Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon

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)


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

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