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Iraq and Vietnam


President Bush’s acknowledgement in late October that the comparison between the Ramadan attacks in Iraq and the Tet offensive in Vietnam “could be right” brought into focus the Iraq-Vietnam debate
This debate suggests, among other things, that democracies usually lose wars to well-determined resistance movements because democracies refrain from an unrestricted use of violence.

To argue that if only democracies could have used more violence they would have eliminated all resistance to their project of domination and exploitation of other peoples is a self-righteously myopic point of view.
This view and other views like it, which inform the Iraq-Vietnam debate, do little to dispel self-delusion. That is because they are either based on faulty analysis or they focus on superficial strategic similarities or differences while paying little or no attention to the underlying realities of Vietnam and Iraq.

For instance, the most obvious of similarities between Vietnam and Iraq are virtually totally absent from the debate. The first of these missing obvious similarities is that is that both wars were started on the basis of a blatant lie.

It has been known for sometime, and confirmed by revelations in November of last year that the National Security Agency “knowingly falsified intelligence in order to make it look as if North Vietnam had attacked U.S. destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf.” (Democracy Now, November 21, 2005)

The deception was used by President Johnson to order attacks on North Vietnam and to get Congress to pass the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave Johnson legal authority to escalate the war in Vietnam.

The National Archives released documents, also in November 2005, confirmed how former President Nixon deliberately set out to deceive the American public over his decision to ‘secretly’ attack Cambodia in 1970.

For the Iraq war, it has also been known for some time now that the Bush administration distorted intelligence to deceive the American public into supporting its preplanned war against Iraq.

This has recently been reconfirmed by yet another Senate Panel report released on September 8 of this year. The report concluded that “postwar findings do not support a 2002 intelligence community report that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, possessed biological weapons or ever developed mobile facilities for producing biological warfare agents.”

Democratic Senator Carl Levin said the report was ‘a devastating indictment of the Bush-Cheney administration’s unrelenting, misleading and deceptive attempts’ to link Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida. (NYT, Sept 8, 06).

The second most obvious similarity between Vietnam and Iraq resides in the general lines of rationalization invoked to justify the war in both cases.

In both cases the rationalization was the shortsighted claim that if the war were not brought to the enemy’s territories, it would eventually have to be fought on American soil. If one of America’s allies -no matter how corrupt and murderous- were allowed to fall, all other America’s allies would fall in a domino-like effect.

President Johnson said in the 1960s about the reason why America had to fight in Vietnam so far from home, something to the effect that if might prevailed over right, they, meaning the countless masses of poor people around the world, would come and take what we have.
Secretary of Defense Donald Ramsfeld in August of this year used an eerily similar rationalisation when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee “If we left Iraq prematurely, the enemy would tell us to leave Afghanistan and then withdraw from the Middle East. And if we left the Middle East, they’d order us and all those who don’t share their militant ideology to leave what they call the occupied Muslim lands from Spain to the Philippines.” And eventually, he warned, America will be forced “to make a stand nearer home.”

 Thirdly, the most consistently absent feature from the Iraq-Vietnam debate, is the simple truism that peoples inevitably oppose those who seek to subjugate, occupy, and dominate them. It ought to have been obvious to the modern imperialists that, as President Wilson enjoined the imperial powers of World War I,  people may be governed only by their own consent.

The Iraq-Vietnam debate suggests that the Iraqi rebellion is basically a sectarian civil war not motivated by opposition to the occupier. This erroneous conclusion is also reinforced by the corporate media.

Yet, the facts suggest otherwise. For instance, in his study of suicide bombings from 1980 through 2003, Robert Pape concluded that almost all suicide attacks during that period, including those in Iraq, were motivated primarily by nationalism and conducted against the occupiers or those that support them. (Jeffry Records in Parameters,  Winter 2005-06)

Furthermore, a US military analysis of the 1,666 bombs that exploded in July 2006, shows that 70 percent were directed against the American-led occupation forces, according to a spokesman for the military command in Baghdad. Twenty percent were directed against Iraqi security forces, and 10 percent of struck civilians. (NYT, August 17.06)

Thus both at the policy-making level as well as at the policy-analysis level, self-righteousness and self-delusion are obstructing a realistic assessment of the causes of failure of democracies to subdue well-determined and popularly supported resistance movements. This in turn is preventing a realistic appreciation of the futility of forcibly attempting to subjugate, dominate and exploit peoples.

Finally, recognition of the fragility of the democratic systems and of the ease with which elected officials can deceive their peoples, divert resources for narrowly defined interests, and engineer consent for unnecessary and unjust wars, is urgently needed if democracy is to be salvaged from its abusers and civilized international behavior defended against its violators. This is a citizen’s responsibility.

Adel Safty is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His latest book, Leadership and Democracy is published in New York.

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