Iraq Is Not Vietnam, Part 2

In Part 1 of my serialized “Iraq is not Vietnam” essay, I advanced the proposition that many observers across the ideological spectrum tend to overdo the “two quagmires” analogy between the criminal United States war on Vietnam (1962-1975) and the equally illegal and immoral U.S. war on Iraq (March 19, 2003 – ?). The first installment was dedicated to detailing numerous obvious and predictable parallels between the two imperialist actions, but it ended with two critical qualifications or caveats. The first caveat claims that most of those parallels reflect underlying historical continuities in the venerable U.S. Empire Project and its domestic underpinnings and contradictions. Numerous examples of such continuity were discussed at some length.  second qualification holds that the Vietnam-Iraq analogy generally ignores critical ways in which the Iraq war is fundamentally different from the Vietnam War.

   Parts 2 and 3 will describe and elaborate upon leading dissimilarities and underlying discontinuities between “the two quagmires.” The unsurprising analogies between the two imperial campaigns are transcended, I claim (with no particular claim to originality), by basic differences suggesting that measuring America’s assault on Iraq with its earlier campaign against Vietnam is like comparing apples with oranges. While both terrible wars have been hatched from the same expansionist American Eagle nest, they are two very different imperialist birds.
   This installment (Part 2) notes and analyzes the earlier spread of scale of widespread domestic opposition to the Iraq war within the U.S, a difference that is related to the earlier U.S.-Vietnam experience. It also details and reflects upon the opposition that the U.S. has faced to its current Iraq war from the beginning from other leading state-capitalist nations at the highest levels of policy and opinion – a pronounced difference with Vietnam.


    It has become commonplace for progressives to lament the small size of the demonstrations against the war on Iraq. Of special and widely lamented notice, U.S. college campuses, which became hotbeds of antiwar activism by the late 1960s, seem like islands of indifference when it comes to U.S. foreign policy.
    Part of the reason for the second problem, most observers know, relates to a critical difference between Vietnam and Iraq. The first war was fought with a draft army that included middle-class college students. The latter war is being conducted with an all-”volunteer” (therefore technically mercenary) and more exclusively working-class military. As should also be added, anti-Vietnam War activism drew heavily on previous models of activism and protest emerging and spirits of rebellions and resistance drawn from the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of the campus-based New Left, the emergence of a largely youth-based counter-culture, the sexual, narcotic, and creative-cultural revolutions, and the emergence of significant unrest in the nation’s urban ghettoes. The antiwar struggle in the late 1960s and 1970s drew strength from its development out of, and alongside, these other rebellions and from policymaking elites’ tendency to link the antiwar movement with a broader, “excessively democratic” (Harvard’s always candidly authoritarian Samuel P. Huntington) threat of popular resistance.

   There’s no such rebellion currently underway in U.S. society and very little comparable open and explicit mass and institutional resistance and related movement culture in the U.S. This is most definitely not the Sixties, though critical moral-ideological victories from that decade survive in ways that shape the domestic (U.S.) political dimensions of the current “quagmire.”

   When unfavorably comparing the currently weak state of the U.S. antiwar movement and related overall peoples’ power with the sentimentalized Vietnam Age of classic Rock and Protest, it becomes easy to forget that Iraq war was vociferously protested by many millions within and beyond the U.S. even before it was officially launched. It lost officially measured majority “support” inside the U.S. less than two-and-a-half years in, at a point when less than 2000 American soldiers had been “sacrificed” in the operation.

   It took considerably more time and many more U.S. (not to mention Indochinese) casualties before American activists were able build large-scale domestic protest to the Vietnam War. That war did not face mass resistance within the U.S. until six years after major U.S. hostilities began and many tens of thousands of American GIs died along with well more than a million Vietnamese.

   In his examination of U.S. public opinion data regarding the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq (2003 to the present) wars, political scientist John Mueller finds that “the most striking thing about the comparison among the three wars is how much more quickly support has eroded in the case of Iraq. By early 2005, when combat deaths were around 1,500, the percentage of respondents who considered the Iraq war a mistake – over half – was about the same as the percentage who considered the war in Vietnam a mistake at the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive, when nearly 20,000 [U.S.] soldiers had already died” ((John Mueller, “The Iraq Syndrome,” Foreign Affairs [November-December 2005], p. 45).

    Mueller’s analysis is flawed by his failure to acknowledge the role of deliberately manipulative U.S. war propaganda in creating the U.S. public’s supposed early “support” (what Mueller misleadingly calls early “initial broad enthusiasm”) for the three wars in question. Mueller also fails to acknowledge or even examine the possibility that many ordinary Americans came to see these wars as morally – even criminally – wrong, something more and worse than just a strategic imperial “mistake.” 

   Still, Mueller’s finding of a comparatively rapid loss of public “support” for “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (hereafter “OIF”) is probably more than just coincidentally consistent with the remarkable speed with which large numbers of Americans joined others around the world in protesting the latest military attack on Iraq.  

   Part of the explanation for the rapid appearance of rapid (even pre-war) protest against OIF is the living legacy of the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome.”  The Vietnam War generated mass popular skepticism within the U.S. about the need for “sacrificing” American lives on distant imperial battlefields and about the moral character of U.S. foreign policy. Under the rules of the so-called “Vietnam syndrome” – an insulting term devised by imperial propagandists to disparage the U.S. citizenry’s disinclination to support gory wars of empire – American public opinion becomes a key factor when “a simple association” becomes problematic for policy-makers: “as casualties mount, support decreases” (Mueller, p. 44).  Contrary to George Bush I, this “syndrome” – a revealingly authoritarian word with which to describe the America people’s healthy and democratic tendency to critically scrutinize and resist their elected officials’ overseas policies – was hardly destroyed by the Persian Gulf War (1990-91). “Operation Dessert Storm” was fought in distinctly limited and primarily air-based ways partly to ensure that “Vietnam Syndrome”-triggering casualties were kept to a minimum.

   Even the spectacular horror of 9/11, when, the doctrinal U.S. story line runs, “evil” men attacked “the land of freedom” (for no other reason than their vile and medieval hatred of “liberty”) has not swept the encouraging (from a democratic perspective) “Vietnam syndrome” into history’s proverbial dustbin.

   The “syndrome,” which Mueller now tellingly updates to describe as “an Iraq Syndrome,” has certainly helped limit American and Iraqi casualties in OIF. U.S. opinion prevents the Bush II administration from resolving the military recruitment shortfall that has resulted from Iraq’s emergence as an open “quagmire” (what Vietnam veteran and U.S. Senator John McCain has called “a slog “) by reactivating the draft. Aggressive and effective counter-recruitment activities have sprouted up on college and high-school campuses and in local communities across the imperial “homeland.” 

   By Mueller’s estimation last winter, “no matter how the war in Iraq turns out, an Iraq syndrome seems likely. A poll in relatively war-approving Alabama earlier this year, for example, asked whether the United States should be prepared to send troops back to Iraq to restore order there in the event a full-scale civil war erupted after a U.S. withdrawal. Only a third of the respondents favored doing so. Among the casualties of the Iraq syndrome,” Mueller noted, “could be the Bush doctrine, unilateralism, preemption, preventive war, and indispensable-nationhood.” Specifically, Mueller elaborates, “there will likely be growing skepticism about various key notions: that the United States should take unilateral military action to correct situations or overthrow regimes it considers reprehensible but that present no immediate threat to it, that it can and should forcibly bring democracy to other nations not now so blessed, that it has the duty to rid the world of evil, that having by far the largest defense budget in the world is necessary and broadly beneficial, that international cooperation is of only very limited value, and that Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners are naïve and decadent wimps” (Mueller, “Iraq Syndrome,” pp. 53-54). 

   Again, Mueller fails (consistent with most public foreign policy opinion research in the U.S.) to examine the moral basis of Americans’ opposition to imperial elites’ “mistaken” war crimes and to the related “perverted [U.S. policy] priorities” (Martin Luther King) that favor militarism and empire over domestic social health and justice. Still, his finding of what others might find to be a welcome “Iraq syndrome” (denoted as such to capture the greater speed with which Americans came to resist Iraq and to signify the new “syndrome’s” persistence into the post-Cold War era, when there is no longer a Soviet empire to act as a military deterrent to American global objectives) is both substantively based and relevant to the discussion of the key differences between “the two quagmires.”

But Does it Matter? Private Opposition is Not Public Resistance

   Part of the difference between the first and ongoing/second quagmires, then, is precisely the legacy of the original one, which left Americans’ with an especially healthy dose of decent democratic and humanitarian skepticism regarding the proclaimed noble claims and objectives of U.S. foreign policymakers. The unfortunate thing, however, is that public opinion seems considerably less relevant to the making of policy in the early 21st century than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Part of the difference has to do with the sheer 9/11-enabled and encouraged messianic madness of the current hard-right White House, whose super-authoritarian and militaristic authorities go beyond the at least comparatively rational and politically sensitive Lyndon Baines Johnson and perhaps even beyond the racist and paranoid Richard M. Nixon administration in its determination to force policy down the throats of the mere citizenry.

   A bigger part has to do with the savage authoritarian fraying and atrophy of communities and institutions: the loss of basic organizational and political connections linking ordinary people to policy and enabling public, democratic, and collective resistance to concentrate power in ways that policymakers cannot afford to ignore (for a useful primer on this tragic inner-American collapse, see William Greider’s haunting book, Who Will Tell The People: the Betrayal of American Democracy [1992] See also Noam Chomsky’s chilling Failed States: the Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy [April 2006], pp. 204-250). The Iraq war is being conducted by the authoritarian “leaders” of a possibly post-democratic U.S. (see also Gar Alperovitz, America Beyond Capitalism [2005]) in a time when the shocking disconnect between mere public opinion and actual policy in world history’s most powerful state endangers the best aspects of the western and U.S political traditions and the very survival of the human species. Mass despair and cynicism, both partially self-fulfilling cause and horrible effect of that supremely dangerous disconnect, are part of why antiwar protests are often so slightly attended these days even as the citizenry has at least privately opposed the second “quagmire” more quickly and widely than it privately opposed Vietnam.


   Unlike Vietnam, the war on Iraq has been fought over the early and consistent dissent of many of America’s conservative colleagues in the elite club of “advanced” industrialized (and “post-industrialized”) nations. To be sure, the U.S. assault on Vietnam provoked significant mass, Left-led protest within America’s fellow “developed,” “Northern” and “core” states in the world imperial system. Thanks to European and Japanese policy elites’ acceptance of, and reliance on, American military, economic, and political leadership in the “Free [corporate-state-capitalist] World’s” “Cold War” struggle with the “Marxist” Soviet bloc and “Red China,” however, the dominant sectors in other “core” states generally consented to the Yankee Empire’s soulless “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky’s evocative phrase) during the 1960s and early 70s. 
 Things are different more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire and long after the fading of Third World revolutionary nationalism, when those national capitalist elites are considerably less beholden to Washington D.C. and its corporate and financial paymasters. Part of Washington’s failure to build a genuine coalition of the rich and powerful states on Iraq has to do with the fact that such states see little that serves their interests in America’s assault on Mesopotamia. Vietnam made a relevant degree of “America wins, we win” sense to the rulers of other capitalist nations in a time when: the Red Army stood on the doorstep to Western Europe; recovering Western European and Japanese elites welcomed America’s classically (in the “world systems” sense of one great nation guaranteeing global stability for the good of all the planet’s leading capitalist nations) “hegemonic” capacity and willingness to shoulder the expensive and bloody burden of policing an unruly neocolonial (Third World) periphery and a significant non-capitalist, officially “Marxist” section of the global semi-periphery (the Soviet bloc); Western European and Japanese capitalism were experiencing a U.S.-led “Golden Age” of growth (with Japanese expansion stimulated partly by American military expenditures in Southeast Asia) significantly driven by that permitted Europe and Japan to experience unprecedented mass prosperity (even as the U.S. garnered a disproportionate share of global wealth and power); the Soviet Union helped fund and protect (however mildly and inadequately from a left-internationalist perspective) anti-imperialist struggles in “developing” regions of material and political significance to America’s leading trade and investment partner-states.

From World Cop to Global Racketeer

   OIF, by contrast has (with good reason) struck those partner-states’ bourgeois elites as a “zero-sum” inter-imperial proposition in which the U.S. is acting only in accord with its own selfish and narrow interests. Through European and Japanese (and many other) eyes, Giovanni Arrighi notes, Uncle Sam has traded in the virtuous job of world policemen and “freedom” protector for the insidious part of global racketeer. He has exploited a terrible tragedy (9/11) and a related broad threat (Islamic terrorism) that is largely of his own making in order to boost is flagging power by tightening his grip on Persian Gulf oil. He has deployed the massive, high tech military built to “make the world safe for democracy” (world capitalism) – the most awesome lethal force know to human history – for crass advancement of its own national-imperial interests (Giovanni Arrighi, “Hegemony Unraveling – I,” New Left Review, March-April 2005, pp. 30-61).  Along the way, to make matters worse in even privileged overseas eyes, he is leading the world into an unwanted (except perhaps by Islamic fundamentalists and their American neoconservative counterparts) “clash of civilizations” that bodes poorly for a European continent that hosts a significant, subordinate, and often resentful Muslim populace.

   The U.S., world capitalism’s supposed universal state and “indispensable nation” (Madeline Albright), has lost considerable credibility in its self-interested and always deceptive claim to serve not just American interests but those of all “advanced nations.” Less than any time since the end of World War II does it garner the benefits, in the international-relations realm, of what Antonio Gramsci called “hegemony”: the ability of a dominant group to rule without costly and dangerous resort to coercion by successfully identifying its particular interests with those of subordinate groups and the community as a whole. When it disappears, such “hegemony” typically collapses into the sheer capacity to coerce: a cold, “zero-sum” matter of “dominance without hegemony” in which the ruling power hopes only to be obeyed, not loved (David Harvey, The New Imperialism [New York, NY: Oxford, 2004], pp. 36-41; Arrighi, “Hegemony Unraveling – I,” pp. 30-32). 

   In the wake of America’s brazenly imperialist Iraq war, many other rich-nation elites would scoff with derisive irony at the noxious American globalization enthusiast Thomas Friedman’s fin de siecle ode to the supposedly benevolent role of the U.S. military in maintaining an open world economy working for the profit of all. In Friedman’s famous characterization, published in the New York Times Magazine as the “humanitarian” U.S. bombing of Serbia began, the “the hidden hand of the [world] market will never work” for the universal benefit of all people and nations “without the hidden fist hidden that keeps the world safe: McDonnell Douglass’s F-14 [and] the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines” (New York Times Magazine, March 28, 1999). How grotesque that formulation might sound today to many elites abroad, reflecting on how the F-14 and the rest of Friedman’s glorious, “globalization-sustaining” U.S. military descended on Iraq to plant Uncle Sam’s imperial boot more firmly on the world’s Middle Eastern petroleum spigot. Just as nobody can any longer believe that “what’s good for General Motors is good for America” (to quote president Dwight Eisenhower’s defense secretary), OIF has made it more difficult than ever for the rest of the “advanced” (high-tech corporate-state-capitalist) world to swallow Friedman’s notion that’s what good for “America” is good for them and the international system (or even humanity) as a whole.

   Friedman worried about this problem in advance, for what it’s worth. In a Times articles published three months prior to OIF’s launch, he warned that the by-then-inevitable U.S. invasion of Iraq would have to be conducted in such a way as to convey the impression that America’s intent was “to protect the world’s right to economic survival” and “NOT simply to fuel American excesses. If we occupy Iraq and simply install a more pro-U.S. autocrat to run the Iraqi gas station (as we have done in other Arab oil states),” Friedman added, “then this war partly for oil would be immoral” (Friedman, “A War for Oil?,” New York Times, 5 January 2003, quoted in Harvey, New Imperialism, p. 24). These words, too, would likely inspire derision among many of America’s leading overseas investment and trade partners.
Lost “Hegemoney”

   America’s lost Gramscian, politico-ideological hegemony finds economic corollary and underpinning in its parallel loss of what the reactionary British imperialism-enthusiast Niall Ferguson calls “hegemoney” (Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire [New York, NY: Penguin, 2004], pp. 262-290) Part of the explanation for Washington’s failure to build a serious coalition of the rich “nations that matter” for the war on Iraq may be the fact that the other “advanced” states now confront the U.S. with a measure of competitive economic and fiscal parity they did not enjoy during the Vietnam era. With America’s relative power in the world capitalist system significantly eroded by massive and ever-rising trade and related state-fiscal and balance of payments deficits, a declining dollar, and lost (expatriated) production base, European and Asian capital(s) occupy new economic ground vis-a-vis “the indispensable nation.”  Now the world’s largest debtor state by far, the U.S. is heavily reliant on European and Asian (including Chinese) lenders and investors to keep both its massive military state and its debt-financed consumer economy running.

   More than just context for understanding why other rich nations feel empowered to oppose the occupation of Iraq, America’s admittedly long-fading “hegemoney” is probably part of what drove its hard-right and nationalist administration to occupy Iraq. By many analysts’ estimation, OIF is part of a White House effort to use America’s last truly unchallenged form of world dominance – it’s near monopoly over globally projected organized violence – “to establish U.S. control over the global oil spigot, and thus over the global economy, for another fifty years” (Arrighi, p. 62, paraphrasing David Harvey’s argument in the latter’s The New Imperialism). As David Harvey noted on the eve of the Iraq invasion: “Europe and Japan, as well as East and Southeast Asia (now crucially including China) are heavily dependent on Gulf oil, and these are regional configurations of political-economic power that now pose a challenge to U.S. hegemony in the worlds of production and finance. What better way to ward off that competition and secure its own hegemonic position than to control the price, condition, and distribution of the key economic resource on which the competitors rely? And what better way to do that than to use the one line of force where the U.S. still remains all-powerful – military might?” (Harvey, New Imperialism, p. 25).

   In a context where the U.S. has good reason to feel that its dominant position within world capitalism is seriously threatened, the Bush administration was “looking to flex military muscle as the only clear absolute power it has left” and to “hide the exaction of tribute from the rest of the world under a rhetoric of delivering peace and freedom for all” (Harvey, New Imperialism, p. 77).
Powerless to maintain economic hegemony (and “hegemony”) through the “normal” mechanisms of corporate-neoliberal “free market” globalization, Uncle Sam has bared Friedman’s “hidden fist” to retain planetary economic dominance through military control of Middle Eastern petroleum reserves. Oddly enough, this big petro-imperialist adventure and gamble – falsely understood even by many on the American “left” as a crackpot neoconservative effort to export “democracy” to the Middle East – in Iraq is being significantly paid for by lenders from Europe and Asia.
Paul Street is a Visiting Professor of United States History at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005)

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