are the reasons Iraq is not Vietnam: It is a desert,
not a jungle. The enemy is not protected and supplied
by major powers such as the Soviet Union or China,
not to mention a formidable front-line state such
as North Vietnam. The Iraqis are not, like the
Vietnamese, a single culture fighting a long-term
war of liberation from colonial masters. They
are fragmented by religion and language, and they
have been independent ever since the British left
lo these many years ago. In almost every way but
one, Iraq is not Vietnam. Here's the one: We don't
know what the hell we're doing.
is the most important finding you can take from
the debacle of the past two weeks. The sudden
uprising of the Shiite militia loyal to Moqtada
Sadr took U.S. forces by surprise. For now, it
does not matter that this uprising is containable
or that Sadr may well be little more than a thug.
What matters is that he was able to organize an
insurrection right under our noses and put up
a more than credible fight. Calling him a thug,
as we are wont to do, does not change matters.
remarkable fact, to use the current argot, is
sooooooo Vietnam. Once again, we are feeling our
way in the dark. We have 130,000 troops in Iraq.
We have 77,000 Iraqi police officers on our side,
supposedly with their ears to the ground. We have
the supposed loyalty of all those Iraqis who tell
pollsters that they are grateful for what Americans
have done for their country and how much they
want the United States to stay. Still, somehow,
not a one of them blew the whistle when Sadr was
issuing orders and patting his fighters on the
back as they were heading out the door.
Bremer, the American proconsul in Iraq, is by
all accounts an admirable and incredibly industrious
man, "tasked," in Condi-speak, to do the impossible.
But on the Sunday talk shows, he seemed right
out of central casting, some actor playing the
clueless American, down to his striped tie and
button-down shirt. When asked who he was going
to turn power over to on June 30, he replied,
"That's a good question," but supplied no answer.
He simply does not know. He does know, though,
that the "majority view" among Iraqis is hardly
anti-American. The polls tell him so. This is
Vietnam all over again.
the first place, minorities make revolutions,
not majorities. Most people simply do as they
are told. Second, polls -- even in Iowa, for crying
out loud -- are notoriously unreliable. Last,
Bremer and the rest of us are simply going to
have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we
will never know what is happening in Iraq. It's
a different culture.
were the hard truths of Vietnam. This is how the
base barber, the smiling guy who kidded with GIs
as he cut their hair, could be Viet Cong. This
is how the trusted legman for some American news
outlet could be an enemy intelligence officer,
now available for interviews in Ho Chi Minh City
cafes. This inability to read the culture, to
discern friend from foe, is what produced such
frustration and the occasional war atrocity. Even
with our eyes open, we were blind as a bat.
is the same in Iraq. We went to war for the wrong
reasons, and with too few troops and too few allies.
Just about every expectation turned out to be
misplaced. The occupation has not been financed
by oil revenue, as we were assured. The Iraqi
army and police are not, as promised, up to the
task of maintaining order. Americans were often
greeted as liberators, but also as conquerors.
The United States did not commit enough troops
to intimidate looters and the civilian leaders
we backed turned out to have larger followings
in Georgetown than in Baghdad. Victory remains
possible, but first we'll have to figure out what
list of mistakes, many of them the consequences
of titanic cockiness and utter contempt for dissenters
(remember how fast Gen. Eric Shinseki was shunned
after he said the occupation would require several
hundred thousand troops?), is long and painful.
They range from the consequential to what seemed
almost trivial (shutting down Sadr's newspaper)
and responding to both Shiite and Sunni provocations
at the same time. We could have made better decisions,
but believe me, even those might not necessarily
have made a difference.
lesson of Vietnam is that once you make the initial
mistake, little you do afterward is right.
2004 The Washington Post Company
Posted: April 18, 2004