Iraq – Vietnam parallels: Few good options in Iraq

By Robert Kuttner  | July 8, 2006 | The Boston Globe

RIDICULING THE feckless Democrats for their fragmentation on the Iraq War is an easy spectator sport. On the lonely left advocating withdrawal is Senator Russ Feingold, lately joined by Senator John Kerry (did somebody say flip-flop?). On the right Joe Lieberman is defending his Senate seat in dovish Connecticut, while a hawkish Hillary Clinton seems to be incautiously taking her Democratic base for granted and looking beyond her expected 2008 nomination to the general election. And in the mushy center, Democratic leader Harry Reid and 38 Senate colleagues support a vaguely phased withdrawal.

But ridiculing these worthies is a little too easy. Because the search for a viable Iraq policy is really hard. President Bush has left the country with a policy problem from hell that may be literally insoluble, for him or anyone else.

Put aside partisanship, and consider the options. The first is stay the course. The problem is that the war, at any politically imaginable level of US troop commitment, seems hopelessly unwinnable. The US occupation serves as a lightning rod to increase, rather than diminish, the level of violence by international Islamists and sectarian militias against ordinary Iraqis. The Green Zone, as a forbidden fortress city for the occupiers and their client government, only enrages the populace. The second option, under consideration by Bush, is a partial drawdown and relocation of troops to garrisons. This has the election-year advantage of reducing US casualties, but the disadvantage of turning over the countryside to militias, terrorists, ordinary criminals, and anarchy. No reasonable person thinks the Iraqi army is capable of maintaining order.

That leaves partition or withdrawal. Partition of Iraq has been promoted by the Kurds, whose autonomous region enjoys something close to normal life. But it doesn’t work for Sunnis and Shi’ites. Though some regions are ethnically contiguous, living patterns in much of Iraq have been ethnically intertwined for centuries. Partition would require the forced removal of millions of people. In history, mass expulsions have occurred often — in the shifting borders of Russia, Germany, and Austria; the English rape of Ireland; the Israeli displacement of Palestinians; the US removal of native peoples, not to mention imports of African slaves; and the Spanish Inquisition. But except for the India-Pakistan partition of 1948, (and there is no Gandhi in Iraq) forced mass relocation has never been sponsored by a democracy in the name of peace.

This leaves withdrawal, probably the least bad alternative, but let’s be honest. The intermittent anarchy would probably become open civil war. Iraq would become a haven for every known terrorist faction. It would likely end with a Sunni or Shi’ite dictator, perhaps as ruthless as Saddam Hussein . The most sensible variant I’ve heard is to replace the United States with a UN-sponsored “contact group” of regional powers, perhaps complemented by nations that come to the region with clean hands (Norway? Tunisia?). This could fill the vacuum with a constabulary force, damp down violence, and give a coalition government in Baghdad a prayer of succeeding. The trouble is that other regional powers are not exactly a prodemocratic bunch, and nobody is volunteering for constabulary duty in Iraq. I like this idea, but it’s a long shot.

In 1965, when I was a graduating from Oberlin College , our commencement speaker was Martin Luther King Jr . As if to balance the card, some genius at the college decided to bestow an honorary degree on Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

Several hundred students were talking boycott. In the end, I helped broker a compromise (some said a sellout) in which a couple of dozen student representatives got a private session with Rusk to discuss the Vietnam War.

Our proposal was simple: have the United States withdraw and acknowledge the inevitability that the Hanoi regime would run the country, in exchange for a guarantee by the Russians and Chinese that Vietnam would be a neutral, if communist nation, like Yugoslavia.

Forty years later, communist Vietnam is on good terms with the United States. We could have had that same outcome, without the loss of another 40,000 US troops in the nine years after 1965 that the war dragged on. The plan proposed by a bunch of 22-year-olds was actually superior to US government policy. But as a fierce critic of Bush’s quagmire who has learned a few things since 1965, I wish I had the same confidence today that I had a good alternative for Iraq.



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