Can anything -- international mediation, regional collaboration, decentralization, or constitutional negotiations -- save Iraq from a full-fledged civil war and the Bush administration from a foreign policy fiasco?
This article is part of the Foreign Affairs Iraq Retrospective.
U.S. soldier reflected in a mirror used for searching under cars. (Ceerwan Aziz / Courtesy Reuters)
THE GRAND DELUSION
Contentious as the current debate over Iraq is, all sides seem to make the crucial assumption that to succeed there the United States must fight the Vietnam War again -- but this time the right way. The Bush administration is relying on an updated playbook from the Nixon administration. Pro-war commentators argue that Washington should switch to a defensive approach to counterinsurgency, which they feel might have worked wonders a generation ago. According to the antiwar movement, the struggle is already over, because, as it did in Vietnam, Washington has lost hearts and minds in Iraq, and so the United States should withdraw.
But if the debate in Washington is Vietnam redux, the war in Iraq is not. The current struggle is not a Maoist "people's war" of national liberation; it is a communal civil war with very different dynamics. Although it is being fought at low intensity for now, it could easily escalate if Americans and Iraqis make the wrong choices.
Unfortunately, many of the policies dominating the debate are ill adapted to the war being fought. Turning over the responsibility for fighting the insurgents to local forces, in particular, is likely to make matters worse. Such a policy might have made sense in Vietnam, but in Iraq it threatens to exacerbate the communal tensions that underlie the conflict and undermine the power-sharing negotiations needed to end it. Washington must stop shifting the responsibility for the country's security to others and instead threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in order to force them to come to a durable compromise. Only once an agreement is reached should Washington consider devolving significant military power and authority to local forces.
As it is in 2006, in 1969 Washington's strategy was built around winning hearts and minds while handing off more and more of the fighting to indigenous forces. From the outset of the Vietnam War, efforts to coax the Vietnamese people away from the communists and into supporting the Washington-backed government in Saigon were a crucial part of U.S. policy. "The task," President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965, "is nothing less than to enrich the hope and existence of more than a hundred million people." The United States transferred $2.9 billion in economic aid to South Vietnam between 1961 and 1968 alone. In 1967, allied forces distributed more than half a million cakes of soap and instructed more than 200,000 people in personal hygiene. By then, thanks to U.S. pressure, elections at all levels of government had taken place throughout South Vietnam. The plan was to undermine the Vietcong by improving the lives of the South Vietnamese through economic development and political reform.
Of course, the counterinsurgency was about more than winning hearts and minds; it was also about fighting. At first, following Congress' decision in 1965 to commit large-scale U.S. ground forces, Americans did much of South Vietnam's defensive work. But in 1969, the Nixon administration changed course and decided to transfer responsibility for ground combat to the South Vietnamese. "We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable," Richard Nixon declared. "This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater." The strategy, which became known as "Vietnamization," led to the complete withdrawal of U.S. ground forces from Vietnam by 1973. After that, South Vietnamese troops who had been trained and equipped by the Americans conducted all ground operations.
U.S. strategy in Iraq today is remarkably similar. To win the war, President George W. Bush has advocated following three parallel tracks -- one for politics, one for economics, and one for security. The first two involve using democratic reform and economic reconstruction to persuade Iraqis to side with the new government in Baghdad and oppose the insurgents. The goal of the Bush administration's third track is the creation of an Iraqi national military and an Iraqi police force that can shoulder the burden of counterinsurgency on their own -- a project many call "Iraqization," after its counterpart from Vietnam. The details of how to implement today's policy may differ from those for the policy in the 1960s, but the two plans' intents are effectively indistinguishable. Even the rhetoric surrounding the two plans is strikingly similar. Bush's claim that "as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down" parallels Nixon's hope that "as South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater."
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