Lessons from Vietnam

By Geraldine Sealey

Published May 14, 2004 9:46PM (EDT)

As U.S. troops continue to fight and die in Iraq, as the Bush administration requests three times the amount of money it originally estimated would fund the war, and as more observers raise the "q" word, wondering how we'll ever get out, two researchers at the U.S. Army War College have issued a report laying out what the comparisons are between the Vietnam war and the current war in Iraq. The authors are Jeffrey Record, a former professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the author of "Dark Victory: America's Second War Against Iraq," and W. Andrew Terrill, a Middle East specialist at SSI.

The differences between Vietnam and Iraq outweigh the similarities, the authors say, particularly in the strategic and military dimensions. Certainly, the scale of Vietnam, in committed forces and incurred losses, dwarfs Iraq, they say. But the ways Iraq does resemble Vietnam -- the political dimensions -- should give us pause and serve as warnings to the Bush administration. In both cases, the U.S. administration has made an attempt at state-building and has tried to sustain domestic political support while waging a protracted war against an unpredictable enemy.

Record and Terrill write: "It is, of course, far too early to predict whether the United States will accomplish its policy objectives in Iraq and whether public support will 'stay the course' on Iraq. But policymakers should be mindful of the reasons for U.S. failure to create a politically legitimate and militarily viable state in South Vietnam, as well as for the Johnson and Nixon administrations' failure to sustain sufficient domestic political support for the accomplishment of U.S. political objectives in Indochina. Repetition of those failures in Iraq could have disastrous consequences for U.S. foreign policy."

On state-building and maintaining political support, the authors advise: "The lessons of Vietnam need to be studied. State-building in Iraq could fail for the same principal reason it failed in South Vietnam: inability to create a political order commanding popular legitimacy. Nor should open-ended domestic political support be taken for granted."

Lawmakers also shouldn't rule out the possibility of "hostile external state intervention in Iraq," the authors say. Their example: Iran. Although Iran has been well-served by Saddam Hussein's destruction, the country is also "well-positioned to sponsor accelerated chaos in Iraq," the authors say. "Iran has no interest in the resurrection of a powerful Iraq, and certainly not a democratic, pro-Western Iraq, and it has enough Revolutionary Guards and intelligence operatives to 'get thousands of Iraqi Shiites on the streets to protest the U.S. occupation."

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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