Monday, July 03, 2006

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.


Blogger Mark White said...

The way to win in Iraq is to unite the Shia Arabs. Take the Shia provinces in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and you will have all the oil in the Persian Gulf, leaving the terrorist governments in Iran and Saudi Arabia high and dry in terms of funding.

Given the predominantly Shia Arab populations in these provinces, Khuzistan and the Eastern Province, and the pitiful conventional military power Iran and Saudi Arabia can muster, just an announcement that the US, its Anglosphere allies (UK, Canada, Austalia, India) and like-minded countries (Japan, Germany) were liberating those Shia Arabs ought to lead to the surrender of those provinces without fighting (which would save the regimes in Teheran and Riyadh from the shock and awe experience).

Terrorists can't operate without funding, and unearned oil wealth is the only thing that keeps them going. If a Coalition of the Willing put that oil wealth under international administration and used it to build schools and roads instead of nukes and missiles, the Long War on terror would be over in weeks. Let's have a short war instead.

7/03/2006 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger DanMyers said...


Mark emphasizes my point in his post...

Why does everyone believe that we want stability in the ME? It has always been my supposition that stability is exactly what we don't want. Let them kill each other, create new feuds, emphasize the need to ween us from their geologic lottery winnings. Give them what they want - isolation.

History is not made through diplomacy, only war...

7/03/2006 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger Digital Art Photography for Dummies said...

If everyone started posting photographs or links to photo blogs of the war areas like this one--

7/03/2006 02:59:00 PM  
Blogger Jack Okie said...


Maybe I need to read Comments for Dummies, but just what are you saying?

7/03/2006 05:26:00 PM  
Blogger Jack Okie said...

One of Biddle's concerns just ain't gonna happen: The conflict between Shias / Kurds and Sunnis will not "decend into all-out chaos". There aren't enough Sunnis to make that happen. Rather, if the Sunnis don't wise up, it will more closely resemble the Communists' fate in Indonesia in '65 - '66 when Suharto replaced Sukarno.

7/03/2006 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger warhorse said...

Mark White ---

Unfortunately, the cost of supporting terrorists is quite trivial compared to the income of even the poorest national government. Your suggestion would surely motivate a whole new generation of terrorists, without removing the ability of their enablers to support them.

Dan Meyers ---

We want stability in the ME because it promotes a prosperous populace, and prosperous folks are generally too busy enjoying the good life to make nuisances of themselves by flying airliners into our buildings.

7/03/2006 06:28:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

The problem with the Yugoslavia analogy is that Western involvement in that area was not based on an overall strategy for opposing a given ideology, protection of strategic resources, or the need to gain a toehold in a critically important area, - but rather on some people feeling good about what they were doing.

The solution to the problem there did not have to work. It just had to look good. The Kosovo campaign, for example, was sparked by Hillary Clinton wanting some photo ops and Bill Clinton wanting to get on her good side again after his very public affair with Monica Lewinsky. “If I bomb Yugoslavia to help the people in Kosovo will you start talking to me again?” was Bill’s question. So we bombed - ineffectively for the most part, but it looked good. Looks were the only thing important, since there was no other reason for getting involved. Now, years later, it does not look so good – the mass graves of 100,000 people that we were told would be in Kosovo were never found, and the people we defended are whumping up on the others – and we can come up with no clear reason for becoming involved in the first place.

In Iraq we need something that works, - strategically, tactically, philosophically, not something that just looks good.

7/03/2006 06:49:00 PM  
Blogger DanMyers said...


You are absolutely correct. That is what we want.

What we will get in the next 20 years is a Vietnam analogy or a Yugoslavia analogy. We will not get peace in the ME. We will still be searching for an analogy of an old war.

The analogy that I like is WW1 when the Ottoman Empire was defeated and disbanded. The key word in that last sentence is defeated. The "disbanding" was botched by the British and French in my opinion (see "Middle East after WW1 to present").

"Hearts and Minds" is for the long term in my opinion (not that my opinion means a thing). Long term, like 100 years.

Now, will the "Yugoslavs" give us a hint on how well we have done? Methinks that analogy is one for defeat. Aren't we still there trying to pick up their broken pieces?

I'm sorry, but I think "Hearts and Minds" can be won after we have literally crushed their will.

I lived in the ME for a while. They are genuinely beautiful souls.... Unless they decide they can take you for something, then Katy Bar the Door. They have only advanced in the last, say 600 years, when they have fought, stolen or bought their way. These people are not like us.... Any analogy is a fools errand.

7/03/2006 07:11:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

The best historical analogy for Iraq is Iraq. Let's try to understand it as it presently exists and stop trying to describe it like four blind men would try to describe an elephant.

7/03/2006 08:32:00 PM  
Blogger NooYawkah said...

More or less on topic, an Iraqi General talks about his local efforts (and a possible model for more wide-scale success in Iraq) here.

7/03/2006 08:52:00 PM  
Blogger unaha-closp said...


What seems trivial when you have money becomes unaffordable when you have none. It was citizens of the most stable and wealthiest country in the region that were flying airliners into buildings.

7/03/2006 09:37:00 PM  
Blogger erick said...

If you mean Saudi Arabia, it is dubious how stable the regime is;
like pre-Revolutionary Russia and
seeing the lopsided income
distribution, between Saud members
their retainers, and everyone else;
how prosperous it is. The analogy
between current day conditions &
post WW 1 Europe are more apt. The
'insurgents' of the day are very
much like the Freikorps and Arditti
that formed the core of the SA and
Blackshirts, in 1920's Germany and
Russia; the Wahabist/Salafi are much more like the Neo-Shintoist
paramilitary societies like the
Black Dragon, in Japan

7/03/2006 10:30:00 PM  
Blogger The Mad Fiddler said...

Anyone want to place a bet that the D.U. folks will accuse Karl Rove of trying to steal the Mexican Federal Election?

7/04/2006 12:12:00 AM  
Blogger The Mad Fiddler said...

Erick, it's a big stretch to compare post-WWI Germany to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi peninsula is fairly sparsely populated, and the oil wealth has been used to create a welfare state beyond the wildest imaginings of even Democrats (except of course that the House of Saud is fabulously better off than the rest of the folks...)

KSA has not recently been devastated by any major groundwar, leaving a third of its families devoid of a Father, while the mother is forced into prostitution or hard labor to provide the meagerest food for her babies. In the Kingdom of Saud, poverty is reserved for the hired help, and the oil revenues finance flipping great wodges of investment in new infrastructure.

Germany largely shared a common cultural heritage with those with whom it fought the Great War— Judeo-Christian heritiage. Germany's annoyance with its neighbors was not based on religious differences. KSA includes (and defends) the two cities most sacred to Islam, and harbors a virulently puritanical and xenophobic brand of Islam known as Wahabbism, which sees its mission as the triumph of Islam in all parts of the World.

The Saudis who participated in the attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001 were mainly the products of families enjoying at least middle-class comforts and privileges. Their zeal is far more the result of religious indoctrination than of resentment born of economic deprivation, hunger, joblessness.

7/04/2006 12:29:00 AM  
Blogger John Lynch said...

Biddle leaves out a very likely scenario- a successful Shiite and Kurd war against the Sunnis that would kill many of them, drive many more out of the country, and cow the rest. This would end the insurgency in the same way Saddam ended the Shiite revolt in 1991.

Biddle implies that this is an undesirable outcome, and I agree. However, from a purely realist standpoint it is preferable to a Sunni victory. So, is arming the Shiites and Kurds as bad an idea as he makes it out to be?

7/04/2006 04:33:00 AM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

Apparently diplomats are still fighting the last diplomatic fiasco.

The Sunni Baathist planned for the insurgency before the war. They hoped to drive out the US and then walk over the Shia and Kurds.

Now that won't be so easy. So we may be entering the stage where they want a screen of US or international troops in front of them (some sort of Green line) so they can attack the Shia from behind it. And, of course, encourage the Shia to go at each other. Then try to grab power. That's my nomination for "Next Diplomatic Fiasco."

Personally, I think they should negotiate some constitutional amendments the Sunnis might like but only put them to a vote if the Sunnis turn on the insurgency. Easier said then done, of course. But they do seem to be stumbling in that direction.

But the alternative must be unpalatable for the Sunnis. The US will be blamed for any genocide and so the Sunni assume we will prevent it. But we can't prevent it if we are not there. So our staying or going my be a decisive, rather than divisive, bargaining chip.

7/04/2006 07:57:00 AM  
Blogger erick said...

I didn't compare Saudi Arabia to Germany or Japan; the analogy was
to Japan. The former comparison
is to Iraq

7/04/2006 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Grey said...

Wretchard, for once I'm sure you're wrong: "My own views are that Biddle is absolutely correct in saying that Iraq is not Vietnam, nor has it ever been."
instead, this is correct:
"the United States must fight the Vietnam War again -- but this time the right way. "

How did the USA lose in Vietnam, without losing any big battles? In Politics, in the Media -- in the Moral Superiority War.

As long as America stays in Iraq, and lets Iraqis muddle in their own democratic, our only needs are 1) stay, and stop the Iraqis from killing each other in big pitched battles, and 2) stay until the Iraqis stop killing each other -- until bombs are no more common than in Israel. Until most Sunnis would rather turn in a terrorist, and most Iraqis won't tolerate a death squad police force.

Bush needs to be talking about the Long War, and the Long Wait for Iraqis to Learn to Live and Let Live.

And since we're gonna be there militarily a lot longer than we thought, we should stop giving aid and only buy municipal bond loans from the stable Iraqi areas, letting the secure locals reconstruct with borrowed, not donated, US money.

Finally, the terrible Proportional Representation system, instead of geographic district representatives, means their style of democracy is leading towards a bloodbath.

But if the US stays, the Sunnis will eventually accept their defeat. When will terrorist "safe houses" have their owners, and the tribes of the owners, pay penalties?

7/04/2006 02:10:00 PM  
Blogger unaha-closp said...

I didn't compare Saudi Arabia to Germany or Japan; the analogy was to Japan.

Best analogy ever.

7/04/2006 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

So long as we're playing the game of analogy, I think better analogies would be the Saudi Kingdom to Romania from the 1930's and Pakistan to Hungary from the same period.

Ever heard of Zelea Codreanu of the Legion of the Archangel Michael and his vendetta against the notoriously corrupt King Carol? Osama bin Laden actually looks like an Arab imitation of Zelea Codreanu -- their iconographies are nearly identical!

7/04/2006 09:02:00 PM  
Blogger Wu Wei said...

Ever since Vietnam, liberals have called every military action "Vietnam". They are never right. I can remember Ted Kennedy arguing that Afghanistan was a "quagmire", a few days before the Taliban collapsed.

The key thing to remember is that Vietnam was lost by using too much force, not too little. It is better to use mostly surrogate forces and bombing instead of exposing hundreds of thousands of US troops. If we don't have strong local support, then no amount of US force will win.

7/05/2006 11:34:00 AM  

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