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.

Yet in his speech to the nation Wednesday night announcing changes in Iraq policy, the president embraced many of Hadley's proposals. He has extracted promises from Maliki to crack down on Shiite militias and has pushed the prime minister to broaden his cabinet. Bush also took Hadley's advice to increase the number of U.S. troops operating in Baghdad, and to broaden the program that embeds Americans with Iraqi units.

Last week, Bush seemed to threaten Maliki as well: "If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people -- and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people," the president said. The United States has always been good at telling other nations what they have to do, and what will happen if they don't do it.

When things began to go wrong in Vietnam, we helped stage a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, whom the United States had helped to install as president of South Vietnam. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had once called him Asia's "miracle man." Diem was dumped in 1963. Eight changes in leadership, all involving Washington in one way or another, ended with Nguyen Van Thieu's ascent to the presidency in 1967; Thieu then held on for eight years before being ousted nine days before North Vietnamese troops marched into Saigon. We never did find "the right guy" for Vietnam, to borrow Bush's recent description of Maliki, and there is scant evidence that the man who botched the execution of Saddam Hussein is really the right guy for Iraq, either.

We accomplished a great deal during the 14 years we were actively engaged in South Vietnam. We created an infrastructure for the country, built roads and schools and hospitals, trained hundreds of thousands of troops, figured out how to "pacify" the countryside. As long as U.S. military power was available to neutralize the fighting force of North Vietnam -- whose communist leaders were determined to expel the Americans and reunify their country -- South Vietnam could survive, even prosper.

But we could not create a government or an economy in South Vietnam that could survive without our generous help. When I was leaving Vietnam in August 1970, I wrote in these pages about how we had made the Vietnamese utterly dependent on us. At the time, the Nixon administration's policy was "Vietnamization" -- turning the war over to the South Vietnamese. But the South Vietnamese had not shown that they could cope without us. "Even if the policy succeeds," I wrote, "the United States may well be unable to redeem the lives, money and self esteem it invested in the war in Vietnam."

The Vietnamese communists had key advantages that the U.S. side couldn't match: a better army, more determined and more competent leaders, and a political legitimacy that they had earned by expelling the French colonizers. And they were fighting for a unified Vietnam.

Iraq is different. The "enemy" there is not a single group of Iraqis, but nearly all Iraqis, because Iraqis do not share a common definition of their state or a common agenda for its future. This disarray has been compounded by the presence of Islamic fanatics from countries that have seized the opportunity to go to Iraq to try to kill Americans. Polls and reporting by Post correspondents suggest that, overwhelmingly, Iraqis of all factions want U.S. forces to leave.

In the face of chaos, the United States has no reliable ally -- no legitimate political authority that crosses sectarian lines and attracts the loyalty of large numbers of Iraqis. Which Iraqis will risk their lives to promote Washington's idea of Iraq? The army and police defend sectarian, not national, interests, even when they are fighting the same people U.S. troops are fighting.

The Iraqis who would presumably have been most supportive of a modernizing and democratic Iraq -- the secular intelligentsia that thrived in Iraq until the Persian Gulf War -- is now dramatically depleted. Hundreds of thousands of these Iraqis have already fled to other countries, including many doctors, lawyers, academics and other trained professionals. The war has created a vacuum in the upper reaches of Iraqi society.

What's the lesson to be learned? Modesty. Before initiating a war of choice -- and Vietnam and Iraq both qualify -- define the goal with honesty and precision, then analyze what means will be needed to achieve it. Be certain you really understand the society you propose to transform. And never gamble that the political solution to such an adventure will somehow materialize after the military operation has begun. Without a plausible political plan and strong local support at the outset, military operations alone are unlikely to produce success.

Bush's latest initiatives -- like all his earlier ones -- will not produce the desired political result, because Americans cannot accomplish political objectives in Iraq. Americans are outsiders, occupiers, foreigners in every sense of the word. Only Iraqis have a chance of finding a political resolution for their divisions. So now we await the fate of this latest gamble like a high roller in Las Vegas watching a roulette ball in a spinning wheel. We have about as much control over the situation as the gambler has of that ball. The outcome is out of our hands, and it would be foolish to bet that we will like the way the conflict ends.

robertgkaiser@yahoo.com

Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor of The Post, covered the Vietnam War in 1969 and 1970.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company