The Self Made Pundit
Monday, September 15, 2003
BUSH’S VIETNAM SYNDROME: President Bush’s bullheaded refusal to rethink his approach in Iraq reveals that he is suffering from his very own strain of Vietnam Syndrome.
Bush’s Vietnam Syndrome is decidedly his own variant of the ailment. In its most common usage, Vietnam Syndrome refers to a reluctance to use American forces out of fear of repeating America’s mistakes in the Vietnam War. Bush, however, seems to be suffering form a mutated form of the ailment in which he chooses the policies most likely to repeat America’s errors in Vietnam.
The question of whether Iraq will turn into a Vietnam-style quagmire is most timely given the combination of continuing guerrilla attacks on American forces, Bush’s recent request for an additional $87 billion to continue the struggle and Bush’s inability to articulate any clear plan of how to pacify Iraq. As today’s New York Times reports:
A week after President Bush's speech seeking to rally support for the campaign in Iraq, the nation appears increasingly anxious about the war effort and worried that the United States may be trapped in an adventure from which there is no evident exit, according to interviews during the last five days with Americans across the nation, historians, social scientists and pollsters.
Some people went so far as to suggest a comparison with an earlier military action that had an unhappy history: the war in Vietnam.
One of the main reasons that the Vietnam comparison is being made is that Bush is stubbornly refusing to face the harsh realties America is facing in Iraq. Retired Air Force Colonel Mike Turner (link via TBOGG) recently listed some of the more disturbing similarities between Vietnam and Iraq in an online Newsweek article :
Some of the similarities between the two wars are obvious. The Vietnam War began when senior White House officials used overblown and distorted threat assessments as an excuse to commit U.S. troops to an action they’’d already decided upon months before. The operation was a unilateral, conventional, U.S. military operation against a Third World power which, in the final analysis, posed only an indirect and peripheral threat to U.S. vital interests. The operation lacked formal United Nations backing and broad international support, two factors that eventually sapped U.S. will and drained our resources. Mission success was ill-defined, and administration officials, assuming a quick victory, adopted and stubbornly adhered to a tragically simplistic and naive view of the both the military forces required to achieve military victory and the level of societal change necessary to win and sustain the peace.
While it is easy to compare Bush’s Iraq approach (I question whether it is coherent enough to qualify as a “policy”) to America’s Vietnam policy of four decades ago, it is also a little unfair. Unfair to the architects of the Vietnam War, that is.
America faced far greater obstacles in dealing with the Vietnam War than it now faces in Iraq. America is currently encountering scattered resistance from guerrillas or isolated forces in Iraq. In Vietnam America confronted both the Viet Cong’s well-organized guerrilla army and the regular army of North Vietnam. Even more significant, these communist forces were backed by the Soviet Union and China.
In the Vietnam War, America’s leaders decided not to extend the war into North Vietnam, which was supplying most of the communist troops and military hardware. America’s leaders feared that any extension of the ground war into North Vietnam would carry too great a risk of escalating into a military conflict with China – as the Korean War did – or even with the Soviet Union.
The decision not to invade North Vietnam meant that as long as North Vietnam was willing to continue sending soldiers to die in the south, the war would continue no matter how many clashes America won on the battlefields of South Vietnam. The war became a waiting game over which side was willing to continue to shed blood without end in Vietnam. America had no strategy for how to actually win the war if North Vietnam did not get tired of the killing before America did.
While America’s leaders made profound errors during the Vietnam War, they had to confront some extremely difficult decisions in the midst of the Cold War, when a misstep could have increased the chances for a nuclear war.
By contrast, America is now having to confront difficult decisions thanks to a combination of the Bush administration’s arrogant dismissal of the need for international cooperation in confronting Iraq and its naive wishful thinking that the postwar reconstruction of Iraq would be quick and easy.
As I discussed in "BUSH'S DEADLY WISHFUL THINKING", a successful reconstruction of Iraq is likely to require a much greater force than the approximately 150,000 troops currently in Iraq. According to Slate, James Dobbins, Bush’s special envoy to post-Taliban Afghanistan and currently a policy director at the Rand Corporation, has concluded that based on the number of troops used in past successful postwar occupations, America would need at least twice as many troops to stabilize Iraq.
The Bush administration, however, is not about to admit that its plans have proved to be grossly inadequate. As the Washington Post reports, Vice President Cheney refused to take off his rose-colored glasses in discussing Iraq on Meet The Press yesterday:
Cheney vigorously defended the level of U.S. troops in Iraq at a time when lawmakers have said more than the current 130,000 American and 20,000 foreign troops are needed. Asked about his earlier dismissal of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki's prewar view that an occupation force would have to be “on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers,” Cheney replied: “I still remain convinced that the judgment that we will need, quote, ‘several hundred thousand for several years,’ is not valid.”
In fact, Shinseki had not mentioned “several years” in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 25.
Given the Bush administration’s denial of reality, I am not optimistic about our efforts to build a peaceful society in Iraq. While America is obviously in a far stronger position, and facing a far weaker foe, in Iraq than in Vietnam, our current strategic thinking suffers from the same basic flaw as four decades ago. Rather than having any realistic plan of how to achieve our goals, we just plan to hang around – bleeding money and actual blood – until America wins.
Ironically, though its own ineptitude, the Bush administration has maneuvered America into repeating the Vietnam policy of bloody endurance without any strategic vision of how to actually win.
Bush’s Vietnam Syndrome is primarily a self-inflicted ailment. The arrogance and incompetence of this administration led it to war in Iraq without significant international backing. That same arrogance and incompetence leads it to believe that it can succeed in creating a peaceful Iraq without any substantial international contribution.
I agree with Colonel Turner’s assessment that international assistance is vital to America’s effort to stabilize Iraq:
And though I believe long-term victory in Iraq is, at very best, a long shot, we have a sacred responsibility to the military men and women who have been and will be lost to finish the job. Indeed, the enduring lesson of Vietnam was not, “Never engage,” it was “Engage responsibly.” What does that mean? It means winning this time. It means returning to the U.N. and obtaining U.N. backing at any price. It means going to the allies we have arrogantly disregarded and asking for help. It means dramatically internationalizing the force and, more importantly, the reconstruction of Iraq. This is, quite simply, the only way we will ever get our troops home.
During the years that America was bogged down in Vietnam, America’s leaders could not think of any new approach that would increase the chances for victory without also increasing the chances for World War III.
America does not need to repeat history since it can increase its chances for victory in Iraq by making a serious and all-out effort to internationalize the rebuilding of Iraq. However, such an approach would mean a tacit admission of error and loss of absolute control by the Bush administration.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration acts as if it fears any admission of error or loss of control as much as more responsible leaders feared World War III.