Why Iraq is not like Vietnam
SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of last week's terrorist attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, and the continuing killing of American soldiers, the doomsayers are suggesting that the dreaded "Q" word - "Q" for quagmire - now hangs like a specter over US involvement in Iraq.
Is Iraq to become another Vietnam, bogging down American troops indefinitely, and leading to abject withdrawal? Let's hope not. The success or failure of the American venture in Iraq has enormous consequences for the future of the Arab world, the foreign policy of the US, and the political fate of George Bush.
The fact is there are many dissimilarities between Vietnam and Iraq.
• The Vietnam war was fought in rice paddies and difficult jungle terrain. The continuing conflict in Iraq is confined mainly to the urban areas.
• In Vietnam, the entire country was perilous for US forces. In Iraq, the opposition is confined to a relatively small geographic area. Much of the country is free of attacks against US and British forces.
• In Vietnam, Viet Cong guerrillas in the south were aided by a conventional North Vietnamese Army with tanks and artillery. In Iraq, the US and British forces, having destroyed Saddam Hussein's conventional forces, are facing hit-and-run attacks from small guerrilla groups without such backing.
• In Vietnam, the US fielded a valiant, but conscript Army. In Iraq, the volunteer US forces are better trained and experienced, with a new generation of wonder weapons.
• In Vietnam, the death toll was horrendous - an estimated 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese. In Iraq, the American death toll is still below 300, the British about 50. Iraqi casualties, though really unknown, are clearly nothing like the toll on Vietnamese in Vietnam.
• In Vietnam, major military operations continued for years. In Iraq, the bulk of the fighting ended in weeks; it is guerrilla resistance that is dragging on.
• In Vietnam, the US was defending a people whose government was often corrupt and unloved. In Iraq, the US is seeking to defend a people who already have been liberated from a despotic regime.
• In Vietnam, the US waged a war that, over a period of time, became hugely unpopular with Americans at home. In the case of Iraq, while there is slipping support at home, President Bush still retains substantial credibility with loyal supporters.
There is, however, one striking similarity between Vietnam and Iraq, namely the goals and strategy of the guerrillas attacking US forces.
The overall makeup of these guerrillas is unclear. They may include Baathists, former elements of Hussein's Army; Al Qaeda operatives, and foreign fighters from Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. They have found common cause in seeking to disrupt and end the American presence. Given the numbers and sophistication of US forces in Iraq, it seems improbable that they can ever achieve that through conventional military means. But the philosophy behind guerrilla warfare is that military action against superior forces is merely an end to the achievement of political goals.
In Iraq, as it was in Vietnam, the aim of the guerrillas is to undermine US resolve to the point where the US withdraws its forces, awarding the guerrillas the victory they could not win on the battlefield. The attack last week on the UN headquarters in Baghdad was designed to discourage foreign involvement, however altruistic, and destabilize the reconstruction effort, thus further eroding US morale and commitment.
So what must happen to keep a quagmire for the US in Iraq from becoming reality?
First, support at home for the US effort in Iraq must not weaken. Remember Margaret Thatcher's words to George Bush the elder at a difficult moment in Gulf War I: "This is no time to go wobbly."
Second, security must improve. That requires more Iraqi policemen, and more international troops for peacekeeping, which is no long-term task for US and British combat units.
Third, reconstruction must accelerate. Water must run, electricity must flow, oil must be pumped. This is a multibillion-dollar project that requires a multinational effort. If the Iraqi people are to enjoy the prosperity that should accompany freedom, the US and other potential donors must settle their differences over who is to run the show. Diplomacy is required. The role of the UN must be settled.
Finally, Iraqis must step up to their responsibilities. It is their country to build and to democratize. In eliminating Hussein's evil grasp, the US has given them a new opportunity. It is theirs to seize or lose.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.