What was it I said about comparisons being odious?…

This story is typical of the sorts of headlines that have been proliferating in the news media every since Ted Kennedy’s speech on Monday: Yahoo! News – Senators Argue Over Iraq as Next Vietnam

The problem is that these folks just profoundly don’t get it. While I disagree with Senator John McCain’s assessment that the difference between the Vietnam war and the current occupation of Iraq is a matter of a will to win and a plan to do so, I do agree with him that Iraq is not Vietnam part II. Where McCain, a guy who usually makes plenty of sense, goes wrong here is that he’s spouting the typical Vietnam vet’s line about the soldiers being hung out to dry by the political establishment in Vietnam. This reasoning is something you hear often from folks who served in that war, and they’re no more right about it than Adolf Hitler and other German veterans of WWI were about the reason for Germany’s defeat in that war being the fault of muddle-headed politicians. Vietnam was a disaster not because Johnson or Nixon lacked the will to win or the courage to engage US forces in a way that would have led to victory. Vietnam was a disaster because the vast majority of Vietnamese were in favor of a united Vietnam under Ho Chi Min. The only Vietnamese who wanted the US there and wanted a war were a rich minority who benefited from the corrupt crony capitalism established there by folks who were little better than gangsters at the close of WWII. And in that respect alone there are similarities between Iraq today and Vietnam in the 1960s.

The majority of Iraqis are Shi’ite Muslims who (a) want a Shi’a majority controlled Islamic Republic very similar to the one in place across their border in Iran and (b) who know that the US has no intention whatsoever of allowing such a state to come into being. They’re happy to see Saddam Hussein’s government toppled, but have little interest in seeing it replaced by another controlled by Sunnis who are beholden to the US. Like Vietnam 40 years ago the United States and so-called coalition forces are there to attempt to see to it that their interests in the region are protected, regardless of what the Iraqis want.

Where the Democrats in congress who have decided to attack the Bush Administration this week regarding Iraq go wrong is in constantly insisting on this odious and useless comparison between events of today and events of 40 years past. Vietnam in the 1960s was a country that was wrestling with freeing itself from the old colonial system. Iraq went through those growing pains at precisely the same time and dealt with political upheaval throughout the 1950s and early 1960s until the Ba’ath Party took over and ultimately Saddam Hussein manipulated events to bring himself into the driver’s seat. The Ba’athists were an interesting combination of both nationalists and Soviet inspired socialists. Saddam’s idol, as most people know, was Josef Stalin. So, a more appropriate comparison (although still pretty odious, if I’m being completely honest) would be between today’s Iraq and the former Yugoslavia after the fall of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Like Marshall Tito, Saddam Hussein used his state police, his secret police and his military to stamp out regional, tribal and religious rivalries. He suppressed both the Kurds in the north and the Shi’ites in the south of the country and forced them into line with violent repression. In so doing he eliminated sectarian violence and was able to channel the wealth and resources of his entire country into unified goals. Unlike Tito, Saddam’s goals were generally tied to expanding his influence in the region either by threat of military force (as seen in his 10 year war with Iran or his invasion of Kuwait) or economic power gained through Iraq’s oil wealth. Also like Tito, Saddam successfully played the US against the Soviet Union for many years all to his advantage.

When Marshall Tito died his heirs to power were barely able to keep a lid on the simmering ethnic and religious feuds within their borders. When the Berlin Wall fell the entire structure unraveled and Yugoslavia near immediately fell into regional turmoil between Croatians, Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and ethnic Albanians all striving to carve out their own distinct national identities and gruesomely and brutally attempting to settle thousand year old scores with one another. The only thing preventing open conflict in the former Yugoslavia today is a large United Nations and NATO peacekeeping force (essentially an occupying army) and the threat of NATO air attacks on any group that attacks their neighbors.

Without Saddam and his structure of state repression in place to keep a brutal peace between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds it is inevitable that there will be bloodshed. The US has exacerbated this problem by arming and training a new Iraqi army mostly composed of Sunnis. The perception is within Iraq that there will never be equal rights and proportional representation for Shi’ites in any Iraqi government established and supported by the United States. Even the relatively moderate Shi’a cleric who is the nominal spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ites, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani knows that working with the US will get him and his people nowhere, so he has focused his energies on engaging the United Nations. On the other side of the coin is Moqtada al-Sadr, a younger, more radical Shi’ite leader who the US authority in Iraq issued an arrest warrant for earlier this week after riots erupted when the US authority shut down a newspaper published by al-Sadr. al-Sadr has hundreds of thousands of supporters in the southern portion of Iraq and they are the folks engaged in daily pitched battles with US and “coalition” forces throughout the country.

The Bush Administration is in a lose-lose situation now. If they insist on handing sovereignty over to the interim Iraqi government on June 30th the country will, without a doubt, descend rapidly into civil war. If they do not hand over sovereignty on June 30th as promised there will likely be an escalation of violence directed at American and other coalition troops. The situation only mirrors Vietnam in the sense that poor decisions by political leadership in the United States has created a grim and desperate situation which no action by the Bush Administration, with their current political agenda, can successfully resolve. It’s unhelpful for Democrats to insist on drawing non-existent parallels between Iraq and Vietnam however because doing so distorts the core issue and ultimately misleads the American public. What they should instead be doing is calling forcefully for specific action from the Administration. They should be loudly demanding that the Bush Administration admit that it has bitten off more than it can chew and immediately call for assistance from the UN. Because Ayatollah al-Sistani has already involved himself in engaging the UN it may be possible for UN diplomats to negotiate a solution that neither leads to civil war nor protracted guerrilla war with the US as the target of an array of forces that would be near impossible to completely silence.

I promise to get back to the Spring Training journal soon. Stay tuned…

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