Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Saigon and Baghdad

“…We await the report of General Westmorland – oops I meant General Petraeus.”  That’s the way I ended my last post.  With an unmistakable sense of déjà vu, I simply couldn’t help myself.  Indeed, Westmorland’s name came up several times during the questioning on the Hill.  Even George Bush, who assiduously avoided linking the two wars for five years, broke that resolve in August citing the "unmistakable legacy of Vietnam” in warning against withdrawal from Iraq.  And of course the opposite of what he suggested is exactly the point, and his logic is exactly what binds these two wars together.

In both those Cold War days and now a central argument for “staying the course” hinged on the domino theory first promulgated in the 1950’s by President Dwight Eisenhower.  It was a time when Communism was seen as cancerous ideology, a threat to our way of life with almost mystical powers.  Our opposition to it became often obsessive in almost the same way as we today look at militant Islamism.  In the earlier period, which proponents of our current policies hope we will forget, the “Red menace”, and the threat it posed, reached a crescendo during which individual privacy and rights were threatened.  People in those days were tarred simply by their association with assumed “lefties” and “Commies”.  So today potentially are associations or interactions with Moslems (many of them US citizens), seen by some as cavorting with our “Islamofacists” enemies.  Indeed, while paying lip service to the difference between facing a sovereign foe and a stateless one, both the descriptive language and purported threat is virtually identical.  Communism was seen as a mortal danger to our culture and lives as we knew them, and so too are today’s radical Islamists.

The fact remains, that despite the President’s analogy, our departure from Viet Nam did not lead to the fall of Asia (China was already in place) to Communism and indeed one could argue that it led to the beginning of a global decline culminating in the implosion of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a Free Market China, now our principal creditor.  Was there a period of continued turmoil after the fall of Saigon?  Of course there was but, from a historic perspective, a short one.  Will there be substantial turmoil if we leave Baghdad and Iraq?  Absolutely, but despite dire predictions to the contrary, there is no reason to believe it will be any worse or any more long lasting than what we witnessed in the aftermath of our exit from Saigon and Viet Nam. 

Interestingly enough one of the key elements of “success” reported by General Petraeus was that local tribesmen in Anbar rejected Al Qaeda whose extreme ways did not sit well with Iraqis who have long lived under secular rule.  What makes anyone think that Iraqis in other places won’t come to the same conclusion?  So, too, is the argument that when we leave Iran will step in anything but self evident.  Even Ambassador Crocker, a long term Mid-East expert, pointed out that Iraqis have no special love for Iran with whom they had a bitter war and whose culture they don’t share, Shiite or not.  If our leaving is perceived as a defeat, we have only a misguided policy to thank.  Even so, let’s remember that in the aftermath of a terrible (some would say much worse) “defeat” in Viet Nam, we ultimately emerged as the world’s preeminent and sole Super Power.  If that status has been threatened, going into Iraq will undoubtedly be judged as the cause not leaving it.

There is of course one very significant difference between Saigon and Baghdad.  The draft.  We had it then and we don’t today.  With a theoretically limitless pool of fighting personnel the numbers of troops committed in Viet Nam reached more than half a million; they have generally been sustained at 130,000 (higher during the so-called “surge”) constrained by an all volunteer military.  That difference explains why the protests against the Viet Nam War consistently drew thousands and were so bitter and why today’s have been so poorly attended and lackluster in contrast.  Not a single American was untouched by Viet Nam.  Whether faced with their own draft or that of a family member or that everyone knew a combatant and many experienced a loss,that war was personal in the most direct sense.  As has been pointed out by many thoughtful people, we are (aside from seeing things play out on TV from which we can opt out with our remotes) largely untouched.  We continue shopping, playing and staying our own personal courses.  National sacrifices in these two wars just don’t match up.

In the end what makes Iraq different from Viet Nam may be exactly what hastens our exit.  Without a draft (which seems highly unlikely), supply and demand will simply take over, perhaps sooner rather than later.  We have already been told that the surge can’t be sustained beyond the Spring, and that is probably only the beginning.  The hearings which we have listened to in the last two days take me back to General Westmorland and the endless “progress” reports that came out of Washington during the Johnson and Nixon years.  What Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma (who still clings to a 9/11 connection) characterized as the “great successes” during his turn at the Senate hearing is in fact demonstrably spotty and selective, at best wishful thinking.  The dissembling continues (we still have to hear from the Decider), but the end seems inevitable.  Saigon and Baghdad will ultimately merge into a single experience.  Chances are, global warming will do us in earlier than the fall out from our assured exit from this quagmire.

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