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Iraq Doesn't Fit Vietnam Picture

Author: Michael Mandelbaum, Christian Herter Professor, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
October 31, 2003


Is Iraq destined to become another Vietnam for the United States?

With American casualties mounting, public support for the effort in Iraq falling, and the president being accused of deception in sending troops there, the parallels with America's worst 20th-century foreign policy disaster, the failed military effort to keep South Vietnam independent and non-Communist, seem at once obvious and disturbing.

The attacks in the heart of Baghdad this week and George W. Bush's insistence in response that the United States will not be forced from Iraq resemble the pattern in Indochina in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when previous U.S. presidents responded to military setbacks in the same way.

Even the unanimous vote in favor of an American-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq earlier this month underscores the similarity between the two conflicts. Because the other UN members made clear that, despite the vote, they would not provide military or economic assistance to Iraq on any appreciable scale, just as the United States received little help from its allies in waging the Vietnam War.

However, despite these apparent similarities, the underlying realities in Iraq differ from the circumstances in Vietnam four decades ago in most - although not all - important ways.

The military task the United States confronted in Southeast Asia was far more formidable than the one we face today in Iraq. Vietnam's Communist-dominated National Liberation Front fielded an extensive network of guerrilla fighters in South Vietnam. Communist North Vietnam had a large, well-trained, battle-hardened army that received sophisticated weapons from the Soviet Union and China.

The remnants of the Baathist regime waging war against American troops are far less numerous and well-organized. They do not have, and will not get, substantial help from other countries. More than 50,000 Americans died in Vietnam, almost all between 1965 and 1972. There is no chance that the death toll in Iraq, which stands at about 350, will even remotely approach that number.

The Communist side was able to mount such a large military effort because it succeeded in depicting the United States as a foreign aggressor bent on controlling Vietnam. The Communist authorities convinced millions of Vietnamese that they were fighting for their nation's independence, which was a popular cause. In Iraq, by contrast, the United States is not seen - at least not yet - as an imperial power. Most Iraqis want for their country more or less what Americans want: an independent government that differs both from the one that the United States deposed and the one that rules in neighboring Iran.

The two wars do, however, have one significant feature in common. As in Vietnam, the outcome of the American occupation of Iraq will be decided by the American public. The Vietnamese Communists recognized that they could not defeat the military forces of the United States, but they achieved an American withdrawal by raising the costs of staying, in lives and money, beyond what the American public was willing to tolerate.

Similarly, the United States cannot be evicted from Iraq, but American forces will leave if American citizens refuse to sustain the cost of keeping them there.

And while the cost of persisting in Iraq is bound to be lower than was the price of persevering in Vietnam, the public tolerance for paying such costs has also declined. Vietnam was more important to Americans in the 1960s than Iraq is now.

The Vietnam War was, for most Americans for the better part of a decade, a war of necessity. It was part of the larger conflict with international communism that had been forced upon them by the inherent aggressiveness of the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Soviet Union. Americans believed that they had to wage the Cold War to keep the nation safe. The Iraq conflict has seemed, by contrast, a war of choice, the goals of which are worthy but that do not necessarily have to be achieved to assure American security.

Like other people, Americans will pay more for what they believe to be a necessity than for what they would merely like to have. Therefore, the public is willing to invest less today in the Middle East in pursuit of political success than it ended up spending a generation ago in Southeast Asia.

Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World," is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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