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Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The Misleading Analogy Between Iraq and Vietnam Continued: II.

If you've read the previous article on this analogy --- a favorite of the uninformed or misinformed, not to mention disgruntled partisan critics of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq --- you should have a good working idea of why it's so misleading and wrongheaded. That doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate criticisms of the way the administration has managed the post-war reconstruction of Iraq, another point stressed in two other articles that were published a tad earlier, and repeatedly so: those two articles, remember, part of a three-article mini-series on the progress and problems of Iraqi transformation. Most of the media's criticisms don't fit this criterion --- something else we've tried to show in that mini-series. If anything, the negativism and carping on the problems and setbacks in Iraq that have dominated the media's coverage until very recently have done the public a reprehensible disservice . . . much as they might cater to partisan attacks from many Democratic activists and even many of the party's presidential candidates. (Not all fortunately: not Senator Joe Lieberman and Representative Dick Gephardt, or Senator Joe Biden of the Intelligence Committee, or Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State, the heir of the great Scoop Jackson, the influential liberal Democrat who served in the Senate from that state where I grew up for two decades from the late 1940s through most of the 1960s and believed in the essential benevolence of American foreign policy as long as it sought to promote human rights and democracy abroad.

All that granted, there is one possible justified worry that does concern many of us who support the administration's unprecedented campaign to reconstruct Iraq and transform it from a totalitarian state and society --- under Baathist party control and terror for 40 years, almost four times longer than Hitler ruled in Nazi Germany. That worry? Whether the US public will tolerate many more months of rising US casualties; or --- to be more precise, since this worry is exaggerated as we'll show --- whether the media elites and the most vocal critics in Democratic party circles might not persuade parts of the public to start fearing and protesting those casualty numbers.

Granted again: put this bald way, this last claim seems hard to understand, let alone emerge compelling. By way of clarification then, plus the evidence, let the argument begin to unfold here.

Will the US Public Stomach Our Casualties in Iraq In the Future?

Since the end of the Vietnam war --- in the mid-1970s --- our political leaders in both parties and for that matter most of the top military brass have been ultra-sensitive about American casualties in the field: whether in outright wars or limited peace-keeping missions: think of Mogadishu in September 1993 or a decade earlier when Reagan withdrew US peace-keepers from Beirut after Islamo-fascist terrorists blew up a barracks-building and killed more than 200 US Marines. It's legacy of the long, bitterly divisive American involvement in Indochina, an effort to keep it outside the Communist world that lasted nearly two decades --- from 1956 until 1975 --- including eight years of escalated warfare that led to over a million American soldiers serving there, with more than 50,000 dead. And that's not the only impact. The legacy has also influenced our enemies for over three decades now. Whether Islamo-fascist terrorists like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al Qaeda who attacked our Marines in Lebanon or our sailors in Yemen or our embassies in Africa in the late 1990s or American citizens in New York and Washington D.C. later --- or political demagogues like Milosevik in Yugoslavia or the warlord Mohammed Addid in Mogadishu or the fanatical Taliban in Afghanistan or the tyrant Saddam Hussein in Iraq --- it encouraged the belief that the US is essentially a paper-tiger in combat, whose people are unwilling to tolerate military casualties when faced with heroic, well-motivated if outgunned resistance.
Note here that no one less than James Woosley, our unusually outspoken former head of the CIA, has pointed to the legacy's influence in emboldening our enemies especially in the Middle East to resort to terrorism in order to wear down the patience of the paper-tiger USA in their war with us and modernity and the West: Islamo-fascist regimes like the Baathist ones in Syria and Iraq or Colonel Khadaffi's Libya, extremist Islamist movements of the Shiite sort, and similar extremist Islam of the Sunni sort.

" . . . We convinced many people there that we did not give a damn about the people in the region and that we cared principally about its oil; that it was a filling station for our large sport utility vehicles. Secondly, we convinced them that we were a wealthy, feckless country that would not fight."


The Legacy and American Efforts in Iraq Today

The source of harried ultra-sensitivity in the circles of political and military leadership is hardly a secret: it's the fear that the public expects a quick and decisive use of military force with limited casualties among our troops, and that if fighting is prolonged --- in any form --- it will reproduce in the minds of most Americans the renewed specter of the Vietnam quagmire, with needless bloodletting of American lives and no clear strategy of prevailing and eventually exiting the country where the fighting flares. Sooner or later, so the worries among US political elites go, the electorate will then punish those in office held responsible. Some worries go further. Those who are haunted by them fear that the harsh divisions in American life that tore apart the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s will reappear and polarize the public anew.

And now, of course, it's a legacy of worries and ultra-sensitivity that feeds into the concern --- voiced repeatedly in the media and by numerous Democratic politicians (and a few Republicans) --- that the public will soon weary of growing American casualties in post-war Iraq, if it already hasn't: witness, it's claimed, the decline in recent public support for the President's policies there. So far, remember, there have been about 380 US casualties since the start of the war to topple Saddam in March and over the six months since its end in early April. Though that amounts to slightly more than a US soldier killed a day --- a trend-rate that dipped noticeably after the war and then continued to dip beginning again in July --- and hence is about one-tenth of the daily casualty rate in Vietnam --- the worry that the public might abandon support for our efforts to transform Iraq can't be lightly dismissed.


The Reason for Concern: Not What It Seems to the Uninformed Critics

Essentially, if we look at public opinion surveys over the last couple of decades --- and the most reliable interpretations --- these worries and fear that grip the minds of Democratic and Republican leaders and some of our military brass are excessive and overdone. The best recent study of this appeared in a lengthy New Republic article by Lawrence Kaplan, entitled --- revealingly and provocatively, but also, as it turned out, convincingly given the assessment of public opinion surveys --- "Why the Public Can Stomach Casualties in Iraq: Willpower". Put tersely, Kaplan shows that the US public these days doesn't share the elite worries to nearly the same degree --- just the opposite. It is willing, Kaplan decides after a close look at the evidence, to stomach lots more casualties.


A Problem Remains All The Same

That conclusion reached by Kaplan, it needs to be said, seems sound --- subject to a proviso. At bottom, public support for a war or related use of US troops abroad hinges on two related things: on the public's belief the cause involves a significant US national interest, and on its confidence in the way the fighting or war is going, currently or in the future.

It's an important proviso.

What it means is that critics of a war --- rightly or wrongly --- can have an impact in shaping opinion. Not right away, it's true . . . at any rate, barring some cataclysm abroad. Rather, over time if the war looks like going badly. Here the role of the media's coverage of the war --- or in the present case, of progress or not in transforming post-Saddamite Iraq --- can have a cumulative impact. Hence the importance of the more responsible sectors of the US media --- the major national and regional newspapers like the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and so, plus the major network and cable news outlets --- improving their doom-doom reportage that has prevailed since last April. Anyway, until recently.

We don't want or expect happy stuff, glossed in Panglossian manner. What we want and should expect is solid professional journalism, with the reporters showing more balance and competence than they did over the last several months. Nothing more, nothing less. As the latest L.A. and N.Y. Times articles of the last week or so indicate, parts of the media may at last be in the process of reassessing the long series of lopsided carping and doomster analysis.


A Little More Background Here For Those Who Want It: The Search For An Effective Doctrine For Using Military Power Abroad

What follows isn't indispensable for making sense of why our leaders, political and military, have been so sensitive and worried about US military casualties since the Vietnam war. The argument up to this point can stand alone on this score. As we've tried to show, the worry and sensitivity may be excessive, just as they might have emboldened our Islamist terrorist enemies and Islamo-fascist states supporting them, but there is at the core of the political concern a solid anchoring of sorts: what might happen to US public opinion if the media and political critics of the US campaign in Iraq continue to hammer away at the negative side of developments, day-in, day-out, month after month or maybe into the next year or two, while US military casualties --- even if far inferior to what they were in Vietnam --- continue to mount. Still, if you want more background, the rest of the analysis here might be enlightening. Among other things, please note, it also shows how the criticisms of the Bush pre-emptive strategy have been overdone: the Clinton administration had moved that way with Presidential Directive 62 in 1998, three years before the 9/11 attacks; and the Bush administration, while going further --- given the change in the vital threats to the US after those attacks --- built on the Clinton administration's new strategy.


One way of trying to banish the Vietnam legacy: A Workable Doctrine

The first effort to deal with the Vietnam legacy was to abolish the draft and develop a professional army, a task that took several years . . . especially because of the problems of morale and declining discipline that the US military hobbled under in 1975. The major efforts after that have been largely doctrinal . . . including the recent shifts to an explicit pre-emptive strategy married to a transformed military that fights at all levels of violence with the weaponry and intelligence capabililties and flexibility that we associate with the Revolution in Warfare, a radically restructuring form of military operations that several buggy articles dealt with in the run-up to the Iraqi war last spring and during it.

The initial doctrinal guide was set out in 1984 by President Reagan's defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger,who laid down a stringent set of criteria for our using force abroad. (For a good critique, see this article)

(1) The United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies....

(2) If we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning....

(3) If we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives....

(4) The relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed--their size, composition, and disposition--must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary....

(5) Before the United States commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress....

(6) The commitment of US forces to combat should be a last resort


The end of the cold war led to efforts in both the Bush-Sr and Clinton administrations to try to update the Weinberger doctrine in the post-cold war environment, where the US suddenly found itself repeatedly confronted with humanitarian and peace-keeping challenges that involved less than vital national interests: in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, the Congo, and so on . . . all this before the terrorist attacks on US soil, which killed 3000 people here.. Anthony Lake, Clinton's first national security adviser, set out a revised doctrine that was far more flexible and also --- a good five years before the war with Taliban Afghanistan that President Bush-Jr. led --- far more open-ended. Force would be used, after weighing the risks and costs and what was at stake, Lake said, in order:

To defend against direct attacks on the United States, its citizens, and its allies.

To counter aggression.

To defend our key economic interests.

To preserve, promote, and defend democracy.

To prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, international crime, and drug trafficking.

"To maintain our reliability, because when our partnerships are strong and confidence in our leadership is high, it is easier to get others to work with us."

For humanitarian purposes, to combat famines, natural disasters, and gross abuse of human rights


What Bush Has Added:

In this era of partisan bickering and the switch-arounds in public statements of several Democratic candidates running for their party's nomination since last year over Iraq, it's worth noting that the Bush administration's one addition to this doctrine, implicit in later Clinton administration, was an explicit pre-emptive war strategy. It was made explicit in 2002, after the 9/11 attacks on us. The fear in the Bush administration --- as it was in the days of the Clinton administration (as we'll see), only far more heightened after 9/11 --- was that rogue states building WMD would supply them gladly to American-hating Islamo-terrorists. No surprise. These Islamist terrorists, it seemed, would would be elated to exterminate all 290 million of us ---- and not just be elated, but, if successful, would no doubt fall on their knees and thank their deity for having exterminated the chief evil in the world as they see it.

Briefly to explain. The first inkling of a pre-emptive strategy appeared in Pentagon circles in 1991, after the cold war ended, during the presidency of Bush-Sr, under the leadership in those days of Deputy Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz. See PBS Little was ever said about it in public. President Clinton, we know, went further. In May 1998 --- taking into account the most recent of Saddamite Iraq's defiance of the UN in disarming as well as stepped up terrorist attacks abroad on US soldiers and civilians --- his administration promulgated Presidential Decision Directive 92, entitled, "Protection Against Unconventional Threats to the Homeland and Americans Overseas," Although it was classified and only parts leaked to the public, a former official described it as pre-emptive in thrust: "If you think terrorists will get access to WMD, " he was quoted as saying, "there is an extremely low threshold that the United States should act" militarily." See the Washington Post article here:

It was in 2002, after the war with the Taliban began and ended, that the Bush administration made explicit the new preemption doctrine