Iraq is not Vietnam

The antiwar left shows a troubling indifference to the plight of Iraqis -- and flirts with irrelevance -- by demanding that President Bush bring the troops home now.

Published September 22, 2003 11:27PM (EDT)

It is a terrible thing to watch a war in progress, even from a distance. If there's a pulse in your imagination, you have some sense of the violence of it, the fear and the grief of it; men and women, children and animals, are killed and injured, losing homes, farms and possessions. Even when the worst of the fighting is over, there can be months, even years, of dislocation and suffering. It is impossible to watch without a solemn wish that it hadn't been necessary, and that it should come to an immediate end.

It is no surprise, then, that as we near the six-month mark in the difficult Iraq War, "bring the troops home" is emerging as a defining sentiment of the antiwar left and making its way into some parts of the mainstream political dialogue. A group of antiwar military personnel and their families has adopted the name "Bring Them Home Now." The sentiment is seeping into the Democratic campaign for president. Dennis Kucinich, the antiwar Democratic presidential candidate, issued a statement on Aug. 25: "It was wrong to go into Iraq. It is wrong to stay in Iraq. Let's support our troops by bringing them home." The language even crept into remarks from South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, the hyper-cautious minority leader of the U.S. Senate, when he insisted earlier this month that Bush must offer to Congress a war spending plan "that clearly lays out how we're going to succeed in Iraq and how we're going to bring our troops home safely."

Daschle's demand is not only justified, but responsible -- and yet his choice of words is disconcerting. It is the nature of mass politics that the most complex issues are distilled to bumper sticker slogans; the unfortunate effect is that these slogans can become the driving political imperative. And so the emergence of "bring the troops home" as a slogan this early in the Iraq War is an ominous development. The slogan is catchy, yes, but it is laced with contradictions and questions that resist simplification.

At what point, exactly, should we bring them home? What happens then to Iraq? Is it realistic to expect France and Germany or the 21 neighboring governments of the Arab League -- none of them democracies -- to take over? Who prevents Saddam followers or hard-line Islamists from seizing control at the barrel of a gun? And in that event, what happens to the Iraqis who were thrilled by Saddam's fall or to those who oppose rule by conservative Muslim clerics?

In the months and weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq, it was possible for reasonable people to disagree about whether the war was in the interests of national security or morally justified. Such disagreements were inevitable, because the prospect of war presented Americans their counterparts in the U.K. with one of the most complex dilemmas of our era. In the aftermath, as it has become clear that the administration of President George W. Bush misled the American people about the nature of the threat, many liberals and leftists have rightly pressed to hold him accountable. But in a climate of frustration and rage, the use of slogans like "bring the troops home" or "he lied, they died," is luring partisans into a realm of moral simplicity. And for everyone on the left -- whether antiwar, pro-war or morally conflicted -- this should be a cause for concern.

In adopting a seemingly single-minded campaign against Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their allies, those in the antiwar left run the risk of alienating moderates and losing perspective on the war. Their perspective distorted by righteous indignation, they run the risk of forgetting the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the profound suffering endured by the Iraqi people for the past quarter-century. They run the risk of forgetting that, no matter how dubious and confused and corrupt the White House motives, the invasion might in fact work toward the liberation of the Iraqi people. That is a worthy goal, and one that the left might invest in. But that point increasingly seems lost in the hyperbole and hysteria of some attacks against Bush.

Consider the evidence: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd describes Iraq as a "country full of people that revile us." Left-wing journalist Greg Palast writes a frivolous fantasy about Bush resigning at the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. A Salon reader writes a letter to the editor: "It's a travesty that our soldiers and the Iraqi citizenry are made to endure the mess the administration created." A woman at a political forum in Iowa tells the Des Moines Register: "George W. Bush is ready to blow up this world in our name ... The vast majority of people watching this are never going to vote for you or anyone else because the disbelief and the disenchantment is that great."

No doubt there is great disenchantment. That's the inevitable product of Bush's arrogance, deception and incompetence, compounded by the unprecedented budget deficits created by his tax cuts. Bush didn't ask the American people to go to war to liberate Iraq; he sold it as essential to American security, and in fact it seems now that the outcome could tip decisively toward greater insecurity. And yet, these and other commentators lack a sense of history, and of moral proportion. Bush is guilty of profound failures, but nothing as immediately urgent and irreversible as the crimes against humanity committed by Saddam. He provoked war with his neighbors. He starved and repressed his own people, systematically murdered and tortured intellectuals, artists, clerics and others who opposed his regime. He is responsible for the deaths of a million people. And all the while, he fanned anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism throughout the region.

There were good arguments against the war. The United Nations should have signed off on the invasion (though it must be said that the U.N. showed no particular concern for the plight of the Iraqi people). The administration manipulated intelligence to justify the attack. Bush and Blair did not have a postwar plan adequate to win the peace. In the days after Bush submitted his low-ball request for $87 billion to support military and rebuilding campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are reminded of the best argument against the war: That it would be so expensive in human lives and taxpayer dollars, and so destabilize the region that it could not be justified, even if that meant cost-savings and geopolitical stability must be achieved on the backs on the Iraqi people and on Iraqi generations unborn.

Today, though, all of those arguments are moot, even the best of them. The invasion is done, the moment is past. Now we see how the plan was flawed, and we see there are life-and-death problems. The time has come for the antiwar left to determine what role, if any, it will play in solving those problems.

For some, especially in the antiwar camp, this is not an easy transition.

Every generation, as it comes of age, feels a yearning for a great cause that inflames righteous political passion, a cause that directs its best energy to the achievement of something great and memorable. For the generations that fought World War I and World War II, history imposed that cause and exacted a great toll. From this yearning, and this action, has come much of the most memorable literature, poetry and music in Western cultural history.

The late 1960s were the defining moment for the generation of baby-boomers who are the dominant force in our culture, and in many ways, for the entire post-WWII era; succeeding generations have aspired to the same significance. The protests in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War -- and, more generally, in favor of peace and love -- created an iron template that shapes our values today.

Perhaps that explains an impulse that was evident for months before the invasion: the Vietnamization of Iraq. Many of the mass demonstrations before the war were described as festive. There was a feeling of recreating the '60s, and the hip, intoxicating power and influence of the counterculture in that decade.

By the second week of the war, when it became clear that the invasion was meeting resistance, antiwar leaders and other commentators were already warning that Iraq would become a quagmire. When Iraqis began to pull down Saddam statues a couple of weeks later, that premature concern was silenced, though only for a time. With the administration's failure to restore services and security since the fall of Baghdad, with the emergence of an elusive anti-U.S. guerrilla force and the slow but steady rise in the number of U.S. casualties, antiwar activists and others are questioning the war effort more aggressively than ever, and more effectively. The slogan "Bring the Troops Home" is an echo of those days, imposing the vernacular of the Vietnam era onto the war in Iraq.

But we must be clear on one crucial point: Iraq is not Vietnam.

Yes, there is a risk that Iraq will exact a huge cost in lives and money, as Vietnam did, and we may again find it difficult to achieve our aims and find a constructive exit. But if we see the two conflicts as morally similar, our perspective will be dangerously distorted. That diminishes the tragedy of the earlier conflict and fails to appreciate that the political character of the current conflict is altogether different. And where our perspective is distorted, so is our political response.

Vietnam was a theater of the Cold War. As part of a broad effort to check the spread of communism, the U.S. sought to suppress a popular uprising of the Vietnamese people and to impose a non-democratic government in its place. Though the Iraq war has been initiated by an administration of radical conservatives, it has had the effect of toppling a Stalinist tyrant and has, though haltingly, moved to give the Iraqis freedom and to put power in their hands. Vietnam was a war that suppressed freedom and self-determination, though fought in the name of preventing Communist tyranny; the Iraq war, whatever its motive, has had the effect of freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny.

Vietnam was backed energetically by Russia and China; Saddam's cause today is backed by virtually no one, though perhaps the hard-line ayatollahs of Iran and Islamist fascists of al-Qaida are trying to exploit the war for their own gain. The first U.S. soldier died in Vietnam in 1959, and by the time the war ended in 1975, 58,000 Americans were dead, along with 400,000 South Vietnamese and 900,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. In Iraq, as of Friday, 347 U.S. and British soldiers had died in combat and non-combat situations over the past six months; roughly 7,000 Iraqi civilians have died, along with unknown thousands of Iraqi troops.

I don't mean to diminish these casualties by saying they are fewer than those in Vietnam. No, we should regret every one of them, and grieve every one. But they should remind us that freedom often imposes a cost, and that the battle for freedom is sometimes a life-and-death struggle, a struggle that demands patience.

We forget that the birth of the United States took 13 years, from the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775, through the British surrender in 1781, to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788. Without the help of the French government and the Marquis de Lafayette, the American rebels might have lost the war. And when the revolution was finally won, Lafayette penned his famous line: "Humanity has won its battle; Liberty now has a country."

Which brings us to the core of the present contradiction: A vocal bloc of the antiwar left does not see the invasion of Iraq as a liberation. It cannot. Its rage against Bush, while justified, is so powerful that it overwhelms subtlety and nuance. In such a polarized political climate, one cannot embrace the possibility of liberation without seeming to embrace Bush and Cheney. Because that latter embrace is impossible, it becomes impossible for some to strike a firm, constructive alliance with the Iraqi people.

That reflex was evident in the run-up to the war. Millions of people turned out for demonstrations in the U.S. and Europe, and though many Iraqi exiles -- including religious leaders and intellectuals -- had favored the invasion, the marchers rarely confronted the issue of human rights under Saddam. Sometimes, they were openly hostile to Iraqis on the march route who dared to question the antiwar movement. Such are the ugly dynamics of political denial: The human rights dossier conflicts with the imperative to oppose Bush, and so the dossier is, in effect, ignored.

A similar trend has unfolded since the fall of Baghdad: Though there have been many positive developments, there has been a disproportionate focus on the struggles, the failures, the breakdowns. Thus the attention paid to the now-infamous 16 words in Bush's State of the Union speech that claimed hard proof of Saddam's quest for nuclear weapons, or to the claim by the government of U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair that Saddam needed only 45 minutes to launch a WMD strike, or to the enrichment of Cheney's old posse at Halliburton.

The press, too, bears some blame for creating the distorted perspective. By focusing on the points of highest drama, the news creates an impression that Iraq is engulfed in chaos. But the impression is misleading. Iraq is the size of California; most of the attacks have occurred in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the land between Baghdad in the south, Fallujah about 35 miles to the west, and Tikrit, about 100 miles to the north. That's roughly the size of the triangle between San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Modesto, or between Manhattan, Philadelphia and Allentown, Pa. The bombing of the U.N. and other symbolic targets in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Sunni triangle have been terrible, but the rest of Iraq is relatively stable, with only scattered attacks. There have been periodic mass demonstrations against the occupying forces, but they are not daily and not widespread. Though Iraqis appear bitterly frustrated with U.S. incompetence, they have thus far given the U.S. and U.K. time to get things in order.

The left sees through many of the distortions of the mainstream press, and it would see through this one, too, if it wanted to. But that does not serve the political purpose of some blocs in the anti-Bush movement: To defeat Bush, the war must be a failure. And so the sense emanates from some quarters that the war should've been over and done in a matter of days, or weeks, and that, with sporadic fighting continuing now six months into the Iraq conflict, and with new casualties every other day, or every day, it is time to bring the troops home and to hang the shame on Bush.

This is precisely the point at which the antiwar left runs the greatest risk of losing sight of the Iraqi people. Implicit in some of the current antiwar slogans is the conclusion that Iraq would've been better off without the war. If the ultimate objective is Bush's failure, then the gains of the Iraqi people might be inconvenient and therefore discounted, consciously or subconsciously. But there have been considerable gains, and long-term liberation does remain a possibility.

The torture chambers are closed. Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddam's sociopathic sons and his likely successors, are dead. An Iraqi governing council has been established, and though it has yet to find traction, it can at least be said that Ahmed Chalabi, the unpopular Iraqi exile, is not the dominant force that Bush's neo-con hawks hoped he would be. A new Cabinet of 25 Iraqi officials was named this month to oversee day-to-day government services in the country. There is freedom of speech and religious freedom (both of which are being used to criticize the U.S.) There is freedom of the press. Take a look at the smart new publication Iraq Today, and you see evidence of a nation that is frustrated, fearful, angry -- and still, in spite of it all, hopeful.

"The new Iraq will be different from that of Saddam Hussein," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the Arab League this month, at his first meeting since joining the group. "The new Iraq will be based on diversity, democracy, constitution, law and respect for human rights." The other ministers must have listened with misgiving, because none of them share those values.

The antiwar left has seized on Bush's accuracy problem, and that's a good thing. Using misinformation and propaganda to manipulate public opinion might be the coin of the corporate realm and political campaigns, but the behavior is profoundly undemocratic. So too with patronage, corruption, dishonesty and the deadly failures of postwar planning. It is essential to hold Bush and his allies accountable for their attacks on U.S. democracy and their failure to provide, as much as possible, for the security and well-being of the Iraqi people.

Even Bush allies have come to acknowledge that his postwar plan has been deeply flawed. Much of the public now accepts that Bush's case for war was based on exaggeration, distortion and deception. He provided no concrete evidence that Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The administration claimed an alliance between Saddam and al-Qaida, but never came close to proving it. And yet, in his brief speech to the nation on Sept. 7, Bush insisted again that Iraq "is now the central front" in the global war on terrorism. With increasing frequency, even mainstream analysts are responding to such arguments with disbelief that verges on derision.

But among those who are liberals or leftists, rage is an insufficient response to the current state of affairs. Apart from all the incompetence and corruption evident in Bush's handling of the invasion, in spite of his dubious motives, something hugely important and inspiring is happening in Iraq: The 25 million people who live there today have a degree of freedom and opportunity that most of them have never known. And while there's much potential for the effort at liberation to collapse, there is also the potential that it may succeed.

Am I being naive? Possibly. Maybe the governing council and the Cabinet and the noble words of Hoshyar Zebari are symbols orchestrated by Washington to make the sale back home, even though they're unrelated to political reality as perceived by the average Iraqi. I continue to wonder why many Iraqis seem more angry at the U.S. than at Saddam or the saboteurs who target their power stations and oil pipelines. Certainly I know how tenuous conditions are in Iraq; perhaps a few more car bombs, timed and targeted with care, could plunge the whole country into chaos.

The difficulty, for many on the left, is that the war and Bush seem inseparable, so that if you cheer the liberation, you seem to be cheering Bush and Cheney. But that perspective, too, is a form of shortsightedness: If the war is not over in a matter of weeks, one thinks, then it is lost, or not worth fighting. When the car bombs blow, you say: "I told you so." The Iraqis are responsible for their own freedom, or maybe you think that the Arab world is not ready for freedom. These are the thoughts that can sometimes be implicit in a slogan like "bring the troops home."

There is another way of looking at things: Bush and Saddam, each in his own way, poses a profound threat to democracy, and so it's incumbent on us, even those who vehemently opposed the war, to oppose both of them while pressing to provide sufficient aid and support to make the liberation of Iraq a reality. One can oppose the enrichment of Halliburton, and yet still help to rebuild Iraq.

But there are no easy answers; it will take patience and commitment, and the costs will be significant. The history of places like Germany, Russia and Cambodia tells us that the damage done to the soul of Iraq in the years under Saddam will take a long time to heal. Many on the antiwar left are urgently calling on Bush to hand off the conflict to a multi-national United Nations force, but that may be a dangerous shortcut, or an outright illusion. On a recent edition of CNN's "NewsNight with Aaron Brown," former CIA analyst and Middle East specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht spelled out how troops from France and Russia, even Turkey and other largely Islamic nations, might reawaken old antagonisms among the Iraqis. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, appeared on the same show to argue the antiwar point, but she had no answer for that. And even if other countries were to provide troops through the U.N., they could summon only a fraction of the 140,000 U.S. soldiers now stationed in the country.

Many of those troops are weary and uncertain, I know. Even as I lament the losses among them, I'm also thinking these days of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who rose up against Saddam in 1991, with the encouragement of the first President Bush, and how they were abandoned by the U.S.; today their bodies fill the mass graves that are being discovered throughout the country. And I think, too, of Iraqi poet and novelist Hamid al Mokhtar, who was profiled in a May 1 story by my colleague Phillip Robertson. Mokhtar was held for eight years and repeatedly tortured in Saddam's notorious Abu Ghraib prison; with Robertson, he returned to the prison for a grim tour of the cells and the death chambers where thousands were hanged. "We don't want revenge," the poet said, "we want the judgment of the law and not of the person."

At this moment, Hamid al Mokhtar confronts the left with a choice -- and not just the antiwar left, but pro-war progressives and those who remain morally conflicted: Either press to get the U.S. out of the region ASAP, or fully commit to the rebuilding of Iraq. Do the job quickly, or do the job right. We might've preferred a different choice, or different terms, but this is what history has given us.

The choice will play out starkly in the presidential campaign now underway. A majority of the American public realizes that Bush misrepresented the evidence for war and had no credible postwar plan, and that incompetence can be turned against him. To back a candidate simply because he opposed the war is a gesture, and gestures alone will not save the lives of American troops or restore our place in the world or preserve the Iraqis' freedom.

Liberals and leftists must argue that a Democratic president is needed to clean up the Republican mess. They should make the case that the country must elect someone who will reverse the Bush tax cuts, at least in partly if not entirely, and use some of the proceeds to fully secure Iraq and our troops there. Elect someone with the diplomatic connections and skill to restore constructive ties with Europe, Latin America and the United Nations. Elect someone who can both level with the American people and build trust with the people of Iraq.

Leaving Iraq prematurely is the worst message that the U.S. can send to the world; that would only confirm the cynicism and lack of commitment that others perceive in us, and it's not a message the left should endorse. Instead, we should suspend use of the slogan "Bring the Troops Home" before it catches fire. Better to rally behind a new line: "Do the Job Right."

And bring the troops home when the job is done.

By Edward W. Lempinen

Edward W. Lempinen is a senior news editor at Salon.

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