/ 2 November 2005

Déjà vu?

A year before the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam, then-United States president Lyndon Baines Johnson was told by his mentor, senator Richard Russell, that he saw no way out of the worsening mess in South-East Asia: ‘The more we try to do for them, the less they’re willing to do for themselves.”

Sound familiar? Perhaps, but before drawing parallels between the military quagmire that became Vietnam and the coalition’s predicament in Iraq — which ‘nervously optimistic” United Nations monitors hope will emerge from the recent referendum more governable and less violent — one might look firstly at Germany’s situation immediately after World War II, namely an occupation phase that demanded of the occupying powers administration rather than liberation. Their successors in Iraq did not see the country in these terms, hence the reluctance to bring the former Ba’athists — to borrow Johnson’s words — ‘inside the tent so that they would be aiming outwards”.

In post-war Germany, by comparison, the US employed former Nazi administrators to run the country. While the British relied on 26 000 imported administrators to run their sector of Germany, the Americans used just 5 000, quickly transferring economic power to Germans and putting them back in charge of local government, thus kick-starting the economic boom and industrial miracle that arose from the ashes of their war-ravaged state.

After the Iraq war the coalition spurned Saddam Hussein’s former army, and in the process unwittingly created a large number of implacable, well-armed foes who had little- interest in seeing the new order succeed and the country stabilised. The new environment in which they found themselves, of high unemployment and few non-state sector economic opportunities, cemented their bitterness and hostility, and put paid to any hopes that they might cooperate with their new masters.

As for the oft-repeated Vietnam analogy, it’s been recognised by no less than the main architect of the latter phase (1969-1973) of the US war in Vietnam, Henry Kissinger. For him the tragedy of Vietnam was that the sharp divisions over the conflict at home made it impossible for Washington to achieve its war aims. He recently confessed to an ‘uneasy feeling” of déjà vu. Kissinger might also have underlined the importance of clear milestones for a coalition military withdrawal.

In September 1967, a confidential CIA memo to Johnson warned that the worst fallout from the pullout of American troops from Vietnam ‘would be of the self-inflicted kind; internal dissension which would limit our future ability to use our power and resources wisely and to full effect, and lead to a loss of confidence by others in the American capacity for leadership”. This is arguably the greatest challenge facing the US — and global peace — in the post-Hussein world.

In Vietnam, the US eventually realised that its withdrawal would precipitate the defeat of its South Vietnamese ally by the communist North. But in Iraq, it is improbable that the insurgents — dependent as they are on external sources of financial and materiel support, and given their foreign leadership character — will be a dominant domestic political force by themselves. More likely is an escalation of the current level of civil strife to a civil war in which the insurgents will attempt to continue to play their catalysing role, between Shia and Sunni — though without the US and coalition allies in situ to play the part of political facilitator and military peacekeeper.

But if the coalition pulls out civil war — the insurgents’ aim — is more likely. If they don’t, Washington’s presence will remain the insurgency’s most potent recruiting tool beyond the region. Yet the region, too, sees the danger in an early US pullout. As one Saudi adviser has argued privately, ‘There is no way the US should withdraw now. They have to stay to sort out this mess,” echoing former secretary of state Colin Powell’s advice to his commander-in-chief before the war: ‘If you break it, you own it.”

The communist government in Hanoi wanted to unite Vietnam; Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his band seek, through their recent calls to wage ‘all-out war” on the Shia, to fragment a unitary Iraq. A solid majority of Iraqis voted in the October 15 referendum and the draft constitution was endorsed. Though opinions vary widely on what the result will mean for the future of Iraq, the turnout reflects a tangible faith in the fledgling institutions of government. If that begins to weaken in the face of continuing violence and economic misery, the situation could turn into a communal bloodbath — the parallel, then, is not with Vietnam but the former Yugoslavia and that country’s descent into ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s. Ultimately, the US and Europe were able to bring the killing to an end in the Balkans. Whether the Americans and their foreign allies can do the same in Iraq seems far less certain.

Greg Mills, who heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, has been doing research in Vietnam and is the author of The Security Intersection: The Paradox of Power in an Age of Terror, which is based partly on his research in Iraq; Terence McNamee is the director of publications at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for Defence and Security Studies based in London and editor of the RUSI Journal