Helman: Iraq and Vietnam
Ambassador Gerald B. Helman writes:
In recent days, events in the Vietnem war have been cited and compared to what is happening in Iraq. Even the President referred to the Tet offensive to argue that the Iraqi resistance has been deliberately seeking to turn American public opinion against the war by raising the level of violence. The Vietnam experience certainly holds lessons in combatting an armed insurgency embedded in an increasingly disaffected population. But more pertinent now, with speculation regarding different options for disengagement from Iraq, might be a brief examination of the political and diplomatic environment surrounding our involvement in Vietnam, our departure and its aftermath. What can it tell us about our Iraq dilemma?
The US’s progressive involvement in Vietnam began with a military assistance and advisory program that gradually escalated into a 500,000 man expeditionary force. The rationale to justify the effort evolved over time from its initial focus on the need to provide the South Vietnamese government with the training and material it needed to defend itself against threats from the north. As its involvement deepened, the US evoked the legitimacy of collective self defense, and the importance of helping an independent government that was seeking to operate on democratic principles. More broadly, we evoked Hitler’s early unanswered conquests to argue that if aggression is not stopped in Vietnam, the US would be faced by escalating aggressions in Asia and around the perimeter of the Soviet empire–the famous domino theory.
The US withdrawal from Vietnam was the product of failure to defeat a determined enemy on the battlefield and the loss of domestic support. President Johnson thought he could finance “guns and butter”; he was wrong. Both the Johnson and Nixon Administrations warned that a US failure to win the war in Vietnam and to withdraw without achieving its objectives would have dire consequences. Our allies would be dismayed and our enemies emboldened. Widespread instability would be certain to follow. In the event, negotiations were undertaken to cover the withdrawal. It was the product of a complex diplomacy, including the establishment of a dialogue with Communist China, and negotiations with North Vietnam–both countries the US vowed it would never talk to.
And the consequences of withdrawal? North Vietnam lost little time trashing the agreement, absorbing the south and unifying the country. It bloodied China’s nose in a brief war and was the sole outside force that sought through force to restrain the Khmer Rouge from its genocidal actions against its countrymen. The worst consequences of the US departure were visited upon those Vietnamese who supported us. Some emigrated to the US. Others were killed or sent to reeducation camps. Many escaped and others were lost as “boat people.” Now forty years later, the Vietnamese sought and achieved diplomatic relations with the US and a growing amount of trade with and investment from the US. Dominoes did not fall in Southeast Asia and, if anything, Vietnam is a stabilizing factor in the region.
Elsewhere, our allies were relieved that the US was no longer exhausting itself–militarily, politically and morally–in a fruitless conflict they could only increasingly oppose and the US could not sustained. The US thereafter could turn its attention to matters of far greater strategic concern, undertaking a major revitalization and modernization of its army, concentrating on the defense of Europe and the strengthening of its traditional alliances. As a broad generalization (and acknowledging exceptions such as Iran), it is fair to argue that the almost unbroken series of political and strategic successes that marked US foreign policy through to the disintegration of the Soviet empire would not have been possible without our disengagement from Vietnam.
In applying the lessons of Vietnam to Iraq, it is important to bear in mind that there will be consequences for the United States, both in terms of its position in the region and globally. The US will be critisized, reviled and congratulated. Even if some measure of stability prevails in Iraq, provision will have to be made, perhaps through emmigration to the US, for those Iraqis whose lives are at risk because identified with us. In any case, countries of the region as well as globally, will recognize and accommodate the reality of US military, economic and political power.
Whether the US can limit damage from withdrawal, or even turn it to advantage, will depend very much on how it conducts the politics and diplomacy of withdrawal and its success in connecting it to a strategic vision for stability in the region and for the suppression of terrorism globally. Any restatement of strategic posture should take into account the uncontested reality that need not be stated, that the US will continue to possess unmatched military and economic power and that active US engagement in the affairs of the area and region will remain essential to stability and prosperity. The US should make clear its intention to work with all states in the region on the basis of the commonly accepted standards of international behavior to promote stability, representative government, human rights and national integrity and in that context to cooperate fully with all to combat terror, the common enemy of all those standards and the states that live by them.
Separately, the US should undertake a twofold process of very private diplomacy. The first would be with the major political factions in Iraq to force them, against the reality of our decision to withdraw, to reach a political deal that would enable Iraq to continue as a unitary state. Putting details aside (others are more competent to identify and evaluate them), we should proceed on the assumption that a the people of a country that have managed to continue as a definable political entity for most of the last several thousand years can figure out how to continue to do so. Their blaming the US would be a useless reposte to the chaos that would follow if no political deal is struck.
The separate, parallel diplomatic process would be with the countries of the region and would have to involve direct talks between the US and friendly states in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, and, most importantly, Syria and Iran. It would be the height of folly to leave discussions with Syria and Iran to others. The message to all would be that the US has decided to begin withdrawal (and this would not be subject to negotiation, though its phasing might be), that the US intends to continue as an active force for stability in the region and to cooperate with all in that objective and in combatting terrorism. The initial aim would be to define with them the role they might play in helping the major factions in Iraq to strike a deal that would sustain a unitary state. The US bet would be that Syria and Iran (as well as other states involved) would have much more to lose than gain from chaos in Iraq. They would bargain hard and seek concessions from the US in other areas, and we will have to be prepared to deal with that. The bet would also be that within the context of a successful peace process, these countries (including Iraq) are capable of dealing summarily with the terrorist threat.
A final note: while the parallel political process described above should proceed in secrecy, it inevitably will become known. To meet that contingency, the US should be ready with a a program of aggressive public diplomacy in support of the peace process. The presently widely advocated peace conference should come as a stage in the process, to confirm and codify the results of more private diplomacy, to structure an economic assistance program for Iraq, and to legitimize watching brief for th conference. The premature convening of a conference would only invite posturing and worse on the part of participants.
Helman “was United States Ambassador to the European Office of the United Nations from 1979 through 1981.”