Comparing Vietnam with Iraq

The difference between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War is simple: Vietnam was winnable and Iraq is not.

Now I am not casting aspersions on the success of the surge or anything like that. In any kind of military terms the US army has done well. This is especially true if you compare them against the actual performance of other armies in similar situations and not against some pie-in-the-sky ideal. The current incarnation of US armed forces has certainly performed better than the incarnation of the US armed forces that fought in Vietnam.

But this superior performance by the current incarnation of US armed forces has obscured a critical fact. The political goals of the United States were achievable in Vietnam and they are not achievable in Iraq. This is not readily apparent to a lot of people because popular opinion holds that Vietnam was doomed to failure from the very beginning whereas some people still hold out hope for Iraq.

Others might take the opposite tack and argue that in the case of Vietnam, the US was coming to the defense of an already independent nation, whereas Iraq was an invasion of a sovereign nation. Thus, you can’t really compare the two.

But this is really just a matter of political correctness and not a reflection of any kind of reality on the ground.

If a free and fair vote had been held in accordance with the agreement the French made when they withdrew, South Vietnam would never have existed to ask for help from the US. More to the point, there were a lot of people with guns in South Vietnam who were willing and able to fight hard against what they perceived as a US invasion. But if a free and fair vote had been held in Iraq, Saddam would never have been elected. More to the point, there was almost no one in Iraq who was willing to fight for Saddam or to preserve the integrity of Iraq.

All I am trying to say is that American’s intervention in South Vietnam was at least as much as an invasion as the invasion of Iraq. And the goal of the invasion was the same in both cases, to create and sustain a political ally of the US. How then can I say that the political goals of Vietnam War were achievable whereas the invasion of Iraq was not?

To answer that question we must first look at why the political goals of the Vietnam War were achievable. Most people today seem to take it for granted that we were doomed to lose the Vietnam War. The conventional view is that you cannot defeat a popularly supported insurgency. According to the conventional narrative, the will of the people will always prevail eventually. But this view reflects a complete ignorance of the historical record.

As an indisputable matter of historical record, America defeated the insurgency in South Vietnam. When South Vietnam did fall, it was not to a popular uprising, but to invading conventional armies from North Vietnam. Even when South Vietnam was being defeated in its final days on the battlefield it did not have to contend with a popular uprising or guerrilla operations in the rear. That was how completely Americans defeated the insurgency in South Vietnam before they left the country.

In fact, if it were not for Watergate, South Vietnam probably would still be an independent country. It is often forgotten that Nixon won his re-election bid by a landslide. Had he not been driven by his paranoia into doing things that were extremely stupid, I think he would have had the political capital to order the Air Force to support South Vietnam’s ground forces. (This was Nixon’s original plan before he got embroiled in his political problems). I don’t think North Vietnam could have succeeded under those circumstances.

Regardless, it is important to keep in mind that the conventional lesson that most people have drawn from Vietnam is wrong. America did defeat a popular based uprising in Vietnam. The only reason America failed to achieve its political ends is that it failed to create a state that was militarily powerful enough to defend itself from an invasion lunched by another state.

North Vietnam’s political leaders certainly did not feel that the outcome of the Vietnam conflict was preordained. A major fear they had throughout the war was that South Vietnam would take the path of South Korea or Taiwan. They saw that the longer America stayed in South Vietnam, the more likely the country was to become permanently split. It was these fears that lead North Vietnam to launch the Tet offensive even though they knew that it was an extremely risky military operation. They felt that they had no choice if they wanted to maintain a hope of eventual victory. Their Hail Mary pass sort of worked. But it very well might not have if America had played their cards better.

So America could have achieved their aims in Vietnam. Why can’t America achieve its political aims in Iraq?

First, let us be clear about what America’s political aims are in Iraq. The stated justification for the war was weapons of mass destruction. But the goal of the invasion was always to build a democratic Arab state that would be the natural ally of the United States. The unstated rationale was that if we rescue the Iraqi people from a horrible dictator they will love us forever. The explicitly stated examples of what America was trying to achieve were Germany and Japan.

Proponents of the war said we have conquered our opponents before and made them into our allies, so why can’t we do it again?

We can dismiss the comparison to Germany and Japan out of hand. As I have already pointed out, we did not defeat the Iraqi people, because almost none of them bothered to defend their country. Contrast that with the fanatical defense put up by the people of Japan and Germany. To put it another way, Germany and Japan are nations. Iraqi is not, no matter what the UN might say. To be a nation you have to have some kind of shared identity.

This is one of the crucial differences between Iraq and Vietnam. In Vietnam it was possible to build up a Vietnamese state to crush the insurgency. The contest in Vietnam was between two competing visions of what a Vietnamese state should look like. In this contest America had some problems because of the corruption of their allies and because they were invaders. On the other hand this was counterbalanced by the fact that communism is intrinsically hostile to indigenous cultures and the fact that America could offer wealth beyond anything communism has ever managed achieve.

In Iraqi, by contrast, it is proving impossible to build an Iraqi state. To be sure, no one in Iraq (except maybe the Kurds) seems to really want to break up Iraq. They are all happy to claim that they are citizens of Iraq. But you cannot create an Iraqi army battalion in the same way that you could create a Vietnamese battalion. Even if you try to create an ethnically mixed force in Iraq, it will still matter who is calling the shots. If Shia’s dominate the government, then the army is effectively Shia no matter who is providing the token diversity.

The expectation on the part of US government is that these tribal divisions will go away with time. But there is no good reason for thinking that this will be so.

The US itself was complicit in the breaking up of the former Yugoslavia in attempt to separate hostile ethnic groups. And this was after they had lived together for longer than Iraq has been a country. Belgium is in danger of falling apart and they have been a nation for longer than Yugoslavia. Spain is struggling to keep itself together and it has been a nation for longer than Yugoslavia and Iraq put together. And I will not even go into the examples provided by Africa.

Those who think that Iraq will be different than other countries that suffer from ethnic divisions have a lot of explaining to do.

Then there is the issue of religion. This issue has been dealt with many a time on the internet and I don’t know that I can add much. But I will observe that Buddhism does not have the same kind of concept of an “infidel” that Islam has. It is bad enough to be a stranger in someone else’s land. But to be an infidel as well adds to an occupier’s problems.

More importantly, America could plausibly pass itself off as the defender of religion in Vietnam. The Buddhists monks were a little slow to buy this line of argument (largely because the first South Vietnamese government was dominated by Catholics) but it gradually became clear to most Vietnamese there would be no room for religion in Vietnam if the Communists took over. Although the Buddhist monks never became America’s biggest fans, very few cultural conservatives in Vietnam became supporters of a communist takeover. It unlikely that religion will ever be a factor that works in America’s favor in Iraq.

Having said all of that, it must be admitted that the religious and ethnic difficulties that America faces in Iraq are broadly understood. And many people argue that they can be overcome. But even if this is possible (which I doubt) there are other more subtle reasons why America cannot achieve its political aims in Iraq.

One such reason is what is commonly called the oil curse. A country with a lot of natural resources (it does not have to be oil) will rarely develop much in the way of industry. Countries with the “oil curse” tend to be corrupt and violent places because wealth in those countries is all about controlling natural resources, not on trading goods and services. As a result, countries with a lot of natural resources rarely develop even though they have every advantage.

Obviously, this is bad for America’s political goals in and of itself. But the reason this is important goes beyond the fact that Iraq is likely to remain backwards and cuts right to heart of American power.

The core of America’s power is what used to be called trade in the good old days. Nowadays they like to call it globalization. No matter what you call it, there is a worldwide class of businessmen who want to see America stay powerful. They might not personally like America, but the end of pax America would mean the end of their wealth.

In a world without America, Saddam could have taken over Saudi Arabia and disturbed world energy supplies in a major way. In a world without America, the Balkan crisis could have flared up to imperil European economic growth. In a world without America, China could be emboldened to make good on its territorial claims, sparking conflict with many Asian countries. Most importantly, without America, the world would lack a major market for their goods.

In short, a world without a powerful America would be bad for business because trade just does not happen on its own. You have to have someone around who will make sure the rewards from trade are greater than the rewards from aggression. This is why you don’t have large amounts of trade without an empire devoted to protecting and maintaining that trade in any period of history.

Most of the rich industrialists and merchants of the world understand this. They use their influence to make sure that most countries of the world do not drift out of America’s orbit. To oppose America is to ensure that you will be poor. To destroy America, would be to destroy the wealth of the world.

This effect is so powerful that it is pulling Vietnam into America’s orbit even though Vietnam “beat” America in a war. This effect is so powerful that China has funded America’s war in Iraq and its tax cuts because a strong America is in China’s own economic interests.

But there is obviously a lot of countries that have remained hostile to US and seem immune to allure of wealth that friendship with US offers. If you look at these countries, they are often resource-rich (Iran, Venezuela, Russia, etc) and they always lack a large business class.

I don’t think this is an accident. Since the “oil curse” prevents the formation of industrialists and merchants, it also prevents the formation of a pro-American business class. That is why even countries that have a lot of oil who are supposedly friendly to US (such as Saudi Arabia) have populations that are deeply hostile to the US.

In other words, the very fact that Iraq has oil makes it likely that it will never develop a class of people who have any real affection for America. This is in contrast to Vietnam, which still has a very good chance of developing a class of people friendly to the US even though a war was fought between the two countries.

If that was not enough, there is another reason why Iraq is unlikely to become a strong and prosperous ally of the US. And that is the fact that two Alpha males rarely get along. That is to say, a nation that thinks that it would be top dog if only America were not around, is not going to have the same appreciation for America as a nation that realizes that if not for America, another nation would be top dog.

Thus, nations in Europe generally realized that they had a choice between Russia or the US. Nations in Asia generally realize that they have a choice between America and China. When the choice is presented that way, the US often does not seem so bad in spite of its flaws.

On the other hand, South America has often felt that if only America would go away there would be no one to boss them around. Thus, you often find high levels of anti-American sentiment in South America.

You don’t have to be a world power to have this kind of Alpha-male friction with the US. You just have to feel that if US were not there, you would be top dog. This is why France so often has friction with the US even though it has a large business class. In France’s eyes, the only think that prevents them from calling the shots in Europe is the influence of the US. Germany (because of its past history, it knows it will only unite other countries against it) and Great Britain (because it is smaller than France in population and economically) both realize that they will not be calling the shots in Europe even if the US leaves, so they don’t have the same kind of frustration.

Of course, this frustration is balanced by the business class in France who realize without the US they would be a lot poorer. So France is not really an enemy of the US even if relations are often prickly. But imagine what it would be like if France did not have a business class whose wealth depended on pax America.

Vietnam never had any real chance to be top dog in its neighborhood. As if to drive home that point, the Chinese invaded northern Vietnam shortly after America left and Vietnam was reunited. While the Vietnamese claim to have defeated the Chinese (the Chinese claim that they did what they set out to do and then left) it is likely they prefer to have the Americans around to balance the Chinese.

How does this apply to Iraq?

Considering that Bagdad is a traditional seat of Arab power, it is likely that a strong Iraq would see itself as the top dog of the Arab world. After all, it has a large population (far larger than Saudi Arabia) by Middle Eastern standards and one of the largest oil reserves in the world (more than Iran and way more than Egypt). If it manages to overcome its ethnic divisions and form a functional state, it would be natural for it to see itself as top dog. This certainly seemed to be the idea that Saddam had although he pursued his goals with gross incompetence.

Thus America is caught in catch-22. A strong Iraq is a natural rival to US in the Middle East. On the other hand, a weak and divided Iraq will afford plenty of opportunity for radicals and Iran to cause mischief for the US.

I suppose that one could hope that a strong Iraq and a strong Iran would balance each other out. But this is unlikely. For one thing, a halfway decently managed Iraq would be far stronger than Iran. Heck, even the grossly incompetent Saddam Hussein managed to fight Iran to a standstill (admittedly, he started the fight to begin with, but still). Given that Iran has rapidly aging oil fields and a large population of young people without jobs, it is hard for me to imagine a strong Iran in the future. The only realistic way out for Iran is for them to take Iraq’s southern oil fields. That kind of precludes a strong Iraq.

In other words, I can see how both Iraq and Iran could end up poor and weak. I can see how Iran might regain its strength. I can with difficulty imagine a strong Iraq. But it is hard for me to picture a future where both Iran and Iraq are strong again, notwithstanding the fact that their rivalry has a long history.

Even if my imagination is deficient, a rivalry between Iran and Iraq does not necessarily mean that both countries would not have Alpha-male tension between them and the US. China and India have fought over border issues but that does not stop both of them from having a kind of Alpha-male tension with the US. And as Saddam proved, there is nothing stopping Iraq from fighting with Iran and then turning and attacking US interests in the next heart beat.

The obstacles to America’s political goals being met in Iraq are so great that is inconceivable to me that they will ever happen. I think that Vietnam will be a democratic and prosperous ally of the US long before Iraq will be.

2 Responses to “Comparing Vietnam with Iraq”

  1. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Comparing Vietnam with Iraq By Ape Man | February 18, 2008 – 5:28 pm Posted in Category: Front Page, Politics The difference between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War is simple: Vietnam was winnable and Iraq is not. Now I am not casting aspersions on the success of the surge or anything like that. In any kind of military terms the US army has done well. This is especially true if you compare them Click Here to continue reading. […]

  2. […] As I pointed out some time ago, the US goals in Iraq are unachievable. Anyone trying pretend otherwise is simply fooling themselves. But many people choose to do just that because the alternatives are too horrible to contemplate. People do not want to admit that peace is beyond their power to bring about. […]

Leave a Reply