Marchand Chronicles: Iraq ElectionsIraq Is Not Vietnam . . . Finally
The Marchand Chronicles
January 31, 2005
It’s rare that someone makes a major announcement only to have it go down in spectacular flames nearly immediately after. But last week, three days before the historic Iraqi elections, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) gave a speech at Johns Hopkins University in which he said, among other things, the following:
Forty years ago, America was in another war in a distant land. At that time, in 1965, we had in Vietnam the same number of troops and the same number of casualties as in Iraq today.Vietnam in 1965 is four decades and four thousand miles removed from Iraq in 2005, but comparisons between the two simply will not end, even though they’re about as alike as the jungle and the desert.
We thought in those early days in Vietnam that we were winning. We thought the skill and courage of our troops was enough. We thought that victory on the battlefield would lead to victory in the war, and peace and democracy for the people of Vietnam.
We lost our national purpose in Vietnam. We abandoned the truth. We failed our ideals. The words of our leaders could no longer be trusted.
In the name of a misguided cause, we continued the war too long. We failed to comprehend the events around us. We did not understand that our very presence was creating new enemies and defeating the very goals we set out to achieve. We cannot allow that history to repeat itself in Iraq.
But Senator Kennedy makes his case on one comparison: troop and casualty levels. That’s it; that’s all he’s got. But the blue-finger elections on Sunday nullify the entire analogy.
In July 1954, an international conference concerning what was at the time France’s war in Indochina was held in Geneva, Switzerland. Among the agreements reached under the Geneva Accords was a national election in all of Vietnam in two years’ time. Those elections never happened; Ngo Dinh Diem, Prime Minister of South Vietnam, feared a Communist victory and instead, with American approval, held a bogus election only in the South in which he claimed a 98% victory.
Over the next few years he built up a banana republic with American support. But Diem’s regime proved so corrupt that he was overthrown and killed in 1963, just a few weeks before the assassination of Senator Kennedy‘s brother, President John F. Kennedy. By 1964, the internal power struggle in South Vietnam meant that the Viet Cong controlled a substantial part of the country, and Ho Chi Minh’s Communist North Vietnamese government began sending troops south. Meanwhile, through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, President Lyndon Johnson was free to “escalate” American troop levels in the region, with the first batch of troops landing in Vietnam in early 1965.
However, the situation in Iraq is completely different, if only because the U.S. allowed the national vote after two years, even knowing that the government the Iraqis will choose might reject the Americans as invaders. Major combat has ceased; the only engagement U.S. troops face is against an insurgency, ruled by non-Iraqis and staffed with foreigners and hated Ba’athists, that’s so continuously being rolled up that they’re choosing softer targets, like the Iraqi police and civilians.
So: in 1965, the Americans had really just begun major combat, in an area virtually dominated by its enemy, following a series of political fiascos spanning more than ten years and occupation by one power or another that had lasted for decades. In 2005, the Americans face a foreign-led guerilla force controlling less and less territory, with the political advantage squarely in their corner.
The Iraqi “insurgency” had their opportunity to stage their own Tet Offensive: a last-ditch, all-or-nothing effort to hurt the “occupying force,” rally the people around their cause, and demonstrate their continued presence in the region. It looked like that was their strategy, too, promising all-out violence on Sunday’s Election Day. But their attacks were unspectacular, and millions of Iraqis voted, either not fearing or outright defying the terrorists’ threats. While al-Qaeda’s frontman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, still vows jihad, it has become clear that the majority of Iraqis prefer democracy.
With all predictions of catastrophe proved laughably wrong, the best argument naysayers have now is the elections were all well and good, but “now comes the hard part.” Certainly President Bush knows this; during the first presidential debate with John Kerry he used the phrase “it’s hard work” approximately 83 times.
But when forty years ago in Vietnam, administration claims of “light at the end of the tunnel” sounded only like wishful thinking, here and now in Iraq they sound more like reality.