Worse than Vietnam

Paul Krugman [RSS] makes a rather astonishing argument:

Iraq isn’t Vietnam. The most important difference is the death toll, which is only a small fraction of the carnage in Indochina. But there are also real parallels, and in some ways Iraq looks worse.

It’s true that the current American force in Iraq is much smaller than the Army we sent to Vietnam. But the U.S. military as a whole, and the Army in particular, is also much smaller than it was in 1968. Measured by the share of our military strength it ties down, Iraq is a Vietnam-size conflict.

And the stress Iraq places on our military is, if anything, worse. In Vietnam, American forces consisted mainly of short-term draftees, who returned to civilian life after their tours of duty. Our Iraq force consists of long-term volunteers, including reservists who never expected to be called up for extended missions overseas. The training of these volunteers, their morale and their willingness to re-enlist will suffer severely if they are called upon to spend years fighting a guerrilla war.

It’s not only the number but the caliber of forces that matters. The problem with a draftee force, especially one where the best and brightest are able to opt out, is that it’s filled with people who, by definition, don’t want to be there and who aren’t going to stay in long enough to become particularly proficient. Further, while I’ve made the same argument as Krugman with respect to the long-term willingness of Reservists to put up with extended deployments, so far we’ve both been proven wrong. Reserve and Guard retention has been remarkably high and, as I’ve noted here before, higher in units that deployed to Iraq than those that didn’t.

Charles Krauthammer points out some rather substantial differences on the ground:

First, rather than inherit a failed (French) imperialism, we liberated the country from a deeply reviled tyrant. Yes, pockets such as Fallujah, which prospered under the tyrant, do not like the fact that those days are over. And they are resisting. But they represent a fraction of a fraction (only a sixth of Iraqis are Sunni Arabs) of the population.

The Shiites, 65 percent of Iraq, are another story. They know we liberated them, but they are also eager to inherit the throne. They are not very enthusiastic about the draft constitution, which would limit their power. They chafe at the occupation, but most, in particular their more revered religious leaders, know that if we were to leave, they would fall under the sway of either the Saddamites, foreign Sunni (al Qaeda) terrorists or the runt Shiite usurper, Moqtada Sadr.

None of these is a very appealing prospect, which is why the Shiite establishment has been negotiating on our behalf with the Sadr rebels. And why the members of the Iraqi Governing Council have been negotiating on our behalf with the holdouts in Fallujah.

This is good. We do have a crisis, but we also have serious communal leaders working in tandem with us. And these leaders have far more legitimacy than Sadr’s grandiloquent Mahdi Army or the jihadists of Fallujah.

This is all certainly true, if a bit optimistic. I do fear that the mischief of a fraction of a fraction can derail our goal of a united, democratic Iraq. Not because we can’t eventually break their hostile will and ability but because the process of doing so will almost surely turn more Iraqis against us. Still, it’s first things first. We have to provide security before we can do much else. We have to defeat the terrorists now. Winning hearts and minds is a long-term campaign that can continue for decades after we’ve turned sovereignty over to the Iraqis.

Interestingly, Krauthammer turns pessimistic on this score:

Our goal has been to build a united, pluralistic, democratic Iraq in which the factions negotiate their differences the way we do in the West.

It is a noble goal. It would be a great achievement for the Middle East. But, from the perspective of one year, it may be, in the short run, a bridge too far. It may happen in the future, when Iraq has had time to develop the habits of democracy and rebuild civil society, razed to the ground by Hussein.

But until then, expecting Iraqis to fight with us on behalf of a new abstract Iraq may be unrealistic. Some Iraqi police and militia did fight with us in the past few weeks. But many did not. That is not hard to understand. There is no de Gaulle. There is no organizing anti-Hussein resistance myth. There is as yet no legitimate Iraqi leadership to fight and die for.

What there is to fight and die for is tribe and faith. Which is why we should lower our ambitions and see Iraqi factionalization as a useful tool. Try to effect, within the agreed interim constitution, a transfer of power to the more responsible elements of the Shiite majority, the moderates who see Sadr as the Iranian agent and fascistic thug that he is.

This is no time for despair. We must put down the two rebellions — Fallujah’s and Sadr’s — to demonstrate our seriousness, and then transfer power as quickly as we can to those who will inherit it anyway, the Shiite majority, with its long history of religious quietism and wariness of Iran. And antagonism toward its former Sunni oppressors. If the Sunnis continue to resist and carry on a civil war, it will then be up to the Shiites to fight it, not for Americans to do it on their behalf.

Even aside from the fact that allowing Iraq to dissolve into civil war would be a collosal political failure, it’s not practical simply from the standpoint that we’ll be smack in the middle of it. Would we just withdraw all our forces and let the locals sort it out? If that was an acceptable outcome, we could have left a year ago, saved a hundred billion dollars or so, and 400 or so American soldiers would still be alive.

Fred Thompson is right on this score:

Weakness is when America’s leaders compare Iraq to Vietnam, announcing to the world a faltering resolve to see our mission through. To our allies in the Middle East and beyond, these predictions of defeat send a clear and chilling message to hedge their bets, because the United States cannot be counted on. And to our enemies, they send an equally clear message: You can win.

Let there be no doubt: Every time there is a call to abandon Iraq to the United Nations or unnamed “international allies,” our enemies know this is a call to cut and run. And they are heartened.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.