There is a difference between thrashing a spindly, bespectacled schoolmate who is an only child, and thrashing a spindly, bespectacled schoolmate whose sixteen-stone elder brother teaches martial arts. That summarizes the difference between Iraq and Vietnam. Had Washington unleashed its full fury upon Hanoi, the result well might have been nuclear confrontation. Then national security adviser Henry Kissinger feared that Indochina might become a flashpoint for Soviet-American confrontation. Part of his motive for abandoning America’s South Vietnamese ally was to ensure that a proxy war did not escalate to hostilities between the two major powers. In fact, the record suggests that Kissinger subordinated tactical requirements on the Indochinese ground to the requirements of superpower summitry over arms control. I will return to that topic blow.

Matters today are quite different. America is the sole superpower, and in any event Iraq’s Sunnis have no friends among the remaining minor powers. As long as American casualties remain below the threshold of popular irritation in the United States, Washington’s nation-building program can hit the wall with an arbitrarily high degree of splatter, without perceptible consequences.

I am not privy to the details of American military deployments, but the shift in casualty figures towards Iraqi soldiers and policemen and away from coalition personnel strongly suggest that CENTCOM is keeping Americans out of harm’s way. Sunni terrorists, both homegrown and imported, display fearful abandon in suicide attacks, and no doubt wish to kill as many Americans as they can. The fact that they are killing Iraqis instead indicates that American soldiers are holed up in their compounds out of reach. 

At the beginning of 2005, the monthly rate of Iraqi casualties was the same as coalition casualties. Since then coalition casualties have fallen by half while Iraqi casualties have tripled. There is no reason for these trends to change.

Iraq’s military and police forces well may become an instrument of Kurdish and Shi’ite domination of the Sunni minority. Assuming the putative worst case, namely that Shi’ites increasingly wage civil war against a Sunni resistance, their young men will continue to fill uniforms even if casualty rates rise drastically. Iraq’s Shi’ites have no choice about it. The alternative would be to capitulate to a combination of Ba’athist remnants and Islamists whose agenda would be to restore the Sunni dominance of the status quo ante.

“Iraqification” bears no resemblance to “Vietnamization.” Hanoi commanded a regular army of more than half a million men, with a record of conventional military victories going back to the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1953-1954. It could count upon unlimited Russian materiel. After “Vietnamization,” Northern regulars beat the army of the Republic of Vietnam in conventional war. The new Iraqi armed forces, haphazard as their organization might be, face no challenge from regulars, only the constant annoyance of suicide attacks. As noted, the Shi’ites have nowhere else to go. “Iraqification” may turn out to be a dog’s breakfast, but no one will have to consume it on the Potomac.

Washington is embarrassed by this turn of events, but has no other choice than to adapt to it by removing American troops from the line of fire. Although President George W Bush and his advisors would prefer a stable and democratic Iraq, no degree of violence among Iraqis will undermine American interests. In an earlier era, the British would have encouraged such things. America lacks the sophistication, not to mention the cynicism, to stir the pot, but the pot appears to be stirring itself briskly enough without outside encouragement.

There is a world of difference between America’s complacent position with respect to Iraq’s problems and the Vietnam-era dangers of engaging an ally of the Soviet Union. The Nixon administration was at pains to ensure that its actions in Vietnam did not interfere with arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union. The mining of Haiphong harbor and consequent damage to a Russian ship marked the sharpest threat to Russian-American relations during the Vietnam War, and Kissinger was eager to defuse the situation.

Anatoly Dobrynin, then Russia’s ambassador to the United States, described the events in an interview with CNN aired in March 1997:

Some time before the [1972 Nixon-Brezhnev] summit [in Moscow], the Americans began to complain that the Vietnamese were speeding up their military activities, but we said to them, “Well, it’s up to you: you have to finish the war.” Then, on the 7th or 8th May Nixon said, “Five or six Vietnamese divisions have crossed the demilitarized zone and started light-scale assault operations, and we had to retaliate to restore the balance.” … He said, “I have to continue to step up the military activities, and unless [we] do something, the Vietnamese could destroy the American military contingent.” I [told him] that on the eve of the [summit] meeting, [this] was a very delicate issue; but nevertheless he gave the order to his airforce to bomb North Vietnam and lay mines in the Haiphong port … in order to prevent the delivery of any military equipment to Vietnam.

[The mines] almost sank one of our ships. Kissinger telephoned me and we talked on our hot line, about which no one knew, and Kissinger said that they didn’t know that a Soviet ship had been destroyed; there had been no orders about that. Then he called me back again after he had talked to the president, and said that the president apologized and promised to pay for the damage; but nevertheless, they were going to carry on with their military activities. It was the 10th of May already. Moscow accused them of breaking international sea law, and they were involving us in that conflict. We all thought that the situation was serious. Kissinger apologized, and then said, “How about the summit? What will be happening?” I said I didn’t have any instructions to say anything about that; I had to voice [the Kremlin’s] protest against their activities. But he asked, “Can I tell the president that we aren’t canceling the visit?”

Today there is no one at the other end of the hot line. America speaks imperially to itself.

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