Vietnam is once again in the air. The recent antiwar demonstrations in Crawford, Texas, have been heralded as the beginning of an antiwar movement that will take to the streets like the one of 30 years ago. Influential pundits—in the manner of a gloomy Walter Cronkite after the Tet offensive—are assuring us that we can’t win in Iraq and that we have no option but a summary withdrawal. We may even have a new McGovern-style presidential “peace” candidate in Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold.
America’s most contentious war is being freely evoked to explain the “quagmire” we are supposedly now in. Vietnam is an obvious comparison, given the frustration of asymmetrical warfare and savage enemies who escape our conventional power. But make no mistake, Iraq is not like Vietnam and it must not end like Vietnam. Despite our tragic lapses, leaving now would be a monumental mistake—and one that we would all too soon come to regret.
If we flee precipitously, moderates in the Middle East could never again believe in American assurances of support for reform and would have to retreat into the shadows—or find themselves at the mercy of fascist killers. Jihadists would swell their ranks as they hyped their defeat of the American infidels. Our forward strategy of hitting terrorists hard abroad would be discredited and replaced by a return to the pre-9/11 tactics of a few cruise missiles and writs. And loyal allies in Eastern Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan, along with new friends in India and the former Soviet republics, would find themselves leaderless in the global struggle against Islamic radicalism.
The specter of Vietnam will also turn on those who embrace it. Iraq is not a surrogate theater of the Cold War, where national liberationists, fueled by the romance of radical egalitarianism, are fortified by nearby Marxist nuclear patrons. The jihadists have an eighth-century agenda of gender apartheid, religious intolerance, and theocracy. For all its pyrotechnics, the call for a glorious return to the Dark Ages has found no broad constituency.
Neither is our army in Iraq conscript; rather, it is volunteer and professional. The Iraqi constitutional debate is already light-years ahead of anything that emerged in Saigon. And there is an exit strategy, not mission creep—we will consider withdrawal as the evolution to a legitimate government continues and the Iraqi security forces grow.
But the comparison to Vietnam may be instructive regarding another aspect—the aftershocks of a premature American departure. Leaving Vietnam to the Communists did not make anyone safer. The flight of the mid-1970s energized U.S. enemies in Iran, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Central America and tore our own country apart for nearly a quarter-century. Today, most Americans are indeed very troubled over the war in Iraq—but mostly they are angry about not winning quickly, rather than resigned to losing amid recriminations.
We forget that, once war breaks out, things usually get far worse before they get better. We should remember that 1943, after we had entered World War II, was a far bloodier year than 1938, when the world left Hitler alone. Similarly, 2005 may have brought more open violence in Iraq than was visible during Saddam’s less publicized killings of 2002. So it is when extremists are confronted rather than appeased. But unlike the time before the invasion, when we patrolled Iraq’s skies while Saddam butchered his own with impunity below, there is now a hopeful future for Iraq.
It is true that foreign terrorists are flocking into the country, the way they earlier crossed the Pakistani border into Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, and that this makes the short-term task of securing the country far more difficult. But again, just as there were more Nazis and fascists out in the open in 1941 than before the war, so too there were almost none left by 1946. If we continue to defeat the jihadists in Iraq—and the untold story of this war is that the U.S. military has performed brilliantly in killing and jailing tens of thousands of them—their cause will be discredited by the stick of military defeat and the carrot of genuine political freedom.
All this is not wishful thinking. The United States has an impressive record of military reconstruction and democratization following the defeat of our enemies—versus the abject chaos that followed when we failed to help fragile postwar societies. After World War II, Germany, Italy, and Japan (American troops are still posted in all three) proved to be success stories. In contrast, an unstable post–World War I Weimar Germany soon led to something worse than Kaiser Wilhelm.
After the Korean War, South Korea survived and evolved. South Vietnam, by contrast, ended up with a Stalinist government, and the world watched the unfolding tragedy of the boat people, reeducation camps, and a Southeast Asian holocaust.
Present-day Kabul has the most enlightened constitution in the Middle East. Post-Soviet Afghanistan—after we ceased our involvement with the mujahideen resistance—was an Islamic nightmare.
So we fool ourselves if we think that peace is the natural order of things and that it follows organically from the cessation of hostilities. It does not. Leave Iraq, and expect far worse tribal chaos and Islamic terrorism than in Mogadishu or Lebanon; finish the task, and there is the real chance for something like present-day Turkey or the current calm of federated Kurdistan.
Have we forgotten that Iraq before the invasion was not just another frightening Middle East autocracy like Syria or Libya but a country in shambles—not, as some will say, because of international sanctions but thanks to one of the worst regimes on the planet, with a horrific record of genocide at home and regional aggression abroad? As the heart of the ancient caliphate, Iraq symbolized the worst aspects of pan-Arab nationalism and posed the most daunting obstacle for any change in the Middle East. Thus al Qaedists and ex-Baathists alike are desperate to drive us out. They grasp that, should a democratic Iraq emerge, then the era of both Islamic theocracies and fascist autocracies elsewhere in the region may also be doomed.
Our presence in Iraq is one of the most principled efforts in a sometimes checkered history of U.S. foreign policy. Yes, there is infighting among the Kurds, the Shiites, and the Sunnis, but this is precisely because Saddam Hussein pitted the sects against each other for 30 years in order to subjugate them; we are now trying to unite them so that they might govern themselves. The United States has elevated the formerly despised and exploited Shiites and Kurds to equal status with the Sunnis, their former rulers. And from our own history we know that such massive structural reform is always messy, dangerous—and humane.
So, too, with other changes. It is hard to imagine that Syria would have withdrawn from Lebanon without American resolve in both Afghanistan and Iraq, nor would Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi have given up on plans to nuclearize the Middle East. Saddam’s demise put pressure on Hosni Mubarak to entertain the possibility of democratic reform in Egypt. These upheavals are, in the short term, controversial and volatile developments whose ultimate success hinges only on continued American resolve in Iraq.
There is no other solution to either Islamic terrorism of the sort that hit us on September 11, 2001, or the sort of state fascism that caused the first Gulf War than the Bush administration’s easily caricatured effort to work for a third democratic choice beyond either dictatorship or theocracy. We know that not because of pre-9/11 neocon pipedreams of “remaking the Middle East” but because for decades we tried almost everything else in vain—from backing monarchs in the Gulf who pumped oil and dictators in Pakistan and Egypt who promised order to “containing” murderous autocrats like Saddam and ignoring tyrannous theocrats like the Taliban.
Yes, the administration must account to the American people for the sacrifices of American lives we are making on behalf of the freedom of Kurds and Shiites. It must remind us that we are engaging murderers of a sort not seen since the Waffen SS and the suicide killers off Okinawa. And it must tell us that victory is our only option and explain in detail how and why we are winning.
The New York Times recently deplored the public’s ignorance of American heroes in Iraq. In fact, there are thousands of them. But in their eagerness to view Iraq through the fogged lens of Vietnam, the media themselves are largely responsible for the public’s shameful lack of interest.
This summer, while the networks were transfixed by Cindy Sheehan (or was it Aruba?), the United States military, in conjunction with Iraqi forces, was driving out jihadists from Mosul—where the terrorists are being arrested and killed in droves. Lieutenant Colonel Erik Kurilla of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, who had worked for months to create an atmosphere of mutual understanding on the city’s streets, was severely wounded as he led his men to clear out a terrorist hideaway. The jihadist who shot him—who had recently been released from Abu Ghraib—was not killed but arrested and given medical care by U.S. surgeons.
Not long before he was wounded, Lieutenant Colonel Kurilla had delivered a eulogy for three of his own fallen men. Posted on a military website, it showed that he, far better than most of us, knows why America is there:
You see—there are 26 million people in Iraq whose freedom we are fighting for, against terrorists and insurgents that want a return to power and oppression, or worse, a state of fundamentalist tyranny. Some of whom we fight are international terrorists who hate the fact that in our way of life we can choose who will govern us, the method in which we worship, and the myriad other freedoms we have. We are fighting so that these fanatical terrorists do not enter the sacred ground of our country and we have to fight them in our own backyard.