We're Fighting Not to Lose

By Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Iraq is not Vietnam, yet history seems intent on harnessing them together. Three years ago this seemed an unlikely pairing; surely President Bush would not take the United States down the same trail as Lyndon B. Johnson. Yet even though Iraq's story is far from complete, each day raises the odds that the U.S. fate in Iraq could eventually be the same as it was in Vietnam -- defeat.

The differences are clear. The policy consensus over the Vietnam War ran deeper and lasted longer than on the Iraq conflict. While Johnson and his advisers slogged deeper into Vietnam with realistic pessimism, Bush and his colleagues plunged ahead in Iraq with reckless optimism. And in Vietnam, U.S. leaders made most of their mistakes with their eyes wide open, while it is impossible to fathom exactly what the Bush team thought it was doing after the fall of Baghdad.

Twenty-eight years ago, we wrote a book, "The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked," which argued that although U.S. policy in that war was disastrous, the policymaking process performed just as it was designed to. It seems odd that a good system could produce awful results, but the subsequent declassified documents and the public record showed it to be true. U.S. officials generally had accurate assessments of the difficulties in Vietnam, and they looked hard at the alternatives of winning or getting out.

On Iraq the insider documents are not available, but journalistic accounts suggest that Bush's policy process was much less realistic. The president did not take seriously the obstacles to his goals, did not send a military force adequate to accomplish the tasks, failed to plan for occupation and took few steps to solve the underlying political conflicts among Iraqis.

Despite these different paths, Bush now faces Johnson's dilemma, that of a war in which defeat is unthinkable but victory unlikely. And Bush's policy shift last week suggests that he has come to the same conclusion as Johnson: Just do what you can not to lose and pass the problem on to your successor.

In both cases, despite talk of "victory," the overriding imperative became simply to avoid defeat.

How did these tragedies begin? Although hindsight makes many forget, the Vietnam War was backed by a consensus of almost all foreign-policy experts and a majority of U.S. voters. Until late in the game, opponents were on the political fringe. The consensus rested on the domino theory -- if South Vietnam fell to communism, other governments would topple. Most believed that communism was on the march and a worldwide Soviet-Chinese threat on the upswing.

The consensus on Iraq was shallower and shorter-lived. Bush may have been bent on regime change in Baghdad from the start, but in any case a consensus emerged among his advisers that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of securing nuclear weapons capability -- and that deterrence and containment would not suffice. That judgment came to be shared by most of the national security community. Congress also saluted early on. The vote to endorse the war was less impressive than the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which passed almost unanimously, but many Democrats signed on to topple Hussein for fear of looking weak.

As soon as the war soured, the consensus crumbled. Without the vulnerability of middle-class youth to conscription, and with the political left in a state of collapse since Ronald Reagan's presidency, the antiwar movement on Iraq did not produce sustained mass protests as Vietnam did by the late 1960s. But the sentiment shows up just as clearly in the polls.

Consensus held longer over Vietnam because few in or out of the government had ever expected a quick and easy resolution of the war. Officials knew what they were up against -- the force of nationalism embodied by Ho Chi Minh, and a succession of corrupt, inefficient and illegitimate South Vietnamese governments. Officials usually put on a brave face, but they understood that Washington was in for the long haul. In the Bush administration, by contrast, a gap opened almost immediately between senior political leaders on one side, and most military and diplomatic professionals as well as the media on the other. The steady optimism of the former in the face of the reporting of the latter quickly undid public confidence in the Pentagon's and White House's leadership.

By 1968, Johnson understood that victory was not in the cards at any reasonable price, but that defeat would be catastrophic. The war had reached a deteriorating stalemate. If victory were possible, it would require all-out use of military force against North Vietnam, a move that the administration believed ran the risk of war with the Soviet Union and China. If the United States were defeated, however, the dominos would fall, and one of those dominos would be the occupant of the White House. Periodically, top officials concluded that events in Vietnam had taken another turn for the worse, and to prevent defeat they had to dispatch more troops and do more bombing -- and so the steady escalation proceeded without lasting effect on the balance of power in Vietnam.

Constrained against achieving victory or accepting defeat, Johnson and his aides chose to do the minimum necessary to get through each crunch in Vietnam and at home, hoping that something would turn up to save them. In the end, Johnson made the ultimate political sacrifice and declined to run for reelection. But as he announced a halt of the bombing and the offer of negotiations with Hanoi, he also increased the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam. Even as he was leaving office, he had no intention of being "the first American president to lose a war."

By contrast, Bush never had to worry that escalation would bring an all-out global war; the United States is the world's sole superpower. Nonetheless, until last week, he never chose to increase the combat commitment significantly; the "surge" announced last week is but the latest experiment with a temporary increase in forces. At the beginning this was probably because he did not believe more troops were needed to win. As the venture went bad, the volunteer army was stretched too thin to provide an option for massive escalation. But now it is clear that Bush does not believe he can possibly win with anything close to the number of forces currently committed. The president certainly perceives the risks of losing, and at this moment of truth, he is repeating Johnson's decision pattern -- doing the minimum necessary not to lose.

Whatever the similarities in the way Washington dealt with Vietnam and Iraq, there were few similarities between the two wars themselves. Vietnam was both a nationalist war against outside powers -- first the French, then the Americans -- and a civil war. In Iraq, the lines of conflict are messier. The main contest is the sectarian battle between Arab Shiites and Arab Sunnis. The Kurds, so far, are mostly bystanders, while the Americans struggle to back a weak yet balky government they hope can remain a secular alternative.

Combat in Vietnam was a combination of insurgency and conventional warfare, and the conventional element played to U.S. strengths. By contrast, Washington's massive firepower advantages are nullified in Iraq because the fighting remains at the level of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Iraq is harder for our military than Vietnam was, yet we eventually had 540,000 troops in Vietnam compared with barely a quarter of that number in Iraq. The current U.S. footprint in Iraq is much smaller -- only about one-tenth the density of U.S. and allied forces per square mile in South Vietnam at the height of U.S. involvement, and with an Iraqi population 50 percent larger than South Vietnam's. Consequently, the security situation was never as bad in Vietnam as it is in Iraq today. In Vietnam, Americans could travel most places day and night, while in Iraq it is dangerous to leave the Green Zone. Even Bush's planned 21,500-troop increase will not make a lasting difference if the host government does not become far more effective. As in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive of 1968, the enemy can lie low until we stand down.

In both countries, U.S. forces worked hard at training national armies. This job was probably done better in Vietnam, and the United States certainly provided South Vietnamese troops with relatively better equipment than they have given Iraqis so far. South Vietnamese forces were more reliable, more effective and far more numerous than current Iraqi forces are.

In both cases, however, the governments we were trying to help proved inadequate. Unlike their opponents, neither Saigon nor Baghdad gained the legitimacy to inspire their troops. At bottom, this was always the fundamental problem in both wars. Americans hoped that time would help, but leaders such as South Vietnam's Nguyen Van Thieu and Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki were never up to the job.

Americans have not stopped arguing about Vietnam -- about whether the war could have been won if fought differently, or was an impossible task from the outset, or about who was to blame. Hawks claim that the United States could have won in Vietnam if the military had been allowed to fight without restraint. Supporters of the war in Iraq say that the United States could have prevented the resistance if it had been better prepared for occupation after the fall of Baghdad. Doves in both cases say that the objectives were never worth any appreciable price in blood and treasure.

After Vietnam, recriminations over failure became a never-healed wound in American politics. Now Iraq is deepening that wound. With some luck, Washington may yet escape Baghdad more cleanly than it did in the swarms of helicopters fleeing Saigon in 1975. But even if the United States is that fortunate, the story of the parallel paths to disaster should be chiseled in stone -- if only to avoid yet another tragedy in a distant land, a few decades down the road.

Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, directed the Pentagon Papers Project. Richard K. Betts is director of Columbia University's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company