I have written before of the similarities between Vietnam and Iraq for American military involvement. Some (including Bush) have used the similarity to draw what I believe are false conclusions, to argue that the reason that the US was defeated in Vietnam was because the politicians and the public lost their nerve and caved. This is the argument given now for the current escalation with the increase in troops.
Of course, no historical analogy is perfect and there are differences as well. But this analysis last month by Martin Jacques in the British newspaper The Guardian struck me as being very perceptive and worth quoting extensively.
But the Iraq moment is far more dangerous for the US than the Vietnam moment. Although one of the key justifications for the Vietnam war was to prevent the spread of communism, the US defeat was to produce nothing of the kind: apart from the fact that Cambodia and Laos became embroiled, the effects were essentially confined to Vietnam. There were no wider political repercussions in east Asia: ironically, it was China that was to invade North Vietnam in 1979 (and deservedly got a bloody nose).
The regional consequences of the Iraq imbroglio are, in comparison, immediate, profound and far-reaching. The civil war threatens to unhinge more or less the entire Middle East. The neoconservative strategy – to remake the region single-handedly (with the support of Israel, of course) – has been undermined by its own hubris. The American dilemma is patent in some of the key recommendations of the ISG report: to involve Iran and Syria in any Iraqi settlement (including the return of the Golan Heights to Syria) and to seek a new agreement between Israel and Palestine. In short, it proposes a reversal of the key strands of Bush’s foreign policy.
. . .
Far from the US being in the ascendant, deeper trends have moved in the opposite direction. The US might enjoy overwhelming military advantage, but its relative economic power, which in the long run is almost invariably decisive, is in decline. The interregnum after the cold war, far from being the prelude to a new American age, was bearing the signs of what is now very visible: the emergence of a multipolar world. By misreading global trends, the Bush administration’s embrace of unilateralism not only provoked the Iraq disaster but also hastened American decline.
An increasingly multipolar world requires an entirely different kind of US foreign policy: far from being unilateralist, it necessitates a complex form of power-sharing on both a global and regional basis. This is not only the opposite to neoconservative unilateralism, it is also entirely different from the simplicities of superpower cooperation and rivalry in the bipolar world of the cold war. The new approach is implicit in the ISG report, which recognises that any resolution of the Iraq crisis depends on the involvement of Iran and Syria. Elements of this approach are already apparent on the Korean peninsula and in Latin America. The ramifications of the Iraq moment will surely influence US foreign policy for decades to come.
The US is now digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole in Iraq, and making matters even worse (if that were possible) by confronting Iran. What worries me is that when a situation gets desperate, desperate people do foolish things. One does not get the sense that this administration is the kind that, when faced with overwhelming evidence that its military policy is not working, will switch to a diplomatic effort. Instead one gets the sense that they will up the stakes, seeking to burst out of the prison of their own creation by an overwhelming show of force.
And the current “surge” plan and the rhetoric about Iran all give me the uneasy feeling that we are about to witness some unpleasant events in the very near future, as suggested by this Tom Toles cartoon.
POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and Lucifer
Mr. Deity tries to mend fences with a seriously ticked-off Lucifer.