Iraq: Worse than Vietnam?
Posted by Michael Signer
News was made at the Security and Peace Institute conference that Suzanne, Lorelei, Heather, Mort, and I all attended earlier this week in NYC when Mark Malloch Brown pleaded for more U.S. attention to the United Nations, and John Bolton fired a rhetorical bunker-buster at the speech. Lorelei wrote about Brown's speech here, and Suzanne wrote about Bolton's response here and Brown's speech here.
As stunning and surprising as this kerfuffle was, I have to say that, reflecting on the conference over the last several days, I have come away with a different primary memory, one that was just as haunting as Bolton's weird rage: former Clinton U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke's dark statement that Iraq is "worse than Vietnam."
Holbrooke made his comments during a panel on the use of force. As Suzanne blogged:
[Holbrooke] and our own Mort Halperin now agree that Iraq is worse than Vietnam both in its consequences and the policy challenge posed by the need to extricate. Neither thought they would ever say that about any foreign policy quandary. It's astonishing that with 1000 days left Bush is already saying he plans to hand this to his successor - its a guaranteed 2000+ more casualties. Plus our international standing will only continue to wane.
What Holbrooke argued was this: President Bush has already expressly acknowledged -- even affirmed -- that Iraq will be a problem he will hand off to his successor. Holbrooke then very carefully, and ominously, took us through the richochet-like sequence of consequences: the successor inherits Iraq and is bedeviled by it starting in 2009; Iraq becomes not a but the issue during the successor's reelection campaign in 2012; Iraq skews domestic and foreign policy during the successor's lame-duck term; Iraq continues to entrap the candidates running for President in 2016.
Holbrooke intoned all of this as if he were reciting a dirge. Ominous is far too light of a word, and if he was only pessimistic he might as well have been dancing. Holbrooke seemed haunted and depressed by the darkness of a vision, and unquestionably convinced of the central premise of his vision -- that Iraq is "worse than Vietnam."
It could be argued that there are problems with this analysis. First, this was an incredibly Iraq-centric view of the world. Who knows what will be happening next year, much less in ten years, as Russia and China continue to jockey, Iran evolves, etc., etc. Second, it metastasizes both Vietnam and Iraq into "Vietnam" and "Iraq" -- purportedly identical and therefore perfectly comparable phenomena, when they're quite different, both in their realities and in terms of what they mean to America.
Given these two problems, Holbrooke, like many of us, seemed unintentionally to be engaging in what is an affirmative political act -- creating Iraq into Vietnam.
This is understandable. Clearly, we cannot take ourselves out of our own history, our own lens, any more than we could become any less American than we are. We are what we are. We are living in the shadow of Vietnam.
And, indeed, if the analysis provides us with useful tools for solving our various problems in Iraq -- whether building institutions to inhibit civil conflict or extricating American troops if and when they're no longer needed -- that's terrific.
But by wrapping ourselves in an Iraq-as-Vietnam shroud, do we foreclose not only the strategic thinking, but the vision and imagination that will die a cold death when strangled by such profound pessimism?
Holbrooke did discuss a few hard options -- Larry Korb's "strategic redeployment" plan, Joe Biden's three-state Iraq solution. But it was with a sense of hopeless dread that he discussed them, gesturing to them almost as if they were ships in a dark night, and we were stranded on an island.
A generation later, we are still struggling to liberate ourselves from Vietnam -- not just its hard policy consequences, but its death grip on our imagination, and the most fundamental trait of our character -- our optimism. It would be a great tragedy if we allowed our blunders in Iraq to do the same thing.