Illusions of Iraq Echo Vietnam

While conditions in Iraq may seem different from Vietnam, the differences are misleading.

More important, how the United States has interpreted these differences and created an illusion about Iraq is critical. The striking similarities between the two are in Washington policy-making, not in Iraq itself. Until the hubris and illusion in U.S. policy are gone, Iraq will remain a deepening quagmire.

U.S. policy-makers have seriously misinterpreted the domestic history, politics and economics of Iraq, making the differences with Vietnam seem real. Both countries share the experience of Western colonialism. In Vietnam, regardless of communist ideology, the struggle against the United States resonated as one of national liberation against the foreign oppressors.

U.S. policy-makers assumed Iraq was different: The Sunni insurgents are not "national liberators" but seek to return the Baathists to power, with the support of outside "terrorists" for whom Iraq is a happy hunting ground for American targets.

There is surely some truth here, but a good deal of illusion. The illusion was to imagine that U.S. forces would be welcomed as liberators and defenders of democracy, not occupiers. This mistaken calculus has cost the United States dearly. Our forces are seen as occupiers, much like the British before them, and the Iraqis want us to leave. The failure to understand this similarity to Vietnam is dangerous for U.S. forces and policy. The United States becomes less popular the longer it stays.

Another similarity involves corruption and public support for governance. The South Vietnamese government was riddled with corruption and had little support. The mistake in Iraq was to assume that corruption might disappear with Saddam Hussein and the new democracy would be popular. While the full story of corruption remains untold, the government of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was suspect in many parts of Iraq, and many see corruption continuing today. U.S. policy-makers risk assuming that the new government will have greater legitimacy than it is likely to have.

Another illusion derives from the assumption that Iraq is better prepared for governance and economic growth than was Vietnam, which was saddled with an ineffective bureaucracy and a backward agricultural economy. Iraq, by contrast, was thought to have a functioning civil service and security force and oil revenues that could fund the government and generate rapid economic growth, ensuring the popularity of the new democratic regime.

This illusion has had severe consequences for U.S. policy. The civil service functioned as an employment opportunity for Iraqis, not a tool of effective governance. The security bureaucracy simply melted away, and ministries were inept.

Oil revenues sustained handouts to two-thirds of the Iraqi population for years. Funds were drained through corruption, and entrepreneurship was nonexistent. The hopes that the United States pinned on "reconstruction and development" assistance plus oil revenues were doomed to near-term failure. The resulting ineffective governance and empty promises of economic recovery have led to widespread disillusionment about U.S. policies.

The U.S. government assumed that Iraq was not Vietnam, that we would be welcomed as liberators, that the insurgency would have no popular base, that corruption would disappear, that the bureaucracy could provide security and governance quickly, allowing a rapid reduction in the U.S. presence – that there was no need for post-invasion planning for governance and assistance.

The willful blindness of U.S. policy-makers with respect to Iraq is painfully familiar to those who experienced Vietnam. Sen. J. William Fulbright called it the "arrogance of power." The policies and reactions of senior officials are frighteningly similar to Vietnam. They have seen what they want to see and assumed they stood above history.

As reality has diverged from illusion, officials have refused to admit error, made up phrases to cover mistakes, poured more funds and troops into the effort, determined to prove the illusion can be forced into reality. And they turn on the critics as people who would coddle the enemy. The comparison with Vietnam is increasingly apt.

The most tragic comparison is becoming more real: In for a dime, in for a dollar. If the policy is not working, find a counterinsurgency strategy that will work. Even many policy critics huddle safely behind this illusion, calling for more U.S. troops and more effective policy implementation but not for real policy change.

Perhaps there is a quiet way tents can be folded, hubris can be buried and the United States can gradually disengage. It has not been defined, chilled as officials and critics are by the fear of the bloggers and the radio talk-show hosts. As in Vietnam, it is increasingly urgent to define that alternative in the long-term interests of American national security.

Gordon Adams, director of security policy studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, was senior White House budget official for national security in the Clinton administration.

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