Iraq and Vietnam
Although Martin van Creveld in the Boston Review is pushing the analogy between Iraq and Vietnam (with Moshe Dayan in Saigon as an interesting plot device), in fact the conflict does not resemble Vietnam.
In Communism, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong had a universal ideology with a nationalist subtext that could hope to unite all the Vietnamese.
The North was difficult for the US to touch because of its Chinese and Russian patrons, and the North could support the VC.
In contrast, the Sunni Arab guerrillas in Iraq lack a unifying ideology. They are either Baathists (discredited in most of the country) or Salafis (a hard line Sunni ideology with no appeal to Shiites in the south or to most Kurds in the north), or Arab nationalists. Arab nationalism is rejected by the Kurds and is increasingly seen by Shiites as having a subtle Sunni bias.
Indeed, the diplomatic tiff between the new Iraqi government and Jordan, in which both sides have recalled their ambassadors, reflects Shiite Iraqi distrust of Jordan as a hotbed of Sunni fundamentalism and (Sunni) Arab nationalism.
The Sunni Arabs of Iraq do not have a safe haven from the US military. Despite US complaints about Syria, in fact no significant number of fighters moves across the border (and as many probably move from Jordan and Saudi Arabia as from Syria). Syria would be nervous about the Salafi fundamentalists, since it is itself dominated by a Shiite minority with the Baath Party as its cover story. And Syrians never got along with Saddam or his henchmen (it is often forgotten that Syria was part of Bush senior’s coalition in the 1990-1991 Gulf War).
Nor do the Sunni Arab guerrillas of Iraq have major patron states. They probably get support from Gulf millionnaires who are fundamentalists. But mostly the guerrilla war is homegrown.
This lack of fit with Vietnam is not necessarily good news, since there are other forms of quagmire.
Many US readers are excited to find polls showing the guerrillas are increasingly unpopular. But they aren’t increasingly unpopular among the Sunni Arabs. In the past year, polling shows that the percentage of Sunni Arabs in Iraq who support attacking US targets has gone from 33 percent to 52 percent. That is, strictly in the Sunni Arab areas, support for the guerrilla war has actually grown. (Hamfisted US policies toward Fallujah account for this shift, in my view). Of course the Shiites and Kurds hate the guerrillas. That isn’t the issue. The question is, at what point do the Sunni Arabs turn against the guerrillas and start snitching on them? That point appears to be further off today than it was in February, 2004.
Ash-Sharq al-Awsat reported Monday that 300 Sunni political personalities met in Baghdad to reconsider the Sunni Arab boycott of the political process. The Association fo Muslim Scholars declined to meet with them. Polls show the Sunni Arabs increasingly skewing to the religious right, and AMS is a major force in that tendency. It remains to be seen if any significant number of Sunni Arabs can be convinced to join or give their allegiance to the new government, which many consider an American puppet dominated by Shiite heretics and Kurdish warlords.
The analogy for Iraq is not Vietnam. It is Northern Ireland (with the US playing the UK); Sri Lanka (with the US playing India perhaps); or Lebanon (with the US playing Syria).
Long term, low-intensity ethnically-based conflicts just grind on for a decade or more, and then, if we are lucky, gradually fade at least somewhat away.
Iraq will likely end as Lebanon is ending, with sufficient social peace allowing the population finally to demand a complete withdrawal of the foreign military force. As soon as the Iraqi Shiites believe that the Sunni guerrillas have been sufficiently weakened or coopted that they no longer constitute a dire threat to the new Shiite political class, the Shiites are likely to insist that the US forces leave.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the United Iraqi Alliance that won the elections, admitted as much to Le Monde last week. He actually laughed at the idea of permanent US bases in Iraq. Ibrahim Jaafari, the likely new prime minister, has said the same thing. In the long run, there will likely be no US bases in Iraq. In the short term, the Shiites and Kurds feel they need the US presence.