While I was driving home from church today, I was listening to a rebroadcast of NBC’s Meet the Press on CSPAN Radio. NBC reporter Tim Russert was interviewing Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The topic, of course, was our War in Iraq and President Bush’s controversial strategy to add tens of thousands more American troops in Baghdad.
Senator Graham was strictly towing the party line. Of course, he thought President Bush’s strategy deserved a chance to succeed. He decried Congress for trying to micromanage the war. He kept reiterating the same points. If we leave Iraq now there will be a bloodbath. The Middle East will explode into a regional conflict. Al Qaeda will have a new base for the training and recruitment of terrorists. He also said Iraq would become a puppet regime for Iran, Turkey would invade Kurdistan and neighboring Sunni states would support the Sunnis cause in Iraq’s civil war. He implied that all this would lead to the same paranoid conclusion shared by President Bush and many on Capitol Hill: the terrorists would follow us home. They assert that failure to confront the terrorists today in Iraq could then mean goodbye United States of America and hello Islamic Republic of America. Goodbye internets, hello burkas.
Senator Graham needs a reality check. No one knows for sure what would happen if America precipitously withdrew from Iraq. I will grant you that a couple scenarios are more likely than not. If we withdrew, I think you could count on more Sunni vs. Shiite violence in the short term, although arguably there is plenty enough of it going on right now. The de facto partitioning of Iraq, already well underway, would accelerate dramatically. Many of the other scenarios he posed sound dubious at best. I would call some of them ludicrous and ultra paranoid.
With much of Iraq in turmoil and ungovernable, I doubt the Iranian army would want to join in the fray. I also doubt that if a Shiite state emerges from the civil war that it will want to be at any other nation’s beck and call. Iraqi Shiites have lusted for a nation of their own for too long. At best, their army could only partially protect the Shiites. In any event, there are many Shiites in Iraq and armed militias like the Mahdi Army have proven they can fight effectively. Like the United States, Iran has a finite number of soldiers available for messy occupations, and occupying a large part of Iraq would be a tall order. In addition, Iranians are Persians, and Shiite Iraqis are Arabs. Iraqi Shiites speak Arabic and Iranians speak Farsi. This introduces both language and ethnic differences. They may all seem like towel heads to us outsiders, but it is very unlikely that Shiite Iraq could ever successfully work as a client state of Iran. Iran and Iraqi Shiites have religion in common and not a whole lot else. In fact, there is likely quite a bit of animosity that still lingers. Twenty-five years ago, Iran and Iraq were engaged in a bloody war that killed at least 875,000 people.
Turkey could invade Kurdistan, but it would come at a great cost. First, they desperately want to become part of the European Union. Invading another country is not a great way to go about it, particularly since the invasion would be unprovoked. Second, the Kurds are hardly helpless. While the rest of Iraq has descended into anarchy, they have used their relative tranquility to increase their armed forces and readiness; an invasion would hardly be a cakewalk. If Turkey did try to occupy Kurdistan, it would probably devolve into a bloody occupation like the one we are seeing in Iraq. Third, even if American forces did leave Iraq, most likely they would relocate to Kurdistan anyhow. It makes a convenient base to keep track on elements of al Qaeda in Iraq, check Iran’s influence, and dissuade Turkey from invading. At least initially, the Kurds would welcome our presence as a stabilizing influence. In short it is hardly a given that our withdrawal would cause the whole region to explode into conflict.
Why do Senator Graham’s warnings sound so familiar? Tim Russert nailed it: this line of thought is peculiarly reminiscent of the Domino Theory so popular and proven so incredibly wrong that existed during the Cold War. The theory was that if we did not check communism in South Vietnam, it would creep all over South Asia. President Lyndon Johnson himself figured we might have to surrender the Pacific Ocean to the forces of communism if we failed to contain it in Vietnam.
Then as now, we got it mostly wrong. At least that is the opinion of the noted late historian Barbara Tuchman. I am in the final part of her book, The March of Folly (1984). It concludes with a long hard look at the waste of time, lives and resources trying to keep South Vietnam from falling to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. It is painful reading, and not just because tens of thousands of Americans needlessly lost their lives there. It is also painful because here we are forty years later and we are repeating the same stupid mistakes. Ironically, the people who put us in Iraq were the very same people who harbored so much resentment that we let Vietnam fall in the first place. Iraq became their ideological battlefield that would prove we could do a Vietnam situation again, only do it right this time.
Of course, many on the right will say that Iraq is not Vietnam. In some respects of course they are right. However, you do not have to get too far into this part of Tuchman’s book to realize that when it came to how the war was executed many of the same strategies were used. These included candid intelligence assessments that were ignored by politicians and trumped up incidents used to justify unilateral escalation of the conflict. Both conflicts also had numerous attempts by the U.N. to keep the solve the conflict before armed force was used, and in both cases we found we would rather fight and prove our manliness than use diplomacy. In both conflicts there was amply warning that we would be entering a Pandora’s Box, yet we let our fears and hubris dictate our actions. In both conflicts, we studiously chose to ignore the history of the region, assumed the best case and supported anemic and corrupt leaders on the assumption that it was better to support the devil you know.
In Vietnam, for example, Tuchman notes that China gave weak support to the Communist North Vietnamese government and the Vietcong. This was because historically the Vietnamese and the Chinese have not gotten along. The USSR’s support of North Vietnam was far more in the moral support area than in advisers and money. Vietnam was just one of many areas of influence around the world that interested them. (One of them was Iran, which led to our engagement in Iraq and providing Saddam Hussein with intelligence and munitions.) Moreover, communism in Vietnam was a logical response to the times. As Tuchman makes clear, France’s interest when Vietnam was its colony was simply to exploit its people and devour its natural resources. The French ruthlessly suppressed any dissent. Little thought was given to bridging the cultural differences between the western and eastern culture. Communism in Vietnam was a generally recognized pragmatic means by the residents of Vietnam to bring about their fondest goal: genuine Vietnamese nationalism and sovereignty.
The result of our hasty exit from Vietnam in 1975 was a united country that had been artificially split in two. The communist menace hardly leached across South Asia. It ended with Laos and Cambodia, and all our massive secret bombings failed to bring stem it. Today Vietnam, like China, is more communist in name than in ideology. Thirty years later, we have diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Cambodia is no longer communist. Laos remains a socialist state with a communist underpinning, yet remnants of the Hmong still wage occasional insurgent strikes to try to end the socialist state.
To me the lesson of Vietnam means we that should now exercise some perspective. Most likely, our worst fears are a result of our own paranoid delirium. For them to be realized depends on many really improbable ifs being executed. It allows for no possibility that other natural events and forces in the region might counteract these forces. It assumes, for example, that groups like al Qaeda can wield more power and influence than historic ethnic forces. Moreover, it assumes that by using our own force there that we can truly achieve our aims. One thing we should have learned to date from this conflict is that our presence (and in particular our use of armed forces) exacerbates the situation and provides much of the animus to keep the conflict going.
What is needed now is exactly what we should have done before we invaded Iraq: a cold, clinical and dispassionate assessment of the likelihood that our imagined risks will play out, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the historical forces at play in the region. Yes, I think further bloodshed is likely if we leave Iraq. I doubt strongly though that the terrorists will follow us home. As I mentioned in another entry we were the domino that fell on 9/11. We acted predictably and precisely the way that al Qaeda wanted us to act to effect a one time aim: inflame the Muslim world when we retaliated. At its heart, the violence underway today in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is the result of the same thing that drove the conflict in Vietnam: the desire of a people to direct their societies consistent with their own culture and values. Instead, the Arab world is rife with oppression, hopelessness and poverty. “Moderate” states that we support like Egypt are actually secular states where human rights exist on paper, but not in practice. Al Qaeda is a sad example of the effects that extreme oppression can cause over many decades. Al Qaeda though is just one force at work. There are many others. They are already moving their chess pieces. The movement will continue whether we stay or go. It is folly to think that we can contain or redirect the energy of these forces. They must be expressed and they will be expressed whether we wish it or not.
Just as the USSR eventually collapsed under its own bloated weight, so must these oppressive Arab regimes. It is this oppression and not our occupation that is causing the kettle to boil. Our presence simply stirs the cauldron. I am convinced though that although the path to resolution of these feelings in the Middle East may be bloody and messy, it will be resolved most quickly and with the most finality when we come to our senses and allow these natural forces to play out.