Vietnam as a Mental Quagmire
There's an excellent account of a roundtable discussion at Foreign Affairs entitled What To Do In Iraq? A Roundtable featuring Larry Diamond, James Dobbins, Chaim Kaufmann, Leslie H. Gelb, and Stephen Biddle. Most of the reaction appears to be based on a Stephen Biddle article Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon in which he argues that the proper analogue to Iraq is not Vietnam or postwar Germany but the former Yugoslavia. Much of the debate over Iraq has been subconsciously formed around the assumption that Iraq=Vietnam. Not so, Biddle says. (BTW, Austin Bay was comparing Iraq to the Balkans in 2002.)
But if the debate in Washington is Vietnam redux, the war in Iraq is not. The current struggle is not a Maoist "people's war" of national liberation; it is a communal civil war with very different dynamics. Although it is being fought at low intensity for now, it could easily escalate if Americans and Iraqis make the wrong choices. ...
Meanwhile, commentators such as Andrew Krepinevich argue essentially that Washington is not refighting Vietnam properly ("How to Win in Iraq," September/October 2005). ... Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird argues that Vietnamization was working fine until Congress pulled the plug on support for South Vietnam in 1975, and so he advocates recycling the strategy and following through with it ("Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam," November/December 2005). Journalists scorn U.S. officers who insist on overusing firepower -- a mistake made in Vietnam -- and lionize those who try to bring good governance to Iraq by holding local council elections, fixing sewers, and getting the trash picked up -- the good lessons of Vietnam. Advocates of outright withdrawal think the United States has already lost the hearts and minds of Iraqis and should therefore cut its losses now, earlier than it did last time around.
But Biddle argues that Iraq is fundamentally different, a fact that policymakers and commentators, with their Vietnam baggage, are ill-equipped to see. The conflict in Iraq is not about nationalist aspirations, it revolves around group identities. And the key to Iraq is to provide an environment that will ensure "group survival".
Communal civil wars, in contrast, feature opposing subnational groups divided along ethnic or sectarian lines; they are not about universal class interests or nationalist passions. In such situations, even the government is typically an instrument of one communal group, and its opponents champion the rights of their subgroup over those of others. These conflicts do not revolve around ideas, because no pool of uncommitted citizens is waiting to be swayed by ideology. (Albanian Kosovars, Bosnian Muslims, and Rwandan Tutsis knew whose side they were on.) The fight is about group survival, not about the superiority of one party's ideology or one side's ability to deliver better governance.
Whereas the Vietnam War was a Maoist people's war, Iraq is a communal civil war. This can be seen in the pattern of violence in Iraq, which is strongly correlated with communal affiliation. The four provinces that make up the country's Sunni heartland account for fully 85 percent of all insurgent attacks; Iraq's other 14 provinces, where almost 60 percent of the Iraqi population lives, account for only 15 percent of the violence. The overwhelming majority of the insurgents in Iraq are indigenous Sunnis, and the small minority who are non-Iraqi members of al Qaeda or its affiliates are able to operate only because Iraqi Sunnis provide them with safe houses, intelligence, and supplies. Much of the violence is aimed at the Iraqi police and military, which recruit disproportionately from among Shiites and Kurds. And most suicide car bombings are directed at Shiite neighborhoods, especially in ethnically mixed areas such as Baghdad, Diyala, or northern Babil, where Sunni bombers have relatively easy access to non-Sunni targets.
If the war in Iraq were chiefly a class-based or nationalist war, the violence would run along national, class, or ideological lines. It does not. Many commentators consider the insurgents to be nationalists opposing the U.S. occupation. Yet there is almost no antioccupation violence in Shiite or Kurdish provinces; only in the Sunni Triangle are some Sunni "nationalists" raising arms against U.S. troops, whom they see as defenders of a Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government. Defense of sect and ethnic group, not resistance to foreign occupation, accounts for most of the anti-American violence. Class and ideology do not matter much either: little of the violence pits poor Shiites or poor Sunnis against their richer brethren, and there is little evidence that theocrats are killing secularists of their own ethnic group. Nor has the type of ideological battle typical of a nationalist war emerged in Iraq. This should come as no surprise: the insurgents are not competing for Shiite hearts and minds; they are fighting for Sunni self-interest, and hardly need a manifesto to rally supporters.
The roundtable discussion appears convinced of Biddle's central thesis -- that Iraq is not Vietnam. But they remain divided on his central prescription. Larry Diamond's reaction to Biddle is representative:
Biddle proposes two bold steps: slowing down the buildup of the Iraqi army and police and threatening to "manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to coerce them to negotiate." But these steps (particularly the latter) are dangerous and unlikely to work, because they follow from an incomplete analysis of the formidably complex, multidimensional nature of the Iraqi conflict.
My own views are that Biddle is absolutely correct in saying that Iraq is not Vietnam, nor has it ever been. He is largely correct in saying that communal conflict, not some kind of insurgency, is the principal engine of fighting today. But I too believe his analysis is incomplete. He may be overly minimizing the extent to which Iraq is the arena of regional rivalries between Iran and the Sunni Arab nations; between the United States and radical Islamism. Those elements are present in large measure too and they will not be served by the policy prescriptions advanced.
There isn't enough space to discuss the roundtable in detail, which contains too many points to be easily summarized. However Biddle's article and the roundtable go a long way toward moving the debate past the sterile cliches of the 1960s. Nearly every participant in the roundtable was forced by the acceptance of Biddle's assumptions, as well their own, into concluding that some kind of American presence in Iraq was necessary to preserve its national interest. This is true not only because "anarchy" or a "failed state" in Iraq is not in the American interest, but also in proportion to the degree in which the idea that Iraq is a proxy conflict among global interests is accepted.
Most of debate in the roundtable centered around what to do next. "OK. It's not Vietnam. What is the way forward?" And that, despite the article's title is never settled. But at least it is discussed.