Is Iraq Vietnam?

The wars in Vietnam and Iraq differ in major respects, but U.S. policy in both suffers from the same fatal flaw. The publication of National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s Nov. 8 memorandum shows a critical similarity between the American approaches to these wars.

In both cases the United States has tried to turn a nation into something alien to its nature. Now as in Vietnam, the U.S. government is refusing to base its policies upon reality and is looking for a local leader who can make political bricks without straw to build the nation the United States has in mind. For that reason, the intervention in Iraq, like that in South Vietnam, seems almost certain to end in failure.

Hadley’s memorandum provides a very rare glimpse of what someone in the administration is actually thinking. He wants a united, democratic, moderate Iraq in which all Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds can live, but he doesn’t know if Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki shares this goal. Not surprisingly; since he belongs to a Shiite political party with a terrorist past, Maliki seems to be representing the interests of the Shiites, and giving Muqtada al-Sadr’s militias a free rein.

According to Hadley, Maliki either doesn’t know what is happening or isn’t telling his American interlocutors the truth. Hadley assumes that Maliki’s recent clashes with American authorities are attempts to act like a strong leader, which he has failed to do towards the Shiite militias.

The national security adviser barely considers the more likely possibility that Maliki knows and supports what those militias are doing. Like so many American policymakers in so many other wars, Hadley, following President Bush, thinks he knows exactly what Iraq needs; the problem is that so few Iraqis seem to agree.

South Vietnam’s governments also had serious problems. The Diem regime (1954-63) wanted to defeat or at least contain the Viet Cong but could not rally non-Communist South Vietnamese behind it, prompting the United States to abandon it.

From November 1963 until June 1965 the United States tried to find a government that would fight the war IT wanted to fight, but many South Vietnamese wanted a settlement with the Viet Cong instead. Washington had to settle for a military government that was never popular and eventually failed. Had the United States respected the realities on the ground, South Vietnam could have had a coalition government by 1965. It might even have survived. Even if it hadn’t, the United States and South Vietnam would have been spared enormous suffering.

Hadley’s memo proposes to re-create Maliki. Rather than replace him, he actually wants to detach him from his current Shiite political base and build him a whole new one. The United States might “use our own political capital to press moderates to align themselves with Maliki’s new political bloc” and “consider monetary support to moderate groups that have been seeking to break with larger, more sectarian parties.” Four years into the war, Hadley also wants to build him a whole new police force. He also speaks of letting Maliki control more Iraqi troops, indicating that most of them are now under American command.

The suggestion that Maliki should completely recast his political base is about as realistic as asking President Bush to replace half his cabinet with Democrats, and just as likely to happen. (Similarly, some Americans in 1963 thought that Diem could continue in office if he fired his brother Nhu – about as likely as President Kennedy firing his brother Robert, the attorney general.) Since the administration apparently has no intention of abandoning its fantasy of the new Iraq, it will, like the United States in Vietnam, be tempted to seek Maliki’s replacement when he does not change. He is already the administration’s third chosen prime minister.

Alternatively, some administration figures reportedly want simply to abandon trying to bring the Sunnis on board and give the Shiites free rein. This rather desperate step might eventually crush the insurgency, but it would undercut every Sunni regime in the region – including American allies there – and almost certainly mean a bloodbath on a massive scale.

The time has come to stop sacrificing Iraqi and American lives for a hopeless vision of a unified, democratic and pluralistic Iraq. More than ever, the American people need leaders willing to choose among real options.

David Kaiser is the Stanley Kaplan Professor of History and Leadership Studies at Williams College, and the author of "American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War" (2000). He is a writer for the History News Service.