It’s a bloody mess—primarily the work of a callow Yale MBA running loose in a Middle East china shop. The metaphor strains, but not nearly so much as President George W. Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, in explaining the United States’ course of action in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past two years. Yet only during the last fortnight has American popular support for the Bush administration’s strategy seriously flagged.
Key reasons for the continuing support of administration policy included the belief that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass of destruction—the prime rationale for the Iraq conflict—would eventually surface; the argument that Saddam and al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden were linked, and that Saddam had something to do with 9/11; the hope that Bush was right in his declaration that the U.S. had planted seeds of democracy and freedom (aka Western-style capitalism) in Iraq; the sense that if the U.S. fights terrorism there, it wouldn’t visit American shores; and the fear that if Iraq fell to the radicals, adjacent countries would topple, supplies of oil dry up, and pump prices soar.
These reasons are all dubious—and they mask a key point. The Bush administration’s explanations for its Middle East war have shifted with the political wind. At its outset, we learned, the Iraq conflict was about weapons of mass destruction; then we were told that the war was being fought to destroy the sort of terrorism that culminated in 9/11. Most recently, according to the president, coalition members have died to enable Iraqis to benefit from the representative institutions, freedoms, and prosperity that Americans enjoy.
These shifting explanations—which escaped national criticism until Democrat Howard Dean called Bush’s bluff late in 2003—recalls the varying explanations U.S. presidents offered for another war, a conflict whose character the Bush administration prefers not to ponder. For in the three decades after the end of the Second World War, Washington issued at least five explanations to defend its intervention in Vietnam. Between 1945 and 1975, the United States abandoned its commitment to freedom for Vietnam as part of its avowed anticolonial thrust in World War II and instead embraced a neocolonialism that embraced Western-style democracy as the ultimate aim.
Until 1954 and France’s exit from Viet Nam, Washington sent clandestine aid to the French as the latter battled Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist Viet Minh forces. France’s defeat at the battle of Dienbienphu brought with it the division of Vietnam into north and south, communist and non-communist, with the promise of reunification through national elections in 1956. Given the vicissitudes of the cold war with the Soviet Union, and the perception that Ho was a cat’s paw for Moscow, those elections never took place. Indeed, shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the United States had divided the world into two parts, communist and free, good and bad, black and white. With containment extended to Asia, Vietnam became a domino, whose fall to international communism would doom other neutral countries to a similar fate. The division between north and south hardened.
The United States, a succession of presidents argued, did not confront antiwestern nationalism in Southeast Asia, but a sinister, metastatic, international Marxist-Leninist conspiracy. Defending freedom in Vietnam became the flip-side of the containment policy in Europe. As President John F. Kennedy averred in 1960, the U.S. would “pay any price, bear any burden,” to protect free peoples everywhere.
Nation-building became the basis of Vietnam policy under Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. By 1965, with American “advisers” replaced by half a million American troops, and the war growing white hot, the effusive Johnson promised to transform the Mekong River Delta into another Tennessee Valley Authority. A year later Secretary of State Dean Rusk justified the war as necessary to contain—not the Soviet Union—but Communist China. Despite increasing criticism from such Senate skeptics as James W. Fulbright, Ernest Gruening, and Wayne Morse, Rusk held his ground. Americans did not question their country’s errand into the quagmire of Southeast Asia until things turned bad late in 1967.
Even then, new President Richard M. Nixon refused to admit that Vietnam was a mistake. On the contrary, Nixon increased the bombing of the North to record levels, spread the war into Cambodia and Laos, and cynically initiated the policy of Vietnamization. Now Vietnamese would die instead of young Americans. The future of the country, Nixon announced in 1973, would be decided in Vietnam. At the same time, however, the Nixon administration made immense noise about America’s need to maintain its credibility as a great power. The United States had to stay in Vietnam, at least for a decent interval, lest its enemies and especially its friends consider it weak and indecisive.
One year into this war, Iraqification sounds a lot like an accelerated version of Vietnamization, and Bush’s defense of the military response to terrorism echoes cold war military responses to communism. Similarly, the bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq remind us of the millions of civilians who died in Vietnam. The Bush administration’s persistent condemnation of those who resist joining the Coalition of the Willing carries a similar ring as the American leaders who damned cold war doubt and neutrality as being “soft on communism”. In perhaps the most depressing parallel of all, we witness in President Bush’s reliance upon war to bring democracy to Iraq the most destabilizing event in that country’s existence. The U.S. stands poised to destroy a country to save it.
Here is the unilateralism of the Lone Ranger—its altruism offset by its arrogance—an updated version of stock western melodrama that entertained generations of Americans. Again and again, in war as in popular culture, civilized America has sought to tame the global wilderness, riding into troubled regions to restore law, order, and moral community, then riding off into the sunset. Who are America’s friends in Iraq? Where is the rest of the world in this tragedy? What next?
Geoff Smith opposed the war in Iraq. He still does.