Today’s news accounts of the surprise and clandestine handover of sovereignty in Iraq yesterday — in particular, David Sanger’s excellent New York Times analysis, which dispassionately laid out how tenuous the whole affair was — left me with a depressing sense of deja vu. Sanger quoted Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s comparison of the Iraqi insurgents’ attacks with the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive. Rumsfeld was arguing that the Iraqis, like the North Vietnamese, are aiming their attacks as much or more at American resolve as at targets in their homeland.
But the Vietnam comparison that is more apt today is the sorry saga of “Vietnamization.” Cast your mind back to the Nixon administration’s desperate efforts, even as its timbers were beginning to splinter on the Watergate iceberg, to extricate American troops from their no-win deployment in Southeast Asia. The “peace with honor” policy involved handing power over to a hand-picked government friendly to U.S. interests but unloved by its own people, and replacing American military forces with native troops, regardless of their combat-readiness or willingness to fight.
Does this movie sound familiar? The echoes of “Vietnamization” in the Bush administration’s Iraq strategy are eerie — and terrifying, because Vietnamization was an utter and total failure, one that everyone involved pretty much knew was inevitable, but that proceeded because it was the only fig leaf handy to cover an embarrassing strategic defeat for the United States. As in Vietnam, so in Iraq: The U.S. military can “win the battle” (as we “won” the Tet offensive), but if the leaders in Washington haven’t identified clear, realistic goals, there is no way to win the war. (Hint: just as “terror” is not an enemy you can target, “freedom” is not a government you can support.)
The Vietnam adventure was cursed because the South Vietnamese government it sought to preserve was corrupt and unpopular. It didn’t matter that the North Vietnamese were Communist despots if enough people in Vietnam perceived them to be nationalists taking on the imperialist U.S. Similarly, in Iraq, it won’t matter that the insurgents are actually murderous Baathist thugs or suicidal Islamic fanatics if enough Iraqis think that they’re nationalists taking on the imperialist U.S.
Handing power over to a weak and compromised interim government seems less a promising strategy than an election-year desperation move. With Americans still dying every day in Iraq, we have no choice — Bush supporters and opponents alike — but to hope and pray that it works. Unfortunately, it seems much more likely that Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney (the latter two of whom had ringside Beltway seats for Vietnamization the first time around) have marched themselves straight into Santayana hell, where they are doomed to repeat the United States’ worst mistakes.