global politics, relationally

Maybe Iraq Really Is Vietnam?


When George W. Bush was pushing the Iraq war, the concern from some of the left was: is this another Vietnam? By “another Vietnam”, most Americans mean “a really long war with lots of US casualties that in the end we lose”. And there was fear in 2003 and 2004 that Iraq would end up that way.

The Bush administration pushed back with absurd assertions that we’d be done in 6 months and “Mission Accomplished” photo ops. Obama finally fixed the problem by pulling US troops out of Iraq a couple of years ago, at which point the “ghost of Vietnam” went away. But there is another aspect of the Vietnam debacle that I think does apply to the Iraq mess.

Iraq is now in the midst of a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, or in particular between Sunnis supporting a hard-line Islamist movement (ISIS) and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi state of Nuri al-Maliki. As some very smart folks have recently pointed out (here and here), the problem in Iraq today isn’t that the Americans have left. It’s that the government of Iraq can’t govern the country, and has done pretty much everything it can to foster a civil war.

And herein lies the analogy with Vietnam (imperfect, as all analogies are). During the Vietnam conflict, the US tried for many years to support one South Vietnamese government after another. All were run by corrupt, inept, power-hungry people who didn’t want to share power. This looks to me a lot like the Maliki government – corrupt, inept, and power-hungry.

There are plenty of calls in Washington today to “do something!“, and of course lots of Republicans trying desperately to pretend that this is all Obama’s fault. Even in a less partisan time in the early 1960s, there were plenty of members of Congress ready to follow the Sunk Cost Fallacy off a cliff in supporting this or that Vietnamese dictator. At that time, it was in the name of anti-Communism. Today, it’s in the name of “anti-terrorism” (code for anti-Islamism, really).

I’m not concerned about the US going back into Iraq – the American people have no stomach for such involvement, a lasting legacy of the 50,000 names etched in black stone near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. But that doesn’t mean the US can’t make some of the same mistakes. And demands that we must support the Iraqi government today may just be repeating a mistake we made long ago. We cannot, especially from a distance, prop up a government determined to fall.