November 15, 2006

Iraq & Lowry's Vietnam History

The bishops' statement on Iraq mentions how public discussion has been sorely lacking given its dumbed down "cut & run" versus "stay the course" character. Very true. The Conference also seems to put faith in James Baker's commission - which might at least provide political cover to do the right thing whatever the heck the right thing is in Iraq. Whatever the merits of the "wise men" of that commission, it's hard to believe they come up with a rabbit out of their hat. If they do then my hat's off to them.

There are conflicting views on our role. The New Yorker showed a picture of George Bush in a shop with a lot of broken glasses and pots. This is the "you break it, you buy it" school, which suggests America should be there until the violence has lessened to some level of livability. (Of course, the New Yorker folks would probably favor immediate withdrawl, so that cover was more about giving George Bush hell than anything else.) Complicating the matter is that we don't want to have inadvertently created another terrorist-sponsoring state. Rounding out the complication is undoubtedly part of the equation is how it would look to withdrawl. But why should how something look matter? We made a mistake; it happens. Reagan withdrew from Lebanon back around '86 - did that really have such horrible repercussions? And yet Lowry in the article quoted below says that if we "lose in Iraq our enemies will realize insurgency is the surest way to frustrate us." Well, duh, I think they've already discovered that. The cat's already out of the bag on that one Richard. Win, lose, or draw every nation in the world learned that with our experience in Vietnam and has re-learned it in Iraq.

Interesting to me is how we are supposedly fighting in part for democracy in Iraq and yet we don't simply let them vote whether they want our military there or not. What would've been helpful from the bishops is to know where our responsibility for Iraq ends. We arguably had a right to remove Saddam, given that he didn't honor the Gulf War ceasefire agreement, but after that it gets very murky very quickly. What if you wanted a civil war but American troops wouldn't let you? Is it our moral obligation to prevent a war there? Where does "you break it, you buy it" stop and the freedom of a society to determine its own future begin?

Rich Lowry in National Review has a unique take on Vietnam and Iraq, one that I've long shared, even though I thought his reason to stay in Iraq was questionable. He says that the U.S. did not lose in Vietnam because the military wasn’t given the freedom to pursue a conventional war:
The true lesson of Vietnam is that the civilian leadership should exercise close supervision of the military and ensure that, when fighting an insurgency, it utilizes all those tools — such as intensive small-unit patrolling, intelligence gathering, and training of indigenous forces — that don’t come naturally to a U.S. Army that is most comfortable when simply closing with and smashing a conventional enemy.

As Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. recounts in his classic book on the military’s failures in the war, The Army and Vietnam, it was a civilian, President John F. Kennedy, who was prescient about the coming era of guerrilla warfare. He pushed the Army to learn counterinsurgency warfare, but it fundamentally ignored him. It undertook a lot of activity related to counterinsurgency, but most of it was superficial and intended only to create the impression of responding to Kennedy’s proddings.

The military was particularly clueless about counterinsurgency, which typically requires careful discrimination in applying firepower, light infantry undertaking intensive patrolling, and political action to undermine the basis of the insurgents’ support in the population. With the exception of the Marines, the military wanted nothing to do with that: It was always more bombing and more troops. The military dreamed of replicating World War II with a strategy of bombing industrial sites in the North and of bleeding the Viet Cong into submission in the South.

Prior to our massive intervention, the South Vietnamese had been running large-scale search-and-destroy missions for years that were easily avoided by the VC, but the American military assumed that, if it took over, it could succeed in implementing the same flawed strategy on the basis of its superior firepower and technical prowess. Whenever it was clear that the strategy was failing, the Army’s answer was always more of the same.

Even in defeat, the Army wasn’t going to change its doctrine. It just decided never to fight insurgencies again. That has played a role in our difficulties in Iraq, as the Army was insufficiently prepared for the counterinsurgency it has had to wage. If we lose there — partly because we were slow to adopt with any consistency sound counterinsurgency tactics, partly because we didn’t have the troop levels to support them once we did — it will likely prompt the Army, and many conservatives, to try to write off counterinsurgency for another generation.

This would be ill-advised for two reasons. One, insurgencies are defeatable. Max Boot notes that post–World War II guerrilla fighters have been defeated in Italy, Spain, Northern Ireland, Greece, the Philippines, Malaya, Turkey, El Salvador, Kenya, Guatemala, and Mexico, among other places. Two, if we lose in Iraq, it will put an even greater premium on insurgency warfare, as our enemies will realize it’s the surest way to frustrate us. So we will have to either scale back our geopolitical ambitions or learn how to fight insurgents after all.

President Bush believes he is learning from Vietnam, but in misunderstanding that war — and absenting himself from decisions of the utmost consequence — he may be playing his role in a repeat of it.

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