The Vietnam parallel

Print edition : November 05, 2004

In both Vietnam and Iraq, the U.S.' practice has not matched its claims about the spread of democracy. And to exit Iraq without victory would be a severe blow to its attempt at global primacy and to the illusory self-respect of its people.

ON April 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford announced at Tulane University (New Orleans, Louisiana) that nothing would be gained by any discussion of a war "that is finished as far as America is concerned". Move on, he said, so that the U.S. can "restore its health and its optimistic self-confidence".

The only optimism in that sentence was the hope that the trauma of that war would vanish and leave America's sense of exceptional greatness unblemished. Far from that, 30 years later, we are still enthralled by the Vietnam War. America cannot bear to consider the implications of that defeat. The scars from the war are fresh and the defeat has been undigested. The U.S. government, led by Senators John McCain and John Kerry, has been unrelenting in its search for those who have been Missing in Action (MIA), and MIA flags can be found flying in unlikely places (even in fast food restaurants). There is no discussion of a Vietnamese victory. Indeed, the silence on this belittles the accomplishment of the Vietnamese, and provides further evidence of American denial.

When the troops of a warlord brought down a Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia (1993), or when the resistance in Iraq holds fast, there is an immense shock from the media and the public. In 2001, Sony Pictures released a blockbuster, Black Hawk Down, based on journalist Mark Bowden's book, with the slogan, "Leave No Man Behind". The only "men" of consequence are American, and the movie puts the onus on those who sent them to an unwieldy mission which they could only win by killing as many "skinnies" (as they call the Somalis) as possible. It is American firepower that wins in the end, and that is indeed what the public has come to believe. No one can defeat the U.S. Armed Forces because of its overwhelming firepower. Whether they love us or hate us, they fear us and can be taken down by us.

America loathes the admission of defeat, because to do so is to accept that its historical destiny has been compromised. Few speak of the retreat from Vietnam as a military failure. What we have instead is a solipsistic conversation about whether the war was right, whether there are still any troops in Vietnamese hands, and whether the war could have been ended earlier. The Vietnamese rarely figure in the discussion. Few Americans would be able to name one Vietnamese leader apart from Ho Chi Minh, and they might only know him because he had been either reviled by the press or else revered by the protestors.

When President Clinton travelled to Vietnam in November 2000, he echoed a familiar slogan, "Vietnam is not a war. It's a country." Nevertheless, Clinton could not start a speech in his three-day visit without invoking the MIAs. Leave No Man Behind.

Clinton came with magnanimity as if he were from the side of the victor now back to offer trade as a gesture of friendship. Phan Thuy Thanh of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry pointed out gingerly that the U.S. should pay "war reparations", and that it "should fulfil its responsibilities spiritually and ethically, thus making specific contributions to solving the consequences of war". Nothing of the sort came from Clinton, whose major contribution had been to end the U.S. trade embargo of Vietnam in 1994, and to open the doors to U.S.-based transnational corporations to begin operations there.

Vietnamese children on an abandoned U.S. helicopter, in 1973.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Last July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the "Vietnam Human Rights Act". This bill, which has to go before the U.S. Senate before it goes to the President for his signature, seeks to limit non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam, and provides funds for groups opposing the regime. The Vietnamese government reacted sharply to this assault, not because the U.S. provides much aid to the country, but because it would affect Vietnam's ability to trade with the U.S. and elsewhere. U.S.-Vietnamese trade increased from $1.2 billion (2000) to $6 billion (2003). It should be mentioned that most of the benefit for this is garnered by an emergent capitalist class rather than by the people of the country. The Vietnamese government fears, however, that if such a bill passes or if the U.S. administration begins to focus on Vietnam, then it might provide a chilling effect on the ability of the country to find credit from international lenders to cover debt-service payments and short-term loans. The Vietnam War continues by other means.

BUT "Vietnam" is now simply a metaphor for an intensified conversation about the U.S. involvement in Iraq. Whereas in the case of the Vietnam War it took a decade or more to create a powerful anti-war movement in the U.S., as well as to break the government's silence on its mendacity, it has only taken months in the case of Iraq. A host of books has already flooded the bestseller lists with news of the evasions and exaggerations of the administration regarding the Iraq war. They have come from administration exiles (such as former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and former counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clark), disgruntled Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents (Michael Scheuer, who wrote Imperial Hubris as Anonymous) and angry Democrats who travel in the stratosphere of Washington's political elite (including former Ambassador Joe Wilson, whose report on the Niger-Iraq connection had been suppressed, and whose wife had been publicly revealed by the government as a CIA agent). The revelations are astounding, and they multiply each day.

Slowly the leaks begin to come as well from within the loyal cadre of the Bush administration. Military leaders now publicly complain of a lack of troops to secure more than the Oil Ministry in the aftermath of the Baath regime. On October 5, Paul Bremer, former U.S. Viceroy in Iraq, told an insurance companies conference, "We never had enough troops on the ground". If there had been more troops and better plans, he suggested, the U.S. military could have prevented the widespread plunder. A few days before Bremer broadcast his views, the well-regarded Institute for Policy Studies released a comprehensive report entitled `Iraq: A Failed Transition'. The report shows that the U.S. has "paid a very high price for this war and [Americans] have become less secure at home and in the world. The destabilisation of Iraq since the U.S. invasion has created a terrorist haven that did not previously exist in Iraq, while anti-American sentiment worldwide has sharply increased."

In addition, administration officials have now had to concede that the several rationale used to invade Iraq were false. The Iraq Survey Group reported (October 6) that Saddam Hussein's regime had been substantially disarmed, that there were no stockpiles of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, and that the Iraqis did not have an active programme to build such weapons. Based on interviews with Saddam Hussein and others, they found that while he understood that the only way to prevent a U.S. invasion would be to have catastrophic weapons, he had not been able to restart his programmes.

If Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, then the Bush administration had banked on the relations between Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda. During the presidential and vice-presidential debates, both Bush and Cheney reiterated that theme. However, the day before Cheney's debate with contender John Edwards, the Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced, "I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two," that is Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. The following day, senior officials disclosed that the CIA had done a study of the relationship between Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Islamist radical with Al Qaeda ties. That report showed "no collaborative relationship" between al-Zarqawi and Hussein, a fact that moved Rumsfeld to declare: "I have just read an intelligence report recently about one person who's connected to Al Qaeda who was in and out of Iraq, and there's the most tortured description of why he might have had a relationship and why he might not have had a relationship". Rumsfeld's style of speech apart, he negated one of the major reasons for war offered by the Bush administration.

All this handwringing came as Kerry stepped up his attack on the Bush administration for the way it prosecuted the war on terror. Since the Iraq War had nothing to do with 9/11, Kerry told a campaign rally in New York City that the Bush administration has made the world "a more dangerous place for America and Americans". Kerry's critique came days after United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the BBC's Owen Bennett Jones that the war on Iraq had been "illegal". These harsh words came with no official sanction from the U.N.

The corporate media has become perfunctory in its reports on Iraq. The papers simply note another attack, another casualty. The war appears in the news like domestic crime - we now have a blotter of deaths, but no analysis of how the conflict is going and what this means for the Iraqi people. "Iraq" has already come to mean the war, and not the 24 million people who live in that nation in search of a state.

`Iraq: A Failed Transition' proposes that the current size of the resistance is between 20,000 and 40,000 - this in addition to the 24,000 that the U.S. Army claims to have killed or detained between May 2003 and August 2004. Canadian journalist Patrick Graham spent a year in Falluja, where he met the resistance fighters. One of them told him: "When we see the U.S. soldiers in our cities with guns, it is a challenge to us. America wants to show its power, to be a cowboy. Bush wants to win the next election - that is why he is lying to the American people saying that the resistance is Al Qaeda. I don't know a lot about political relations in the world, but if you look at history - Vietnam, Iraq itself, Egypt, and Algeria - countries always rebel against occupation. The world must know that this is an honourable resistance and has nothing to do with the old regime. Even if Saddam Hussein dies we will continue to fight to throw out the American forces. We take our power from our history, not from one person." The resistance has already won, even as the Iraqis have suffered casualties that number over 10,000. They have begun to set the agenda. No longer is the White House able to dictate the pace of reconstruction of the country to its own ends, or even to control the most basic element of power: security.

A supporter of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on a burning U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Baghdad.-HUSSEIN MALLA/AP

KERRY quite rightly says that Bush took the U.S. into an unnecessary, unjust war. At a July 2004 anti-war event, anti-Vietnam War activist and former politician from California Tom Hayden noted: "The November election will be a referendum on the war on Iraq". This is what Kerry hopes will happen, and as far as the presidential debates indicate, this is what the Democrats have emphasised. But Kerry and Bush are in agreement on one crucial point: that the U.S. cannot withdraw from Iraq without victory. There will be no more Vietnams, no more Somalias, the U.S. will not withdraw after its troops have spilled blood without victory. No blood will be spilt in vain. Their exit strategy is tepid. Train more Iraqis. Withdraw the U.S. troops to the four bases strategically built around Iraq.

Just as in the case of Vietnam, defeat is unthinkable. When Bush claimed that one of his rationales for the war was to bring democracy to the Arab lands, the two parties latched onto this as a possible exit strategy. Indeed, this had been the dream in the waning days of the Vietnam War itself. The Kennedy administration claimed that it had gone to war to stop the spread of Communism in South-East Asia. For that reason, Kennedy backed the U.S.-educated Ngo Dinh Diem. When Diem used strongarm tactics to stay in office because he had no substantial base in Vietnam, the army ousted him. In his stead came Nguyen Van Thieu, a military officer who the U.S. quickly backed, despite the protestations about democracy, and who had at least one important social institution behind him: the Army. If Diem-Thieu ruled with sham elections, they would be anointed as democrats as long as they kept close ties with the U.S. When the resistance to the U.S. military enveloped the Thieu regime, the U.S. had to cut and run, although without any admission of defeat.

In Iraq, too, the U.S. practice has not matched its claims about the spread of democracy. Bush and Cheney both declaim the global desire for freedom and resist the racist argument that only certain people are capable of liberty. Their statements are welcome, mainly because the global elite so often adopts the cultural relativist view that people in the "darker nations" have no ability to enjoy full "European" freedom. However, U.S. policy is far from the Bush-Cheney claims. The Abu Ghraib scandal, which has quickly vanished as an issue in the election campaign, shows us that the U.S. military intelligence, at least, believed that "Arabs" are deceitful and that they can only be "broken" through sexual shame. These army officers used the 1977 book by a Princeton anthropologist, Raphael Patai, who argued that sexual segregation made "sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world". The book, a well-briefed academic told journalist Seymour Hersh, was "the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior," and these neoconservatives surmised two points - "one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation". The actions of the U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib, then, were the direct result of a policy that suggests that the Arabs are incapable of rationality and can only be coerced in this special way.

But this is not all. The U.S. administration, with no strategy to escape from a burgeoning resistance, quickly turned to tribal leaders and the ousted Baath for help. No democracy in the offing, even if there will be an "election" to cover over the transfer of power. Ahmed Chalabi played the part of Diem in the Iraq fiasco. Popular in Washington but not in Baghdad, his ouster came in rapid time just as everything in Iraq has happened faster than in Vietnam. To replace him the U.S. chose the head of the Iraqi National Accord (INA), Iyad Allawi. When Allawi visited the U.S. for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2004, his right hand was in a sling. A journalist asked him how he had broken his wrist, "I've been shooting people," he replied, "Didn't you know". It turned out that he had slammed his hand into his desk as he berated his subordinates. He is, as they say in the U.S., one tough cookie.

John Kerry and George W. Bush at the conclusion of their first presidential debate.-JIM BOURG/REUTERS

Allawi can claim to be a stern leader not because he had a military background, but because he had something better: he was a loyal henchman of Saddam Hussein. Head of the Iraqi Students Union in Europe, Allawi is said to have been in turn an agent of Saddam's intelligence, the British MI6, the CIA and the Saudi regime. According to a U.S. intelligence official interviewed by journalist Seymour Hersh, "Allawi helped Saddam get to power. He was a very effective operator and a true believer." A former CIA official added, "Two facts stand out about Allawi. One, he likes to think of himself as a man of ideas; and two, his strongest virtue is that he's a thug." Allawi's INA is the home of former Iraqi generals and military officials who want a piece of the action denied them by Saddam Hussein's clique. The "democracy" to be delivered would fall short of any textbook definition. The failures of the ballot box will be forgiven for the fellowship shown to the U.S.

In an informal radio debate between the vice-presidential candidates from the non-mainstream parties (Green, Libertarian, Reform), the host asked if they had an exit strategy from Iraq. All three answered in unison, "Get out". For them, that is the only way to move on. The U.S., they argued, should pay reparations for the illegal war, something that Minister Thanh asked for Vietnam. The candidates also demanded that the U.S. government make no attempt to run the affairs of Iraq. But to simply get out will be a severe blow to the U.S. attempt at global primacy and to the illusionary self-respect of the population. The people are angry for being taken into this war, but they are equally worried about a loss of face. Perhaps the problem is no longer simply the demand for primacy, but also, as President Ford put it, the nation's "optimistic self-confidence". A little humility is not a bad idea.

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