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U.S. Credibility at Stake in Iraq

by Christopher Gerteis on Apr 13, 2003

Once again the United States has squandered its international credibility on a war that most of its closest allies do not believe was justified. And even if the war’s military phase is winding down, credibility diminishes even more with each day that American and British forces fail to unearth more than circumstantial evidence of the terrorist training camps and weapons of mass destruction claimed by the Bush Administration.

Despite what the administration says, much of the world still doesn’t recognize that Iraq was a significant threat to the international community. Why is that? Because, the United States — from the Tonkin Gulf to the banks of the Yalu River — has often exaggerated the threat to national or international security to justify military actions that would otherwise overstep international law.

While most Americans seem to have forgotten, much of the world did not forget how the U.S. government lied its way into the Vietnam war. In August 1964, the American military claimed that the North Vietnamese had launched an unprovoked attack against a U.S. warship on patrol in the Tonkin Gulf. Two days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson asserted that additional attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo boats had forced him to launch retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. Congress underscored the president’s call to escalate the war by authorizing him “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”

The problem was the second attack never occurred. Naval commanders couldn’t even confirm whether their ships had been hit, much less whether North Vietnamese patrol boats had struck them. Gen. James Stockdale later recalled that “our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets — there were no PT boats there . . . nothing there but black water and American fire power.”

Now, images of American firepower again dominate the nightly news, and one is left to wonder what threat the disintegrated Iraqi military posed to the international community. Although military press briefings report that American forces stumbled across a small cache of chemical weapons, military personnel have not yet shown evidence of the kind of threat they argue justified preemptive invasion. It looks increasingly likely that the Bush administration made false claims to win domestic support for its war plan.

Much of the world is this moment wondering why the United States was in such a hurry to invade Iraq. Pro-invasion commentators usually say that the United States could not risk the chance that Saddam Hussein might have marshaled enough force to attack the United States or its allies. But, now that the United States has taken Baghdad, where’s the evidence?

Oddly, some members of the Bush administration have been talking glibly about how the United States should be prepared to escalate this war into a regional conflict. Not only does this dash any hope, as did the Tonkin Gulf affair, of rebuilding American credibility, but it also demonstrates an American propensity for wanting to bite off more than we can chew.

American officials have a history of overstating the need for, as well as their ability to handle, a preemptive invasion. In July 1950, just two weeks into the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur told President Truman that with tactical nuclear weapons he could not only end hostilities in Korea but also “strike a blocking blow to international Communism.” MacArthur asserted that in the wake of a pre-emptive nuclear attack, his troops could easily sweep across China and put an end to the threat of communism in Asia.

Truman said no, later explaining that he was “trying to prevent a world war — not to start one.” As the only world leader yet to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in wartime, Truman wanted to explain to the American public why he would not allow the Korean War to cross into China. “You may ask why can’t we take other steps to punish the aggressor? Why don’t we bomb Manchuria and China itself? If we were to do these things, we would become entangled in a vast conflict . . .and our task would become immeasurably more difficult all over the world.”

The issue now is American credibility, or rather a lack thereof. The United States has a history of inventing grounds for wars it could not otherwise justify. To borrow the poker metaphor first used by the Bush administration, it’s time President Bush showed us his cards. It’s unlikely that the United States will escape unscathed the worldwide backlash if the Bush administration has gambled American lives and resources on a war it cannot justify.

Christopher Gerteis is a visiting professor of East Asian history at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.