Could Iraq be Vietnam in reverse? What George F. Kennan's 1966 Senate testimony can tell us about Iraq in 2006.
In Vietnam, the US entered a divided country and left behind a nasty tyranny. In Iraq, the US has unseated a nasty tyranny but may leave behind a divided country. (Larry Burrows / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images; Todd Pitman / Associated Press)
``DO YOU SEE, as some of your critics do, a parallel between what's going on in Iraq now and Vietnam?" President George W. Bush was asked at a press conference earlier this month. The president, unsurprisingly, responded ``No." ``Because there's a duly-elected government; 12 million people voted," he said. ``Obviously, there is sectarian violence, but this is, in many ways, religious in nature, and I don't see the parallels."
It is possible to quibble with the president's explanation. There was religious unrest in Vietnam in 1963, when Buddhists protested the Christian-led government, and South Vietnam held presidential elections in 1967. Yet President Bush is right on the larger point: Iraq is not Vietnam. Of course, detractors have long compared the two conflicts in order to suggest that the war in Iraq is an unwinnable quagmire. But if anything, the war in Iraq looks like the Vietnam War in reverse.
Consider the respective arcs of the two conflicts. In Vietnam, the United States entered a divided country with a simmering civil war and left behind a nasty tyranny. In Iraq, the US has unseated a nasty tyranny but may leave behind a simmering civil war that could lead to a divided country. In Vietnam, fearing a nuclear clash with the Soviet Union or a confrontation with China, the US slid in slowly: first sending technical advisers, then undertaking search and destroy missions, and ultimately engaging in a full-throttle war. In Iraq, the US began full throttle, switched to search and destroy, and is now seriously debating whether to begin sliding out. In Vietnam, America was fighting to uproot communism. Now, it's fighting to plant democracy.
By this logic, the situation in Iraq today should be compared to the winter of 1966, when the US was about a year into major troop deployments in Vietnam. In 1966, America had a bit more than 150,000 troops engaged; now the US has just under that number. In both cases, about 2,500 soldiers had already died in action. This week, the Senate has held its first major hearings on the war since serious fighting began. The same thing happened regarding Vietnam in February of 1966. And it is these 1966 hearings-in particular the testimony of George F. Kennan, the framer of America's Cold War ``containment" policy-which offer vital insight into the current situation in Mesopotamia.
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In 1964, after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Arkansas Senator and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee William Fulbright voted in favor of escalating the war in Vietnam. By 1966, however, he had begun to change his mind. He convened a hearing before his committee to debate the issue, calling Kennan, among others.
Kennan was likely chosen because of a recent article he'd written for The
Kennan opened with a statement that likely resonates with many Americans today. If not already involved in the war, he said, ``I would know of no reason why we should wish to become so involved, and I could think of several reasons why we should wish not to." Recent opinion polls show that far fewer Americans would have supported attacking Iraq three years ago if they'd known how much it would cost in dollars and lives, the strength of the insurgency it would inspire, and of course how few threatening weapons Saddam Hussein actually had.
As a foreign policy realist, and a longtime skeptic of America's ability to change the world for the better, Kennan made the case that the only legitimate reason for staying in Vietnam was the fear that an abrupt departure might harm our reputation and make a bad situation worse. ``A precipitate and disorderly withdrawal could represent in present circumstances a disservice to our own interests, and even to world peace," Kennan said. President Bush and others have made a similar case for staying the course in Iraq. ``If we fail in Iraq, it's going to embolden al Qaeda types. It will weaken the resolve of moderate nations to stand up to the Islamic fascists. It will cause people to lose their nerve and not stay strong," he said at the same press conference where he was asked about similarities between Vietnam and Iraq.
Kennan, however, took knives to the argument that leaving meant showing weakness. He pointed out the waste of American resources in Vietnam, and the cost of focusing so much attention on one remote country. Again, the same has been said of Iraq. The invasion has won the United States few friends, and many enemies, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and distracted us from other issues-including serious problems in Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and the ongoing fight against al Qaeda. ``However justified our action may be in our own eyes, it has failed to win either enthusiasm or confidence, even among peoples normally friendly to us," Kennan said.
Kennan articulated a plan whereby America would switch from offense to defense in Vietnam, and begin to seek a peace settlement- even on terms less desirable than its initial objectives. ``[T]here is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives," he said. Kennan, were he alive today, would have little patience for the Bush administration's frequent call to stay in Iraq because a commitment was made and so many soldiers have already died. Just because the US had shot itself in one foot, he told the Senate committee, didn't mean it should fire away at the other.
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Kennan concluded his Senate testimony with a well-known quotation from John Quincy Adams. ``[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy," said our sixth president. ``She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."
Kennan used Adams's words to argue for a brand of realism necessary when the country overextends itself, as many today argue the Bush administration has.
Since the United States became the world's most powerful nation, it has constantly oscillated between idealism and realism. The idealists try to remake the world in our image; their successors pull back, focusing on issues at home and negotiating international affairs more cautiously. Eisenhower put on the brakes after Harry Truman declared that this country would do anything in support of democracy. Despite Kennan's best efforts, it would take Richard Nixon's détente to snuff the ``bear any burden" approach of the Kennedy and Johnson years.
So perhaps it's no coincidence that the Iraq War looks like Vietnam in reverse-it may have to do with where the two conflicts fell in this peculiarly American cycle of idealism and realism. The realists were still powerful when the Vietnam War began, but were absent when the country invaded Iraq. Now, though, voices of caution are starting to reassert themselves, and the idealists are losing sway, as people recognize the costs of the current war.
``Now, gentlemen, I don't know exactly what John Quincy Adams had in mind when he spoke those words," Kennan said at the end of his time before the Senate committee. ``But I think that, without knowing it, he spoke very directly and very pertinently to us here today." The same could be said about George Kennan.
Nicholas Thompson, an editor at Wired Magazine, is writing a book for Henry Holt and Co. about the Cold War diplomats George Kennan and Paul Nitze.