Trapped by Hubris, Again

By Robert G. Kaiser
Sunday, January 14, 2007

After nearly four years of ineffectual war-fighting, after the collapse of domestic support for President Bush and his policies, after the expenditure of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, it no longer seems possible to avoid the grim conclusion: For the United States, Iraq has become another Vietnam.

Fortunately, the overall death toll in Iraq so far, while high, is still smaller than it was in Vietnam. But tragically, the most important difference between the two conflicts may be that defeat in Iraq is likely to produce catastrophic consequences for that nation, its neighbors and the United States, too.

For a gray-haired journalist whose career included 18 months covering the Vietnam War for The Washington Post, it is a source of amazement to realize that my country has done this again. We twice took a huge risk in the hope that we could predict and dominate events in a nation whose history we did not know, whose language few of us spoke, whose rivalries we didn't understand, whose expectations for life, politics and economics were all foreign to many Americans.

Both times, we put our fate in the hands of local politicians who would not follow U.S. orders, who did not see their country's fate the way we did, and who could not muster the support of enough of their countrymen to produce the outcome Washington wanted. In Vietnam as in Iraq, U.S. military power alone proved unable to achieve the desired political objectives.

How did this happen again? After all, we're Americans -- practical, common-sense people who know how to get things done. Or so we'd like to think. In truth, we are ethnocentric to a fault, certain of our own superiority, convinced that others see us as we do, blithely indifferent to cultural, religious, political and historical realities far different from our own. These failings -- more than any tactical or strategic errors -- help explain the U.S. catastrophes in Vietnam and Iraq.

Future historians trying to understand how the U.S. adventure in Iraq went so badly off track will be grateful for the memorandum that national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley wrote to Bush on Nov. 8, 2006, after a visit to Iraq. The "secret" memo was leaked to the New York Times three weeks later.

Hadley began with a candid evaluation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: "The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

Having been frank about the problem, Hadley then entered a dream world to discuss ways in which it might be solved. He offered his boss an elaborate set of initiatives that should be urged on the hapless Maliki. The first one gives a good flavor of the Hadley plan for success: "Maliki should compel his ministers to take small steps -- such as providing health services and opening bank branches in Sunni neighborhoods -- to demonstrate that his government serves all ethnic communities." Others included compelling Maliki to overhaul his personal staff to make it ethnically diverse, shake up his cabinet and bring in competent technocrats, and insist that all ministers renounce violence in all forms.

How would Bush carry out Hadley's correctives? "We can help [him] in a variety of ways," Hadley wrote. If Maliki thinks he isn't in a position to follow all of the Americans' good advice, "we will need to work with him to augment his capabilities." Among the steps Hadley proposed:

"Actively support Maliki in helping him develop an alternative political base. We would likely need to use our own political capital to press moderates to align themselves with Maliki's new political bloc. . . . Consider monetary support to moderate groups that have been seeking to break with larger, more sectarian parties, as well as to support Maliki himself. . . . Provide Maliki with more resources to help build a nonsectarian national movement."

In other words, the national security adviser told the president 42 months after this disastrous war began that we can still fix it. A few well-placed bribes plus Yankee ingenuity -- pulling this lever, pushing that button -- can make things turn out the way we want them to. There you see the peculiar strain of hubris that led the United States astray four years ago in Iraq, and four decades ago in Vietnam.

Indeed, Hadley's memo is squarely in the tradition of the sublimely arrogant know-it-alls whom journalist David Halberstam memorably dubbed "The Best and the Brightest." These were the men around John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson who, along with Kennedy and Johnson, gave us the Vietnam War: Robert S. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Walt W. Rostow and the rest. They, too, allowed themselves to believe that the shrewd application of U.S. power -- pulling a lever here, pushing a button there -- could create and prop up an independent, democratic South Vietnam. This was something that had never existed previously -- in that sense, something sadly akin to a multiethnic, democratic Iraq.

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