President Bush thinks the Vietnam analogy for Iraq is wrong. Aside from the predictability of this (it's understandable that he doesn't like his policy called a "quagmire"), the president's reasoning is historically ignorant. Bush said last week that the difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that the enemy in Vietnam didn't want to follow us home. Of course during the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson repeatedly made precisely that argument, comparing communists to burglars who must be stopped when they are in the neighborhood (in that case, Southeast Asia) before they came up on the porch and into the kitchen.
This argument was phony 40 years ago -- the "domino theory" of noncommunist countries toppling over proved false -- and it's phony now. The idea that we're fighting "them" (whoever "they" might be) there so we don't have to fight them here is lousy logic, now echoed by several GOP candidates for president. Consider the true enemy -- Al Qaeda in Iraq, which we have good reason to want to smash in Anbar province even as we disengage from the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Baghdad. Bush's reasoning blithely assumes that Al Qaeda cannot walk and chew gum at the same time -- cannot fight in Anbar and plot attacks in the United States simultaneously. It also implies that the main explanation for why we have not been hit in the five and a half years since 9/11 isn't better homeland security, but the war in Iraq! Come on.
The Vietnam War and the Iraq War do have some things in common. They were both started and perpetuated by heedless, arrogant leaders unwilling to change course, as Ronald Reagan did in Lebanon, when the facts on the ground changed. They both reflected poor understanding in Washington of local culture and regional politics. They both featured the unconscionable policy of throwing good young solders after good young soldiers -- signing the death warrants of our finest in the name of foolish consistency or mindless fortitude. But like most disparate historical events, they differ in more profound ways than they resemble each other. The Vietnam War was at root a struggle over nationalism. The Vietnamese include some ancient tribes, but they are one people, determined for centuries to rid their nation of foreign powers. By contrast, the Iraq War is at bottom tribal. Our problem there is the inverse of what it was in Vietnam -- that the people have no fundamental sense of nationhood. They are three peoples (Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish) who have made it clear at the ballot box and in the streets that they can't live together. Iraq is not in danger of breaking up; it has already broken up. That's an entirely different challenge than we faced in Vietnam.
Sensing this reality, the new line out of the White House is that Iraq is Korea. As White House spokesman Tony Snow pointed out, we've had U.S. troops in South Korea for 50 years (actually, it's 57) and the same might prove true in Iraq. Aside from the fact that no one told us in 2002 and 2003 that we were signing on to a half-century commitment (just a slight omission, no?), the analogy is a poor one.
U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea at the explicit request of the South Korean government and people. When President Carter raised the possibility of pulling them out in 1977, American Gen. John K. Singlaub was not the only one to object. South Koreans know that American forces are the only thing standing between them and being overrun by a million North Korean troops stationed just over the border. Only now, more than 50 years after the end of hostilities, is the formal state of war being brought to a close. Aside from some demonstrators once in a while, no one in South Korea seriously wants our troops to go, at least until the threat from the North recedes and unification begins. Then we'll be gone.
In Iraq, by contrast, many polls show that about three quarters of the Iraqi people favor us leaving. Even those Iraqis who want us to help them fight Al Qaeda think we can do so with strike forces from bases outside the country. The idea of us spending hundreds of millions of dollars establishing permanent bases inside Iraq (something that has received amazingly little publicity) is repugnant to them. This is where a bit of residual nationalism kicks in. Iraqis don't like the idea of foreigners permanently on their soil. No people -- or tribes -- do.
Moreover, all of that White House chatter about staying in Iraq for decades means that Bush has essentially given up on democracy there. The Iraqi democracy of his dreams would not stand for permanent bases, unless Iran or some other neighbor were poised to attack. Despite warnings from Sen. Joe Lieberman and a few others, there is no sign of that. Iranian mischief-making, yes. Invasion, no. At least not at present.
So why the move to permanent bases in Iraq? For years, I have been reluctant to embrace the oil theory of American policymaking in the Middle East. I've subscribed to the notion that oil is only part of a complex set of strategic, political and moral issues animating American interests. I still believe that in the short term. Bush and the few remaining supporters of his policy are motivated by more than oil. They want to avoid a failed state in the middle of a volatile region.
But what does that aim have to do with permanent bases? The only two reasons to station troops in the Middle East for half a century are protecting oil supplies (reflecting a pessimistic view of energy independence) outside the normal channels of trade and diplomacy, and projecting raw military power. These are the imperial aims of an empire. During the cold war, charges of U.S. imperialism in Korea and Vietnam were false. Those wars were about superpower struggles. This time, the "I word" is not a left-wing epithet but a straightforward description of policy aims--yet another difference from those two older wars in Asia.
Originally published in Newsweek.