Bush policy makers recoil every time they hear the word Vietnam in the same sentence with Iraq. Nevertheless the comparisons are apt and frightening.
Once again the United States is sinking into quicksand in a foreign civil war with little or no understanding of the meaning of the moment, of local culture and history : and with no exit strategy in sight. Actually the Iraq picture today is bleaker than Vietnam ever was. This will become more apparent as we approach the politically motivated June 30 deadline for turning over authority to yet undisclosed Iraqi leaders.
Asked earlier this month by Meet the Press host Tim Russert to whom the United States would turn over government authority in Baghdad, U.S. civilian administrator Paul Bremmer (as if recognizing aloud the bind the United States is in) responded, "That's a good question." Given recent widespread insurrection in Iraq, some war critics have likened the moment to the 1968 Vietnam Tet offensive. That insurrection blew a hole in the Washington story line that the United States was winning the war.
I maintain that Iraq today is not Vietnam 1968. It is Vietnam 1954. That was the year the United States first began to set up the Saigon government. That was the year the United States first struggled to build a nationwide pro-American police and military force in Vietnam. That was the year a pro-American leadership was installed in Saigon.
This time however Washington is in a much different and more perplexing situation. This time Bush and his nation-building planners lack a charismatic national figure like Ngo Dinh Diem, the Vietnamese mandarin-like Catholic, plucked from a New York seminary, who became the first president of Vietnam. And this time Washington lacks within Iraq, as it had found in Vietnam, a solidly pro-American base that could serve as the germ of a fledgling new government. This time there are no Iraqis who will fight to the death against local insurgents. This time there are no equivalents of the transplanted Catholic refugees from Northern Vietnam.
Some history is helpful. French missionaries settled in Vietnam in the 16th century. Conversions began then. Catholics grew in numbers through the mid-19th century when Vietnam became a colony of France. By then Catholics comprised some 7% or more of the Vietnamese population. These Catholics had a pro-Western orientation.
Vietnam fell to the Japan during World War II, but the French moved back in 1945, drawing on their Catholic base to again administer Hanoi. That was the same year the French in earnest took on the Vietminh and Ho Chi Minh for control of Indochina. The war lasted nearly nine years, ending in a major military defeat for the French at Dien Bien Phu. By then the United States was paying for 80% of the costs of that war.
The Geneva accord followed. Vietnam was to be temporarily divided in 1954 into northern and southern sections. Pro-Vietminh forces regrouped to the north. Anti-Vietminh forces, mostly Catholic and fiercely anti-Communist, went south : one million in all. This is when Washington planted its first pro-US government on Vietnamese soil. John Foster Dulles turned to Ngo Dinh Diem and those Vietnamese Catholics who for decades (if not centuries) had sided with the West. Having fled the north (with the CIA's encouragement), these Catholics had everything to lose should a communist victory ever occur in the south. They became for nearly two decades the stalwart base for U.S. policies and interests in Vietnam.
Not all Vietnamese Catholics supported the U.S. military effort, but virtually all the northern refugees who settled in the south did. Under Diem and his successor governments, they collaborated with the West. It proved to be a neat and deadly pact. By 1963 the insurgent forces were already creating havoc in the countryside. Diem's heavy-handed policies had set off Buddhist protests, and the United States was fearful their puppet was ready to negotiate peace with the communists. With tacit U.S. approval, several Vietnamese military officers instigated a coup, assassinating Diem and his brother.
It took until 1975, almost two decades, and 58,000 U.S. and 2.5 million Vietnamese deaths for the historic currents of Vietnamese Catholic anti-communism to fall before the wider and deeper currents of Vietnamese nationalism. Sadly, Washington never comprehended : no, never made the effort to comprehend : that Vietnam had for centuries mythologized heroes who had fought outside invaders, These men and women were, in Vietnamese eyes, the real nationalists.
Some Vietnam lessons seem appropriate today. Start with the nearly impossible task of imposing a foreign will on a people in an era of guerrilla warfare. Add to that the frightening disregard U.S. policymakers have for the mixture of culture and history as they draw up their plan. Stir into the mix a wider conflict between Christianity and Islam. Finally, consider that Vietnam had a solid minority of organized pro-American forces upon which Washington attempted (and eventually failed) to build a government. Not so this time in Iraq.
If the Bush team appears bewildered as it faces June 30, it has good reason. Given all they have failed to consider and imagine to date, bewilderment finally seems to represent the real thing.