Iraq: Obama’s Vietnam

Iraq: Obama’s VietnamIraq: Obama’s Vietnam

US military advisers in Anbar face a considerable threat from IS. How will the US respond if its servicemen are captured or killed?

In 1968, Richard Milhous Nixon was swept into office on the promise he’d bring about an end to his predecessor’s war. Two months after taking office, however, US combat deaths in Vietnam had climbed to 4,000, and for US military planners, there appeared no end in sight.

To make a long story short, Nixon’s promise to wind down the war translated into a dramatic escalation of US military force. Less than two months after taking office, Nixon launched a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia; increased bombing in South Vietnam, and ground offensives were stepped up.

By 1972, US combat deaths had surpassed 50,000, while a study by the British Medical Journal in 2008 accounted for more than 1.7 million Vietnamese deaths, military and civilian, during the 1965-74 period, the years of US engagement. After seven years of combat operations, negative public attitudes in the US towards the war would ultimately result in an “honorable withdrawal.”

In 2008, Barack Obama was swept into office on the promise he’d bring about an end to his predecessor’s war in Iraq, which, coincidently, also measured out to be a seven-year-long period of combat operations that, according to one academic study, resulted in the deaths of nearly half a million Iraqis during the 2003-11 period, the year of US engagement.

In both countries, the respective indigenous populations would feel the devastating effects of US military operations, including refugee displacement, birth defects and psychological and physical trauma, long after US withdrawal,  CJ Werleman wrote for the Middle East Eye.

While America’s 44th president accomplished, from a US perspective, an “honorable withdrawal” in 2010, his presidency will now be bookended with an escalation of US military force in Iraq, with his successor to be elected on a likely mandate to end or win Obama’s war.

 Wars That Rhyme

I made a Vietnam-Iraq metaphor. Boring. A metaphor that has been used every single time US military muscle has been flexed abroad. But the similarities are now so eerily alike, it’s almost impossible to not be awestruck, or believe in parallel universes or magic. In other words, the similarities indeed rhyme.

“The only thing we learn from history is we learn nothing from history,” writes Steve Chapman.

Last week, Obama announced a further 500 “military advisers” would be deployed to Iraq for the purpose of helping Iraqi forces retake the city of Ramadi, and ensure Baghdad doesn’t fall to the IS militants.

In 1961, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy announced he would be sending 1,000 “military advisers” to ensure Vietnam wouldn’t fall to the Communist North.

Obama’s announcement to send up to 500 additional “military advisers” came less than 24 hours after he announced, “We don’t yet have a clear strategy” for defeating IS. And the same day a State Department spokesperson said, “If the US led coalition went all-in, it would take three to five years to defeat IS.”

In 2008, there were more than 150,000 US troops in Iraq. Presumably “all-in” means that level of commitment, that level of escalation.

Although no one tied to the Obama administration is talking about “all-in,” and given a final decision by the White House has yet to be announced, it appears after months of behind-the-scenes debate the decision to ramp up US combat commitments has been reached.

 Military Euphemism

Let’s be clear, the phrase “military adviser” does not mean what the phrase meekly suggests. While US officials define the brief of “military adviser” to be confined to training and consulting, it is surely a whole lot more than that. The term “military advisers” probably serves as a euphemism for typically battle-hardened special forces operatives.

But important questions come to mind: What happens the day after a dozen US “military advisers” are killed in an IS-styled car bomb attack? What happens the day after IS captures alive even one US operative? And what happens if, god forbid, US captives are executed, with their executions glorified in a high-production IS propaganda film?

The all too predictable answer to any of the above will be the deployment of additional US troops. An escalation of military force absent a clear strategy is exactly how the US involvement in Vietnam unfolded. By 1963, Kennedy had increased the number of US “military advisers” from 500 in 1961 to 11,000 in 1962. At the start of 1963, three US helicopter crew were killed transporting South Vietnamese troops into an engagement with the Viet Cong. By the end of that year, more than 50 US servicemen had been killed in action.

US casualties were one of the main drivers of mission creep in Vietnam, and by 1964 President Lyndon Johnson was reading from the same script as President Obama is reading from today. “We won’t abandon Saigon, and we don’t intend to send in US combat troops,” said LBJ. In other words, LBJ then, like Obama today, was gambling US “military advisers” would be enough to secure the corrupt government of South Vietnam.

When Obama says there is “no clear strategy yet” for defeating IS, what he means is there never will be a clear US military strategy for defeating IS in Iraq. The current non-strategy is to arm, fund, and train local tribes in Anbar to fight IS.

Even if the US can help the Iraqi Army retake Anbar and northern Iraq, IS will slip back into the territory they control in Syria and wait out the US. As was the case in Vietnam, the enemy in Iraq doesn’t need to win. They just need to hold on.

 Political Will

Defeating IS in Iraq might depend on a US military component, but it has a greater dependency on the political will of the Iraqi people. The US can’t make Iraq be the all-inclusive country it never was. We can’t supply the necessary will to fight. We tried that in Vietnam and it failed. South Vietnamese soldiers routinely fled their posts, or joined the other side. “’I wish they were on our side’ was a comment commonly uttered by American officers,” writes Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History.

To underscore this point, Mosul fell to IS less than four years after the US withdrawal from Iraq. Saigon fell to the Communist North a mere two months after the US wind-down. The answer is not perpetual occupation. The US military can’t afford to occupy everywhere, all the time.

But with the US troop presence in Iraq climbing from zero to 3,000 over the course of the past 12 months, and as US casualties expectedly mount, the US hawks and neocons will demand further bombing and further troop escalation, minus a clear strategy for bringing about a lasting peace in Iraq. And it’s likely they’ll get their way. Why? The US has learned nothing from Vietnam.

“History doesn’t repeat,” quipped Mark Twain. “But it does rhyme.”