently also have to lose.

Mort Kondrake says Iraq isn’t Vietnam–he hopes it’s the Philippines!

While President Bush’s critics persistently liken Iraq to Vietnam, it’s possible that Iraq could resemble the Philippines, where the United States waged a successful anti-guerrilla war from 1899 to 1902.

Parallels between Iraq and the Philippines are drawn by American Enterprise Institute military expert Thomas Donnelly, who argues that counter-insurgency struggles “most assuredly can be won.”

Like the latest war in Iraq, the Spanish-American War was waged by a first-term Republican president, William McKinley, allegedly using doctored intelligence and at the instigation of jingoistic ideologues.

It was won swiftly, too, with minimal casualties (379 U.S. troops lost in the Philippines) and with the president declaring that the United States was the “liberator” of the Philippine people.

Unfortunately, as Donnelly wrote in an article on AEI’s Web site, U.S. occupying forces soon were attacked by nationalist guerrillas who killed 4,200 Americans before the United States won in 1902.

Donnelly asserts that in Iraq, the United States has the advantage of fighting not against nationalists who could legitimately argue that they were fighting against imperialists, but against Baathists who offer Iraq only a return to tyranny.

However, to win in Iraq, Donnelly argues, the Bush administration needs to follow the example set by McKinley: provide enough troops and allow local commanders enough autonomy to tailor their tactics to local circumstances.

With several Special Forces “A” teams teaching them how to fight, maybe.

Elliot Cohen warns against the perils of cutting and running (in the famous words of George Aiken, “declare victory and go home”) in Iraq:

The cardinal fact is that no one would be fooled. Everyone — in Iraq, here and abroad — would understand what was going on, as was the case in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia. Adnan Pachachi, the oldest member of the Iraqi Governing Council, put it this way a few days ago: “In the current security crisis, any talk of a withdrawal would swell the ranks of the insurgents.” Of course it would — knowing that the hard men were winning, would you want to be on our side or theirs? The locals have to live there, and people want to side with the winners, particularly brutal winners. The insurgents would have no incentive to make it easy for us — the more humiliating the American exit, the better the chance that the United States would would stay out of that part of the world for good and the more satisfying the revenge.

Let us say, though, that American forces nonetheless got out, accompanied (one would hope) by tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who had put their faith in their American liberators and at least had received asylum in return. What would then happen in Iraq? A return of Hussein to complete power? Not likely: His army is in ruins, and neither Kurds nor Shiites would be as easy victims as in the past. But internecine mayhem? Surely — both within the various confessional communities and certainly between them, there would be ample opportunities for preemptive or retaliatory slaughter, particularly in towns with mixed populations (including Baghdad). It might settle down after a while, with a Kurdish republic in the north boxed in by Turkey, Syria, Iran and the Sunnis (all hostile), a turbulent Shiite south (with a lot of oil but little governance) and a Sunni center including, in all likelihood, control of a divided Baghdad. This would be the playground for all kinds of foreign parties — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Islamist fanatics of all stripes. If the United States did not like Afghanistan as a home for jihadists, it can expect to like such a base in the heart of the Arab world even less.

Regionally, of course, the losers would be numerous: Jordan, a lonely island of economic and social progress; Israel; and the gulf states, whose alliance with the United States would have reaped a large dividend of instability. Turkey, however, might welcome the opportunity to isolate and subordinate the Kurds; Iran would see opportunities in the south and a salutary warning to its budding domestic reformers, and Saudi Arabia would be mixed — its leadership more fearful of chaos to the north than it was of Hussein’s dictatorship, its Islamist opposition encouraged.

The United States would bury its dead and get back to business. But the lessons for its political leaders, and indeed for everyone else in the world, would be simple: The United States cannot and will not, under any conditions, conduct a counterinsurgency. When it tries, drips and spurts of casualties will cause it to lose its nerve. For all potential opponents of the United States, the ultimate deterrent is not a nuclear weapon but a few dozen suicide bombers and trucks to carry them, augmented by a couple of hundred grenade-launcher-toting irregulars.

All true–a lesson we’ve failed to learn time and again.

In a too-short piece, Dimitri Simes argues that the U.S. is an empire and needs to learn the lessons of its predecessors.

It is understandable why supporters of the Bush administration’s foreign policy balk at any mention of the “e” word. Many past empires were given a bad name not just by their opponents, from national liberation movements to Marxists, but also by their conduct; Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were the ugliest manifestations. The United States, on the other hand, is said to seek benign influence rather than domination. Its political culture and even its institutional design mitigate against its acting as an effective imperial power. These arguments are not without merit. Still, they reflect more a reluctance to associate American foreign policy with negative imperial stereotypes than a reasoned appreciation of how earlier empires emerged and functioned.

Although empires, like democracies, have taken vastly different forms through history, they have several features in common. First, empires exercise great authority over large and varied territories populated by diverse ethnic groups, cultures, and religions. They rely on a broad range of tools and incentives to maintain this dominance: political persuasion, economic advantage, and cultural influence where possible; coercion and force when necessary. Empires generally expect neighboring states and dependencies to accept their power and accommodate to it. This often contributes to a sense that the imperial power itself need not play by the same rules as ordinary states and that it has unique responsibilities and rights.

Second, empires, more often than not, have emerged spontaneously rather than through a master plan. They frequently evolve as if following the laws of physics; an initial success generates momentum, which is subsequently maintained by inertia. Each new advance creates opportunities and challenges that extend the empire’s definition of its interests far beyond its original form.

Ancient Athens, for example, began as the leader of a victorious alliance that defeated the Persians. But it quickly evolved into an empire, against the will of many of its former partners. Thucydides, one of the fathers of realism, describes the Athenian perspective thus: “We did not gain this empire by force. . . . It was the actual course of events which first compelled us to increase our power to its present extent: fear of Persia was our chief motive, though afterwards we thought, too, of our own honor and our own interest.”

Third, empires do not always have sovereignty over their domains. This was certainly the case with Athens. It was also the case in the early period of the Roman Empire, when Rome sought domination rather than direct control over its dependencies. . . .

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.