Baghdad on the Mekong?

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By John Metzler

Thursday, November 20, 2003

UNITED NATIONS — Recent violence in Iraq and particularly the attacks on American and Italian forces, highlight the continuing dangers of rebuilding a stable post-Saddam society. Though the security troubles have been starkly presented as a “new Vietnam” for the US, thus recalling the Southeast Asian conflict in the 1960’s and 70’s, the contemporary Iraqi issues remain quite different, though no less challenging.

Without question there’s a smirky self-serving schadenfreude among many pundits, academics, and politicians comparing the current Iraq imbroglio with Vietnam. That’s quite easy given that the historical context and specific facts concerning Southeast Asia are blurred by time and misinformation. And given that the U.S. is in Presidential campaign mode, all calculations take on a political overtone.

American policymakers were convinced that because the majority of Iraqis hated the dictator Saddam (likely true) they would quite naturally welcome the U.S. liberators (questionable.) Equally the extraordinary pace and scope of the Anglo/American military victory over the Iraqis gave many observers the impression that the war, like a video game, would be quick and the aftermath antiseptic. This is clearly not the case.

Many American neo-conservatives miscalculated moreover that our virtue, the lure of democracy, and bountiful economic development would be begged for in Baghdad. Still this has not produced the magic elixir to out shine the lingering darkness of the Saddam era. There are well-armed and funded insurgent forces that beg to differ.

Counterinsurgency as it was called in the early days of the Vietnam conflict, is a word many even in the Pentagon shy from using as it evokes Southeast Asia. But that’s the current game plan in Iraq. It’s not clean, clearly defined, or free of civilian casualties.

Chief U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer admirably understands the wider political hearts and minds campaign we are pursuing in Iraq.

One argument goes, “Well, if there were UN legitimacy and not an American occupation, the Iraqis would respect it.” Putting it bluntly, the Iraqi terrorists respected the UN so much they bombed UN Headquarters in Baghdad twice, and could care less about an organization which after all imposed a tight economic embargo on their country for over a decade. Factions of Iraqis resent the occupation—by anyone whether American or the United Nations for that matter.

Well-funded Saddam loyalists—and motivated Islamic terrorists from the region can tap into the genie of Arab nationalism and keep this insurgency going at the current level for a number of months. Equally, the Vietcong never had the “benefit” of having CNN report on each and every isolated attack thus continuing real time daily drumbeat of casualties which appear out of all proportion to the size, scope, and mission of the operation.

To be sure one terrorist tactic is to create a media image of a Baghdad on the Mekong. Another is to target coalition forces—such as the Italians—as a way to dampen resolve of other countries planning to send to troops such as Japan and South Korea. Hitting “soft targets” like the Red Cross keeps the terror game going too.

Fundamental differences exist too. Vietnamese nationalism inspired by being a divided country, fueled a potent insurgency in the early 1960’s which became internationalized.

Heavy munitions supply from North Vietnam through Laos and “neutral” Cambodia poured across South Vietnam’s frontiers. Hardened North Vietnamese regular troops operated in division size units in parts of South Vietnam, given that the terrain offered more cover. Nonetheless many Americans bought into the myth that the VC won the war, when in fact it was massive conventional NVA regulars supplied by the Soviets and communist China.

Given our historical haziness and thematic “social studies” approaches to foreign policy “Vietnam is a war, not a country,” any mention of the word evokes a military morass.

Though the Bush Administration intends to turn over governing authority to an Iraqi civilian government by the middle of next year, (as if the Saddam loyalists will care), and over 100,000 Iraqi troops are working in parallel with our military, the pacification can’t be done on the cheap.

We have serious problems in Iraq which given the nature of the insurgency will not disappear with the wisk of a wand and a provisional Iraqi government in place in Baghdad. President George W. Bush stresses that we are “In Iraq for the long haul.”

He may well be right.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for World

Tuesday, November 20, 2003

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