In 1967 the South Vietnamese held elections to pick their president and legislature. The lopsided favorite was a military ticket headed by Generals Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky. With the U.S. military and diplomatic corps paying close heed, the campaign was spirited and the debate robust. Reporters in Saigon were briefed daily on Viet Cong efforts to disrupt the campaign. But journalists who ventured into the field learned from Vietnamese contacts that the National Liberation Front was also trying to bolster the vote totals of a “peace candidate,” Saigon lawyer Troung Dinh Dzu. On election day, the military ticket won but with merely 38 percent of the vote. Lawyer Dzu—with plenty of guerrilla backing—was a close second. U.S. officials were ebullient; the enemy seemed ready to trade the gun for the ballot. Time magazine was no less effusive, calling the elected legislature “a political scientist’s dream of incipient democracy come true.”
Three months later, in January 1968, the Communists launched their Tet offensive. After some savage fighting it was crushed, ending the threat posed by indigenous enemy forces in the South. For the rest of the war, regular North Vietnamese troops bore the brunt of the battle. In many skirmishes, and some big battles like An Loc, the South Vietnamese forces held up well. But they had become psychologically dependent on U.S. help. For two years (1973–75) they carried on with no U.S. combat troops but a great deal of material assistance. When U.S. military aid was stopped as well, South Vietnamese troops quickly fled from North Vietnamese attack, and by April 1975 the war had been lost.
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
There is a lesson in Vietnam for the administration of George W. Bush—now with a fresh mandate to pursue its anti-terrorism strategy—as it confronts the question of an exit strategy from Iraq. We should not interpret baby steps (or even the occasional healthy stride) as a signal of final success. We do not need to force the insurgents to cry "uncle" before a substantial U.S. withdrawal can occur. We do not need to destroy their ability to launch an occasional suicide attack, particularly against soft civilian targets. But we must take away their ability to seize control of substantial portions of large cities, to coordinate large-scale assaults, to rally popular will to their cause, and to interfere materially with Iraq's economic infrastructure, particularly its oil base and electrical grid.
Keeping the above in mind is particularly important now in light of the recent recapture of Fallujah and the assault against Sunni strongholds in the "triangle of death" south of Baghdad. In these actions the insurgents were expelled from strongholds where they could plan and launch murderous acts of terror, gain a bit of rest, consolidate their political grip on local populations, and organize operations with supporters in other parts of the country. Iraqi forces, many fresh from U.S. training programs, reportedly fought bravely alongside their American allies. A flurry of insurgent activity, apparently designed to take advantage of distracted coalition forces, was quickly suppressed, with Persh Merga Kurdish forces playing a critical role in the northern city of Mosul.
In the January 30 elections, 275 legislators were chosen to write a constitution and enact laws enabling the country to elect a government by the end of 2005. The nation's leading Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa urging his followers to vote. His final slate included Sunni and Kurdish representatives. Not bad for a people commentators sometimes suggest may be pathologically unreceptive to democracy.
And in Iraq, unlike Vietnam, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Absent from any Iraq equation is a Congress hell-bent on settling old political scores by barring all assistance or forbidding the bombing of enemy strongholds. Absent too is a powerfully armed enemy like North Vietnam, backed by even more powerful Chinese and Russian allies. If Iraq is able to get its internal act together, it is not likely to face external challenges. And, of course, the state of the presidency is vastly more healthy today. True, George W. Bush won by an eyelash and Richard Nixon by a landslide. But Nixon could barely utter the words "peace with honor" before the Watergate scandal broke in all its fury, depriving him of first his momentum and then his office. It remained for Gerald Ford to watch in deep frustration as the North Vietnamese overran the South while the United States was barred by statute from lifting a finger, or a checkbook, to help its erstwhile ally.
No such frustration awaits President Bush unless he brings it on himself. Certainly many of those who complained about the Iraq campaign when it was going poorly will urge a staged withdrawal as things start to go well. The argument will be that the United States has paid a heavy price (in blood and money) to give the Iraqis a chance to govern themselves and that a successful referendum means that that day is near. But this argument misses the point. The United States will suffer some additional casualties, and it will cost more money to keep U.S. forces on station than it will to finance Iraqi troops. But, in a very real sense, the highest costs of the operation have already been paid in terms of fractured relationships with important allies, Arab fury, heavy expenditures of personnel and material, and deep domestic divisions. That these factors are starting to turn around was evident this past autumn in such events as the Bush reelection, the ability of U.S. forces to conduct a major operation in Fallujah without triggering a serious political backlash inside Iraq, the decision of foreign creditors to excuse 80 percent of Iraq's foreign debt, continuing cooperation by the United Nations with the upcoming referendum, and genuinely positive vibes between Baghdad's representatives and those of other Arab states at the Sharm El Sheik November summit. Further, although many Suniis, and some outside voices, urged delaying the elections because they felt that patchy security would hold down the Sunni vote, there were signs that some would be willing to accept positions in the new government or at least plunge into the drafting of a new constitution. This underscored the wisdom of holding the elections on schedule. To do otherwise would hand a victory to the terrorist insurgents and tax the extraordinary political patience of the Shiite majority. After all, if violence can prevent majority rule, it can also be employed to restore such rule. And a major battle between Shiite and Sunni would have been calamitous in its own right, as well as risk intervention by Iran, the neighboring Shiite power.
A streak of positive developments in Iraq should be exploited, not turned into an excuse to cut and run. Iraq will not be on solid political ground until a constitution satisfactory to Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish political leaders is written; a governing legislature is established; and meaningful control by the new government is exerted throughout the country. It will not be on solid security ground until a well-trained Iraqi army takes the field buttressed by 150,000 or more equally competent police and civil guard forces, each with modern weapons and equipment. And it will not be on solid economic ground until its oil resources are fully protected and producing at something near 1990 (pre-Gulf War) levels. Only then can the United States begin to think of a phased pullout.
I have previously used these pages to warn of the consequences of an American defeat in Iraq. The other side of the coin is the leverage an American victory would provide toward resolving difficult situations in the region and beyond.
We are now informed authoritatively that Saddam Hussein sought weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as part of his ongoing struggle with Iran for primacy in the Persian Gulf. He had used chemical weapons with tactical effectiveness during the brutal 1980s conflict and was convinced that they had prevented his defeat. Iran’s WMD programs are part of a grander design: domination of the region, with the ability to deter the United States from intervening to prevent it. The Iranians have fantasized aloud about a single nuclear bombing run to terminate the State of Israel. They are the principal supporters of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and of the Islamic Jihad, which is active in the suicide bomb campaign against Israel. Iranian aid will likely put steel in the spines of rejectionists once peace talks resume in the wake of Yasser Arafat’s death.
Iran has also sought to influence the large Shiite population in southern Iraq by infiltrating substantial numbers of clerics and others into the Basra area, operating through the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution, hoping to bring about the establishment of a Shiite-dominated theocracy modeled on Iran. The Shiites see the American presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf as a direct threat and have, according to the CIA, pushed ahead with their WMD program in order to neutralize the threat of an even more active American role.
In November Britain, France, and Germany obtained a commitment from Iran to freeze work on its uranium enrichment activities short of the material needed to make a bomb. But the accord is not considered airtight, and, even if it were, it would still permit the production of plutonium at an undiscovered location. President Bush has described the current deal as insufficient. If the United States stays committed to Iraq until that difficult task is completed, it will have the credibility it needs to stare down Iran’s neighboring mullahs. If not, we can soon prepare to welcome another nuclear power into the world, this one among the most radical Islamic states on the planet.
Middle East Peace
A successful U.S. stand in Iraq would re-create the kind of environment that prevailed in 1991 following the successful conclusion of Operation Desert Storm. With the coincidental collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States took advantage of its remarkable standing to convene a Middle East peace conference in Madrid, which led indirectly to the 1993 Israeli-PLO agreement in Oslo. That process suffered two prodigious setbacks at Camp David and Taba and was destroyed when Arafat embraced the sickening violence of the second Intifada. Although Arafat’s death opens the way for renewed talks, his rejectionist ghost will continue to haunt the process.
If the peace process is ever to succeed, the Palestinians must be convinced that a contiguous state embracing all of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank is worth extinguishing (with compensation) the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their pre-1948 villages inside Israel. Regional and European friends of the Palestinians must be convinced to endorse the deal. The Israeli coalition government must be willing to abandon settlements that many Jews consider the fulfillment of God’s mandate to his chosen people. And all parties must have sufficient faith in the United States to believe it stands ready to enforce an agreement, not to run for cover, if the going gets tough. A U.S. administration standing behind the representative government of a newly freed Iraq will have the credibility to make stick its commitments to key Middle East players.
U.S. policy toward North Korea under the Bush administration has resembled that of a relief pitcher with a repertoire of deliveries, each different from the jolted starter but that continue to be swatted out of sight by opposing batsmen. Ever since Assistant Secretary of State James Kelley confronted North Korea with evidence that it had been violating the 1994 Agreed Framework (in which North Korea agreed to exercise nuclear restraint in exchange for energy help and other aid and concessions), North Korea has seemed to delight in demonstrating how little the United States was truly prepared to do about it. Not only did North Korea acknowledge its misdeeds, it flaunted them, expelling U.N. monitors and dismantling monitoring equipment. North Korea most likely has continued to extract plutonium from spent fuel rods and has also used centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium. This earned North Korea—along with Iran—a place on President Bush’s “axis of evil” list, which merely increased North Korea’s posture of defiance. The United States eventually assembled a six-nation contact group—China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and North Korea—hoping that neighboring countries could add regional weight to the initial two-party deal. Little progress has been made in the talks to date, but recent reports speak of dissension within North Korea’s ruling circles, the defection of at least one prominent military figure, and perhaps some loss in the godlike status of Kim Jong Il.
From the standpoint of Washington, North Korea may be an even more difficult nuclear case than Iran. Tehran has oil money and some international pretensions, but it is a lonely power bereft of significant allies, geographically isolated, and not that difficult to hit with a surgical strike aimed at its nuclear program. North Korea may have entered the nuclear business as a hedge against U.S. attack or coerced reunification, but as those dangers fade it seems to view its nuclear program as a source of revenue for its basket-case economy. Meanwhile, reunification has faded as an issue for South Korea, which has noted the fantastically expensive German experience and concluded that the Socialist Man makes a far better neighbor than fellow citizen. Accordingly, South Korea has invested heavily in major industrialization projects north of the 38th parallel and is unlikely to link economic development to good nuclear behavior on the part of the Pyongyang. Nor is China considered likely to endorse any harsh sanctions regime proposed by Washington.
North Korea also boasts a consequential military deterrent to Washington, particularly if it has already converted its weapons-grade plutonium into actual weapons. But even if solely conventional, the physical proximity of heavily armed North Korean forces to the densely populated Seoul area could produce South Korean casualties in the millions in the event of a regional conflict. The recent South Korean decision to move its capital to Gonjiu-Yongi, 100 miles to the south, will one day reduce but not eliminate Seoul’s quasi-hostage status.
Clearly Washington faces difficult challenges in its effort to preserve the non-nuclear status of Iran and preserve or restore the non-nuclear status of North Korea. It would be simplistic and perhaps erroneous to declare Iraq the domino that will determine how these latter conflicts play out. But a disguised defeat in the form of a premature declaration of victory and withdrawal from Iraq, followed either by a calamitous civil war or a Vietnam-style rout of allied forces, would undermine U.S. credibility beyond timely repair. Palestinian negotiators, Iranian mullahs, and North Korean decision makers would draw conclusions from the event that would in each case be inimical to the vital interests and objectives of the United States.
And what of terrorism itself? This issue is worthy of longer, separate treatment. But let us not forget that those who fly passenger planes into buildings, detonate car bombs in crowded marketplaces, destroy railroad cars, and slit the throats of hostages do so because they think they have found an efficient way to achieve political objectives. Let them achieve or think they have achieved those objectives, and they will strike again and again. Deny them those objectives and—like Abu Nidal, Carlos the Jackal, and, yes, Yasser Arafat—they will pass from the scene with their tactics widely derided and their dreams of glory miserably unfulfilled. In Afghanistan the practitioners of international terrorism suffered one grievous blow. Iraq will determine whether they suffer a second blow or climb to their feet ready to carry on the struggle.