What the Vietnam War Tells Us About Iraq

Memories of the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s hover over our occupation of Iraq like sullen ghosts, calling out warnings to American policy makers.

President Bush obviously hears them, and he is determined that Iraq will not scar him as Vietnam did Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Above all, he doesn’t want this crisis to turn him out of the White House as the Vietnam crisis turned out Johnson.

But for President Bush to escape Iraq undamaged will not be easy. His first priority must be to continue bringing U.S. troops home. But several months ago, just as they began returning, a guerrilla war erupted and, despite optimistic administration statements, shows no signs of abating. As in Southeast Asia decades ago, the casualty lists lengthen, and already many observers predict that more, rather than fewer, troops will be required to defeat the insurgents.

Meanwhile, American policy makers fear that the U.S. public has little stomach for much bloodletting in Iraq, a military occupation whose motives are being seriously questioned, just as were the motives for the Vietnam War. Then, widespread disbelief in their validity stimulated often violent antiwar protests. That could happen again if the occupation of Iraq leads America into another quagmire.

Americans had been led to believe that conquering Iraq would be easy, and indeed Saddam Hussein’s regular military forces collapsed quickly enough. But the widespread Iraqi rejoicing over the Hussein’s defeat that the Bush administration led Americans to expect never occurred. Nor have U.S. soldiers or those of America’s allies been hailed as liberators and reformers any more than they were in Southeast Asia all those years ago.

Instead, they have encountered a nagging insurgency, reminiscent of the one that pulled us ever deeper into Vietnam’s civil war. Another similarity may prove the most troublesome of all for President Bush. Citizen troops — reservists and National Guard personnel — form a significant share of America’s forces in Iraq, and their number could grow if the United States increases its forces to contain the guerrillas. Already citizen warriors and their families, who believe that prolonged active service is unjustified, have voiced their discontent.

The administration does not want their dissatisfaction to spread. As President Bush must know, similar resentment among citizens liable for military service during the Vietnam era fueled the revolt that drove President Johnson from office.

In short, just as the United States is about to enter a presidential election year, President Bush risks arousing opposition among voters because of unforeseen military problems in Iraq. To solve that dilemma he has undertaken three measures, starting with recruitment of Iraqis for reconstituted police and military forces. That effort, begun even before Hussein’s fall, is intended to ease the U.S. security burden.

Washington attempted the same kind of program in Vietnam. It failed completely. The second measure calls for an Iraqi government to be created and functioning by the summer of 2004, a few months before the U.S. election.

But even if it takes office, that government could easily lack any real authority. It will be hastily created under American guidance in a country of great ethnic, tribal and religious divisions and currently in the midst of an armed rebellion against foreign occupiers and their Iraqi allies. If American forces leave before the country is stable, the new Iraqi government will almost certainly crumble.

Again, Vietnam provides a troubling precedent. There, we shored up a series of weak governments, the last of which, along with the local security forces we created, was overrun within two years of our departure.

The president’s third measure could be the most effective. But so far it hasn’t been given the energy it deserves by the administration. It calls for the United Nations, which Washington snubbed earlier in the Iraqi crisis, to endorse U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq. That endorsement could make the largely American-made regime more acceptable to Iraqis and others, including potential allies whose help we seek.

The U.S. mission to the UN has also begun exploring the possibility of UN assistance in rebuilding and administering Iraq. Until now, President Bush has shunned international administration there because it might require surrendering U.S. control, and that attitude in the White House may prevent meaningful international help now. Still, assistance from the UN would allow the United States to pull out of Iraq with its prestige intact, even while conditions remained chaotic, something neither Johnson nor Nixon managed to do under similar circumstances in Vietnam. In today’s Iraq, the UN would inherit the postwar mess while the United States took credit for toppling Hussein.

Invading Iraq was a dangerous and reckless undertaking. Analogies with the Vietnam War, while not exact, help highlight the perils of the Iraqi campaign for the United States. Today, most Americans would be glad just to have our troops come home. The trick is to get them out without seriously damaging either Iraq or American prestige and influence in the world.

Henry Butterfield Ryan is a writer for the History News Service. He is also an associate of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge.