“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Parallels between war in Mesopotamia and the one in Southeast Asia have been drawn by critics of the war (examples: here, here and here). Even President Bush seemed to have accepted the comparison (in arguing against an Iraq pullout) as have the majority of Americans. I personally agree that one could have opposed both wars from a realist perspective. And although I can empathize with the U.S. decisionmakers who assumed that opposing North Vietnam was in the national interest in the context of the Cold War (The North Vietnamese were allied with the communists in Moscow and Beijing), the decision to oust Saddam Hussein (an enemy of both Al Qaeda and Iran) and invade Iraq didn’t make any sense based on post-9/11 strategic considerations. In any case, I think that Stanley Karnow made a good point when he drew attention to the failure of this U.S. administration to apply the “lessons of Vietnam” in Iraq:
Generally speaking, the American public looks back on Vietnam overwhelmingly as a terrible mistake. And the lesson of Vietnam is we’re not John Waynes. We can’t win every situation everywhere.
And the American public after Vietnam — and you could look at the so-called doctrines. There was the Weinberger doctrine, named for the secretary of defense, the Colin Powell doctrine, all these doctrines saying, “Let’s be careful of getting involved in situations where we don’t have public support, where we don’t have an exit strategy, where we don’t know anything about the country we’re getting involved in,” and so on and so forth.
And I think that’s one of the things that we learned. Now, this president, with the same kind of hubris that got Lyndon Johnson — and even before him, Kennedy — involved, you know, plunges into the Iraq situation, admittedly after 9/11, because he has a feeling he has to do something.
And in both cases, what’s very similar, again, is we’re plunged into these two situations on the basis of lies: weapons of mass destruction; contracts between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida, which never existed; the Tonkin Gulf incident in the Vietnam War, which never happened; and all sorts of other things.
The notion in Vietnam of the “domino theory.” If we lose Vietnam, the dominos are going to topple. Lyndon Johnson used to talk about fighting the Vietcong on the beaches of Waikiki. I mean, it got to be preposterous. So you have all this kind of hyperbole going in, and it went on in Vietnam. It’s going on today in Iraq.
Which leads me to draw some interesting parallels (I think) between the Tet Offensive and this month’s Basra Offensive. Interestingly enough, in an op-ed (“Winning the Battle, Losing the War”) published in the New York Times last month, James H. Willbanks, the director of the military history department at the United States Army Command and General Staff College, tried to apply to lessons of Tet to Iraq. He noted that from a pure military perpsective, the North Vietnamese failed to achieve their objectives:
The Americans had won a tactical victory. But the sheer scope and ferocity of the offensive and the vivid images of the fighting on the nightly television news convinced many Americans that the Johnson administration had lied to them, and the president’s credibility plummeted. Perhaps more important, the offensive shook the administration’s own confidence and led to a re-evaluation of American strategy. When General Westmoreland asked for an additional 206,000 troops to “take advantage of the situation,” the president balked.
And back to the future:
Gen. David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, is a student of the Vietnam War whose doctoral dissertation at Princeton was titled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.” Clearly, he internalized those lessons, because in discussing the surge and the progress of the war in Iraq he has studiously avoided building undue expectations and has repeatedly said that there will be tough times ahead. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was likewise careful in his recent comments about re-evaluating troop reduction plans this summer. The wisdom of their approach will become especially evident if insurgents in Iraq engage in any Tet-like offensive this year — especially with a presidential election looming and the future of the American military commitment in Iraq hanging in the balance.
His argument was: The Surge was working and creating the conditions for some progress. Let’s not raise too much expectations. And we should consider the possibility that the insurgents in Iraq would try to “do a Tet” — a spectecular attack on the Green Zone? — that could have the same Tet-like effect on U.S. public opinion, highlighting the fact there was no light at the end of the tunnel and playing directly into the hands of the opponents of the war.
Now… the original Tet was the brainchild of General Vo Nguyen Giap, the man in charge of North Vietnam’s army, who concluded that it was time for the North Vietnamese to make a major surprise attack on South Vietnam. The irony here is that this time, it wasn’t the anti-American insurgents who launched a Tet-like offensive. The failed Basra Offensive was the brain(?)child of U.S. ally(LOL) Iraqi PM Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Some suggest that the brain(?) behind the Basra Offensive was that of President Buscheney. But we’ll have to wait for next Woodard masterpiece to learn what actually happened.
It’s quite possible that Maliki and Buscheney were hoping that a military victory in Basra would create the ideal backdrop for the Petraeus testimony on Capitol Hill, the light at the end of the tunnel in the form of an assertive Iraqi leader and a Iraqi military that was ready to stand alone and defeating the forces of Very Bad Man, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. All of that didn’t happen, and like Tet, the Basra Offensive ended up raising greater doubts about the success of the Surge. We now know that that “success” depends very much on Sadr’s cease-fire decision and not the other way around.
It’s important to recall that only last month the CW in Washington was that the Surge was working in one way or another and that in fact was one of the main reasons for McCain’s success in winning the Republican presidential nomination. Newsweek in the Petraeus Generation cover story assured the readers that Petraeus has changed the way officers think and the way they fight as a new generation of officers struggles to remake the U.S. Army.
I think that it’s fair to say based on what transpired during the hearings on Capitol Hill that things looks quite different now in the aftermath of the Basra Offensive. The backdrop for the testimony ended up being the images of insurgents attacking the Green Zone. But unlike Tet, this was — like so many of the other failures of the Bush Administration — a self-inflicted military and political fiasco. At least during Tet, the U.S. and its allies had won a military victory while suffering a political defeat. In Basra, U.S. adversaries were able to get two bangs for one Maliki.