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June 09, 2006

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.


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HOLBROOKE ON IRAQ....I'm still catching up with stuff from last week, and one of the things that struck me was Suzanne Nossel and Michael Signer's report that Richard Holbrooke is seriously gloomy about our prospects in Iraq. First Suzanne:He and... [Read More]


Agree with every one of your points. The strangeness is that Vietnam was a subordinate episode in the Cold War, which ended in a victory for the liberal and democratic world. That Vietnam should still cast such a giant shadow points to something much deeper about it than the larger struggle of which it was a part.

I do not think that Iraq is worse than Vietnam. What is worse is that there is a great sense of powerlessness by many Americans becaue of how the media has acted as a megaphone and exagerrated the conflict. The best thing the next Administration can do is find a topic to eclipse the Iraq War and take people's minds off of it. America must resolve to remain and stay steady in the storm of the middle east.

Luckily, such an event is soon to transpire as NASA will soon be stealing the show for the first time in 40 years with their return to the moon, the completion of the ISS, and etc. If 'the media' wants to cooperate, they can do so by insuring that these transcendent events endure in the public heart & mind while Iraq is left to be dealt with by the professional men & women of the US Armed Forces.

Iraq is just a nuissance that should be regulated to a small little paragraph in the back of the newspaper. If the media wants to serve its purpose as an educational tool, it can do so by educating people about the VSE and the Bigelow Aerospace company.

Instead, the media today, far from being an educational tool merely attempts to create debate for the sake of debate. A media like that is just plain worthless.

You could follow Holbrooke's reasoning to this extent, that Iraq represents a relatively greater strain on limited American resources than Vietnam did, all things considered. And, frankly, that the reasons for staying committed (circa, say, 1970) to the survival of a free Indochina look better than the reasons for staying in Iraq indefinitely today.

But the fact that no possible course with respect to Iraq represents a clear path to broad sunlit uplands is hardly reason for despair. The fact of the matter is that foreign policy presents cases like this all the time, cases in which the best option is the best damage control. Iraq is simply bigger than most of these cases. Also, the uncharitable thought occurs to me that Holbrooke may be looking at this with one eye on the domestic political situation. There are no policy options with respect to Iraq the advocacy of which is gauranteed to be free of political risk. The people who would likely determine Holbrooke's position in some future Democratic administration care about this more than anything, and Holbrooke has no good answers for them.

That's the way it goes, in my view. You have to advocate for the policy direction that makes to most sense to you, from the standpoint of what is best for American national interests. If your view turns out to be wrong, it's wrong; if you lose politically for espousing it, you lose. There will always be polticians, usually a majority of them, who will resist this line of thinking to the bitter end. They want, because they feel they need, easy ways out of bad situations. Someone like Holbrooke is only useful in our system if he does more than merely echo politican's thinking.

The worst thing about the modern era is that any ted & jane who have never won an election can get on tv and pretend to "represent" the people and then the suckers in government react to it. Over-representation of minority sentiment creating an illusion of public sentiment that simply does not exist as characterized by these imposters.

Also, we should also remain aware that when we pulled out of Vietnam millions of Vietnamese were slaughtered as a result. Till this day, I have not seen a more adament and passionate people more hateful of the vietnam anti-war movement than the Vietnamese immigrants living in the US today.

As a sidenote, I would like to say that I am offended that this website would dare fly the US flag in its banner and hijack the phrase of Arsenal of Democracy when it is nothing more than a propaganda piece for turning the US into a UN puppet state.

If your account is correct, Michael, then it sounds like Holbrooke thinks Iraq is worse than Vietnam mainly because of its consequences for American politicians.

The "ricochet-like sequence of consequences" you descibe has little to do on the surface with US strategic interests, global well-being, or the lives of Iraqis and American soldiers. Instead it is focussed on the consequences for US electoral politics! This seems like a rather narrow and selfish way to view the matter.

I sure hope Holbrooke isn't the whiner you make him out to be, because it sounds like he is depressed mainly because he thinks the Dems are going to win in 2008, that Iraq is going to be dumped on his lap and that the conflict is destined to screw up his own personal legacy. If he was depressed because he was worried about the loss of life, the spread of violence and the potential for economic and political choas, then I would be reassured, and more interested. But to say that Iraq is worse than Vietnam because it is going to make it harder for a Democratic incumbent to run for President in 2012? - Give me a break!

On the substance of the question, certainly Iraq is not at all worse than Vietnam in terms of its cost in lives of American soldiers. I can only imagine that US service men and women who read about Holbrooke's talk are going to be struck by how little he thinks of them. But to be charitable, one must assume that Holbrooke has some other calamity in mind.

Perhaps what he is worried about are the long-term consequences of the war in the region. The US war in Vietnam was a waste because it extinguished the lives of many Vietnamese and tens of thousands of US service personel, and in the end only delayed the Communist takeover of Vietnam. That takeover would probably have been swifter and less bloody if the US never intervened. But in the end the consequences were confined to a rather small region.

Iraq still threatens to produce much more dire geostrategic consequences than Vietnam. It could still lead to such things as (a) the collapse of several regional governments to Islamist insurrection, (b) the destabilization of Turkey, which is one of the most strategically vital countries in the world, (c) war with Iran, (d) chaos in global oil markets, with dire economic consequences, (e) broader war in the Middle East, (f) great power intervention in various partsof Asia.

Now if these are the things Holbrooke was worried about, please let us know. But I am not interested in the realtively minor issue of the cost of Iraq for Washington politicos!

Dan Kervick - Your concerns about the regional and larger repercussions of state failure in Iraq are certainly on point. However, I don't see what is wrong with a U.S. policy maker worrying about American politics. All of the great leaders of our country had to get elected first.

The problem with Holbrooke is his pessimistic vision of the Middle East, not his meditation on the consequences of a long stalemate there for American politics. Vietnam was not fatal to us because we were able eventually to see it in terms of a larger strategy in the world that made it possible to treat the defeat as a local setback. Only if we have no larger and stronger vision of our future does every local commitment become a bleak test of our entire position requiring endless sacrifice.

I look at Hobrooke's comments as saying "Iraq is as tough a problem or worse for a Democratic policymaker like me as Vietnam was."

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