Grapes from Thorns

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio

Monday, March 12, 2007



A misperception about the Iraq War has taken root both in public and professional circles. This misperception is that a different number of troops in the beginning could have made a difference. Or could make a difference now. President Bush has announced an escalation of the conflict believing that more military force will create a solution. This is not an accurate understanding of the dynamics involved in invading Iraq and does not serve the country well in trying to define a future strategy.

Force is always a secondary factor to politics. There has been an American tendency instead to think that the problems begin when politics get involved with the use of force. But the truth is that the use of force needs to be always intimately connected with politics or it is just violence for the sake of violence. Many of the neo-conservative think tank “experts” who enthusiastically advocated for the war are taking the lead in blaming the lack of forces as the reason for the Iraq debacle. They are only trying to provide cover for a serious lack of judgment.

Bernard Fall, the political scientist and early expert on the Vietnam War in the 1960s, wrote that the primary lesson of that conflict was that a nation should not intervene militarily in a place where it has no political base. Tainted with reinstalling the French as imperial overseers in the 1940s, the United States never had a political base as it supported first one oligarchic figure and then another in South Vietnam. The leader who had American support for the longest, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a classic example of a figure who offered no political solution. He was wealthy, western-educated, and Roman Catholic, all things that the bulk of the Vietnamese were not. The American solution to the lack of a political base was to increase American troops in Vietnam and intensify the bombing and that created support for the opposition.

All of this should sound strikingly similar to Iraq. Despite the historical lack of American support for democratic movements in the Arab world, some administration figures today have consistently hailed the elections in Iraq. But the very fact that American military force keeps the Iraq government in power undermines its legitimacy and makes it look, rightly, as an American proxy government. We should keep in mind that there were numerous elections in Vietnam and they also failed to create a political base for American goals.

Similar to Bush administration plans, the Johnson and Nixon administrations poured huge amounts of money into Vietnam to try to create a potent Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) that could defend itself. For over a decade this effort continued with the result that, on paper, the ARVN at the end of the Nixon administration looked powerful. But again, with no political base for American goals, there was little fight in the ARVN. When the North Vietnamese attacked in 1975, most of the hugely-expensive force quickly collapsed. Given the American inability to create a viable US-oriented Iraqi military over the years since the invasion the same situation clearly exists in Iraq.

America’s early answer to a political base in Iraq was Ahmad Chalabi, a wealthy longtime Bush family friend who had no domestic support in Iraq, eerily echoing Diem. The Bush administration eventually rightly abandoned Chalabi for his alleged criminal activities and has had nowhere else to turn. Meanwhile, the political process developing in Iraq is one where the major uniting factor is opposition to the American presence. With the situation in such disarray, defenders of Bush policy have fallen back on the old discredited Vietnam saws - that they want to fight the enemy “over there” instead of “over here” or they offer a new version of the domino theory. Both excuses represent the continuing absence of a coherent foreign policy that has characterized the Bush administration.

The bottom line is that no amount of military force would have created the political base that the United States needed in Iraq. And a “surge’ or some other kind of escalation won’t now. Certainly, more boots on the ground could have stopped some of the early looting of museums but that is a secondary issue. The ensuing and growing violence was and is a sign of the absence of political support in Iraq for American actions. Recent polls of Iraqis back this up when they say that attacks on the American occupation forces are justified.

Iraq and the United States face much more tragedy in the months and years ahead. More forces and fuzzy ideas about American prestige are not going to change that. Sadly, the cold reality that President Bush must face is that there is only one course worse than leaving the mess American actions have created for the Iraqis to sort out. And that is continuing to sacrifice American lives and treasure in this self-inflicted disaster. The Bush administration owes it to the American people not to add that mistake to its list of foreign policy failures.