There’s been a lot of he-man talk about Vietnam recently, and most of it has been bilge water. It doesn’t matter much now that John Kerry was a good soldier in combat or during that period George W. Bush excelled in late-night revelry and enthusiastic tales about it the day after. What counts is that twice as many people, according to most recent polls, view Bush as much stronger than Kerry in the fight on terrorism, and he has ridden this sentiment to a few-point lead in the presidential race. That certainly undercuts what had been the Kerry strategy of trying to concentrate on domestic issues, on the record job losses and federal budget deficits accrued during four years of the Bush administration. People don’t focus as much on domestic matters during war. And since more than a thousand Americans have died in Iraq, we definitely are at war, and must force ourselves to correctly answer this: what kind of war are we in?
I’m going to start the edgy process of self-examination by quoting a potentially-naïve statement I offered in this space on December 17, 2003:
“It is a painful and utterly overwhelming paradox: the United States should not have invaded Iraq. There was no legitimate security issue compelling such action. Having invaded, however, the United States must not leave prematurely. The United States must stay until a strong and stable democracy is established. If the U.S. leaves too soon, what it falsely and cynically accused Iraq of will become a manifest truth: a state dedicated to breathing fire on the United States would soon exist, and it would be far more fearsome than the chastened, bombed, and economically battered Iraq that was, in fact, striving to if not placate the world’s preeminent power then at least avoid enraging it.”
Do I really believe, in September 2004, that the United States should stay in a hostile country and try to build a democratic institution that has no precedent in the Arab world? I’m afraid I do. Evidently, to my surprise and chagrin, I’m willing to disagree with the recent National Intelligence Estimate that the best case in Iraq is “tenuous stability” and the worst case is “civil war.” Those are short term assessments, and no enduring democracy has ever been built overnight. Many nations have in fact yet to establish the principle of individual liberty. Vietnam is an example, and lessons from the tragedy there will be vital no matter who wins in November.
The United States intervened (massively) in Vietnam primarily because of a clinically paranoid obsession with stopping the spread of monolithic communism, which never existed. The Soviet Union and China were enemies more often than they were friends. During the Nixon administration the Soviets were preparing “surgical nuclear strikes” against their former Sino allies, and that oft-maligned fellow in the White House was instrumental in dissuading them from such action. And after the Americans withdrew from Vietnam, the new socialist bastion was invaded by its communist neighbor, the Chinese. No, there never was a unified communist effort to destroy the West. Unity is best achieved by democracies. As it is noted, no free nation has ever attacked another.
So, what about the American war in Vietnam is most relevant today? Being realistic and being honest are essential. The afore-cited National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq is the kind of warning the United States continually discounted in Vietnam, where the significance of victories was usually exaggerated and looming catastrophes almost always ignored. In Iraq, the United States must not long delude itself if the situation really does become irretrievable. .
There are some things to be optimistic about. Iraq, unlike Vietnam, does not have two superpowers pouring in military and economic supplies to the enemy. And who, by the way, is the enemy? In Iraq it is the insurgents, comprised of three increasingly-coordinated groups – Sunni Bathists (ex-Saddam supporters and beneficiaries), Jihadists (holy warriors from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East), and Shiites in the south. The Shiites are the majority long-repressed by Saddam’s Sunni-led police state. Therefore, let’s acknowledge it. Civil war between Sunnis and Shiites is a possibility. President Bush surely knows that but doesn’t want to go out on the campaign trail and proclaim: “More than a thousand of our people have been killed, far more have been wounded and maimed, we’ve killed 25,000 Iraqis, including many citizens, the insurgents have killed 300 Iraqis this week, civil war could break out, and, by God, my policies are going great.”
Under these circumstances, how can I, how can anyone, say the United States should keep trying to establish a democracy in Iraq? The power of television swayed me. From Vietnam, color images of dead and wounded Americans and Vietnamese compelled a nation to question what its government was claiming, that the war was being won and the Vietnamese were being liberated. From Iraq, I’m regularly touched by images of the young faces of men who are signing up to be soldiers and police. They’re proud to defend their country. They also need jobs. They need most of all to be on guard. As they stand in line to enlist, they’re the ones insurgents are blowing up or shooting. They’ve been encouraged by the United States to step in harms way, and they must not be abandoned. They’re the ones who will ultimately decide whether Iraq is to be democratic or medieval, free or repressive, prosperous or impoverished. These brave young people, and their fellow citizens of Iraq, quite possibly will be liberated – will soon liberate themselves, that is – if the United States can help them become independently strong. If the democratic Iraqis, even backed by 150,000 (primarily American) foreign troops and scores of billions of dollars, cannot defeat the insurgency or make it irrelevant by providing civilian jobs as well as security, then they represent a government which doesn’t deserve the support of the Iraqi people or the United States, which should then leave.
Now, what is the United States really going to do?
John Kerry believes that George W. Bush has been wrong, wrong, and wrong again about Iraq and is trying to “create a fantasy world of spin” to deceive the voters. At the moment, a majority of voters disagrees. Thus, in the ever-relevant parlance of boxing, when the presidential debates begin September 30, it won’t be enough for the challenger to merely outpoint the champion and hope to be awarded the decision. The challenger must knock out the champ, or at least knock him down, in order to force the voters to make a change. And how, specifically, might John Kerry accomplish that? Today, with certitude, he established that he’ll at least enter the ring with a puncher’s chance. He did so by demanding that the president, instead of insulting the international community, reach out and “bring in more help from other countries to provide resources and forces, train the Iraqis to provide their own security, develop a reconstruction plan that brings real benefits to the Iraqi people, and take the steps necessary to hold credible elections next year.”
What John Kerry did most of all was to finally let George W. Bush and the nation know that come debating time it’s going to be toe-to-toe.