Iraq and Vietnam I

In one of his old "Turning the Tide" blogs at ZNet ("Iraq and Vietnam," June 10, 2004), Noam Chomsky wrote that he didn't "see much useful analogy between Iraq and Vietnam."  The major dissimilarity between the two cases, as NC described it, pertains to the material significance of Iraq (unquestion- ably huge–"at the heart of the world's major energy reserves," NC wrote, "which is why the US invaded in the first place") relative not only to Vietnam, but also the whole of Indochina.  

A second level of dissimilarity follows from the American intention to install and to prop up a particular kind of Iraq (i.e., "nation-building," American-style–a wholly subjugated Iraq, managed by a puppet of American Power, and wholly in keeping with the "Arab facade" method of the past century).

But, because the actual material stakes are so much greater in Iraq than they ever were in Vietnam, the Americans fear a truly independent Iraq far more than they ever feared a truly independent Vietnam.

Indeed. Reason No. Two and especially Reason No. One constitute huge dissimilarities between Iraq and Vietnam.  And if we put some meat on the bones of the old State Department memo from 1945–the Middle East as a "stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history"–by now, one of the most frequently quoted passages in the history of formerly classified U.S. Government archives–the argument for the dissimilarity between Iraq and Vietnam becomes even clearer. Much clearer, in fact.

Thus to cite a few morsels from the data for which the U.S. Energy Information Administration serves as a clearinghouse, after Saudi Arabia's approx. 262 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, "around one-fourth of proven, conventional world oil reserves" (perhaps with "up to 1 trillion barrels of ultimately recoverable oil"), Iraq possesses: 

115 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the third largest in the world (behind Saudi Arabia and Canada), concentrated overwhelmingly (65 percent or more) in southern Iraq. Estimates of Iraq's oil reserves and resources vary widely, however, given that only about 10 percent of the country has been explored. Some analysts (the Baker Institute, Center for Global Energy Studies, the Federation of American Scientists, etc.)believe, for instance, that deep oil-bearing formations located mainly in the vast Western Desert region could yield large additional oil resources (possibly another 100 billion barrels or more), but have not been explored. Other analysts, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, are not as optimistic, with median estimates for additional oil reserves closer to 45 billion barrels.

(One caveat, however. We need to put on a pair of gloves before handling these notions of proven versus ultimately recoverable oil reserves (and the like). The U.S. Energy Information Administration often relies upon private sector sources of information, such as the energy-sector's own Oil and Gas Journal.  What is more, the notion of ultimately recoverable oil reserves often takes into account oil for which the method of recovery exceeds even the best available current technology. The overriding factors when estimating just how proven so-called proven reserves are, then, are how recoverable the oil is (e.g., Can a well be drilled straight down into the earth and the pumps turned on?), at what kind of cost per barrel, and involving what range of risks?  Both Iraqi and Saudi oil are proven in the first sense.  But the first sense only.)

Whatever the case, ultimately, turns out to be for Iraqi oil, the fact that Iraqi national territory sits atop vast reserves of recoverable non-renewable energy makes the outcome of the American occupation of the utmost significance not just to American Power, but to the rest of the energy-gulping world.  Nothing remotely comparable ever could have been said about Vietnam or Indochina as a whole.

Still.  I think there is one axis along which an analogy between American Power in Vietnam then, and American Power in Iraq today, is both powerful, persuasive, and enlightening. This is the logic of quagmire.

(A brief digression. There is a term, 'quagmire', which turns up in commentary on U.S. occupations of foreign territories, and which saw its original use in the context of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam. Most notably, David Halberstam's The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era (Rev. Ed., Alfred A. Knopf, 1987–the First Ed. was 1965).  But this is the "quagmire" of noble American intentions gone awry.  So, for the record, I am not alluding to this standard usage of the term 'quagmire'.)

Back to the actually-existing logic of quagmire (and see my earlier ZNet Blog, "Quagmire"): As NC writes in Rethinking Camelot (South End Press, 1993):

Without exception, withdrawal proposals [from Vietnam] were conditioned on military victory. Every known [Kennedy] Administration plan was explicit on that score, notably the October 1963 "program to replace U.S. personnel with trained Vietnamese without impairment of the war effort," coupled with instructions from the President to "increase effectiveness of war effort" so as to ensure "our fundamental objective of victory" (N.C.'s emphasis, p. 33). (For the etext version, see Sect. 14.)

The point is that (to use another passage of NC's from elsewhere in the same book), "The US is militarily strong but politically weak, unable to elicit support for its plans for the Third World, a persistent problem in Indochina as elsewhere, always a mystery to the planners….These are enduring themes of the 500-year conquest, sure to persist." (RC, pp. 98-99. For the etext version, see Sect. 26.)

This is the most pertinent similarity, I think, between the American occupation of Vietnam 40 or more years ago, and the American occupation of Iraq today. Surely in the case of Iraq, withdrawal proposals have always been in circulation that are conditioned on a kind of military and political victory that is unachievable–where the crucial qualifications remain (a) militarily strong, but politically weak, and (b) without impairment of the war effort.  (On NC's Rethinking Camelot, see, e.g., "Stable Guidelines," "Militarily Strong, Politically Weak," and "The Military View." And, of course, read around.)

In terms of the major oil-rich states in the region (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and the smaller Persian Gulf states), American popularity is at or near an all-time low. Extending the geographic frame a little wider, from West to East, in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is more of the same: Militarily strong (though sometimes very tenuously so), but politically weak.  Indeed.  Politically detested.  Politically vanquished.

In Vietnam, as NC shows, the consequence was the de-emphasis of the political and the escalation of the military, across four different presidential regimes, both Republican and Democrat (esp. the latter).

This dynamic of American Power, I think, is not only one of the "enduring themes of the 500-year conquest" and "sure to persist."  But it is persisting.  In Iraq most immediately.  But also across this vital region of the world.

True, the rapidity with which this dynamic has unfolded this time is far greater.  Events in the Iraqi city of Fallujah (ca. April, 2004) having been a case in point.  Imagine a whole city of 300,000 (or more) people transformed into an enemy encampment in less than a year-and-a-half!

But, politically, the Americans are finished in Iraq.  All they have left is their vastly superior firepower. But the more they resort to it to get what they want, the more hated they become. The greater the resistance.

Endnote: With very minor changes, the preceding commentary was originally posted to my now-non-existent Rocinante Blog at ZNet on June 27, 2004.  I have re-entered it here based on an old printed copy.  The argument, however, is unchanged.  Politically speaking, the Americans are nowhere inside Iraq.  All that they have is what they arrived with more than three-and-a-half years ago: Their superior violence, their threats, and their bribes.  People who resort to such means deserve to be defeated.     


Update (November 17): The American President just landed in Hanoi.  He is there to participate in this weekend's summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.  His trip to Vietnam marks the first ever by his Preisdency, and only the second by an American President (the first having been Bill Clinton in 2000) since the last diplomats, staff, family, military personnel, and "Tiger-Cage" administrators fled Saigon back in April, 1975.

Shortly after his arrival, the American President met with Australia's Prime Minister at the Sheraton Hanoi Hotel, where they prepared for this weeknd's APEC summit.  Afterwards, the two heads of state held a news conference at the hotel. 

Asked a couple of questions about what it means to "Americans who experienced some of the turbulence of the Vietnam War that you're here now, talking cooperation and peace with a former enemy," and, subsequently, whether he thought "there [are] lessons here for the debate over Iraq," Bush replied ("President Bush Meets with Prime Minister Howard of Australia," White House Office of the Press Secretary, November 17):

I think one thing — yes, I mean, one lesson is, is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while. But I would make it beyond just Iraq. I think the great struggle we're going to have is between radicals and extremists versus people who want to live in peace, and that Iraq is a part of the struggle. And it's just going to take a long period of time to — for the ideology that is hopeful, and that is an ideology of freedom, to overcome an ideology of hate. Yet, the world that we live in today is one where they want things to happen immediately. And it's hard work in Iraq. That's why I'm so proud to have a partner like John Howard who understands it's difficult to get the job done. We'll succeed unless we quit. The Maliki government is going to make it unless the coalition leaves before they have a chance to make it. And that's why I assured the Prime Minister we'll get the job done.

Reading these words, it is true that the terms boilerplate and rhetoric come to mind.  But not entirely.  Instead, one sentence and one clause stand out above the rest.  Namely: "We'll succeed unless we quit."  And:"[W]e'll get the job done."  Why these, and not the "great struggle…between radicals and extremists"?   

Comparisons between the American wars over Iraq and Vietnam keep coming up.  (Often to be rejected, incidentally.)  So let me state here what I believe to be the most important parallels or likenesses between the American war over Vietnam (and the whole of Indochina), on the one hand, and the American wars over Afghanistan and especially Iraq, on the other.

Most fundamentally, I believe there are two likenesses. 

First, there is the overarching continuity in both the ends and the means that we find affirmed and pursued by the aggressor state over the many decades of its history–but in particular, over the course of its history since the end of the Second World War, the period during which it has reigned supreme.

Second, there is, therefore, the exact same continuity of willingness on the part of the policymaking elite within the aggressor state to achieve its ends using all the necessary means–right down to the very last drop of the victim population's blood, which it is never shy about spilling.  Whether in Vietnam (the old South especially).  Laos and Cambodia.  Neighboring Indonesia.  Afghanistan and Iraq.  And dozens of lesser–and several not-so-lesser–points in between.

And though it is true that, contra Indochina, "Iraq cannot be destroyed and abandoned."  (Failed States, NC, pp. 147 – 148.) 

Still, as a proxy for this entire geographic region where most of the world's proven non-renewable energy resources happen to be located, Iraq can be both destroyed and retained.

At least the American policymaking elite hopes this against hope.

As always, it remains up to the rest of us to prove it wrong.

"Iraq and Vietnam I," ZNet, October 29, 2006
"Iraq and Vietnam II," ZNet, November 17, 2006

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