From the fall of Saigon until 2001, perhaps the only Vietnam War lesson most Americans could agree upon was that the United States should never again wage war without the strong and undivided support of its own citizens. This may not have prevented a number of thinly approved wars in the 1980s and 1990s, but it certainly inhibited policy-makers from pursuing other, more massive, military adventures. Now, however, President Bush is launching a war even though at least a third of his own people oppose it, and much of the support that does exist is either highly qualified, attributable to rally-around-the-troops patriotism prompted by the impending invasion, or based on White House misinformation that has gone largely unchallenged in the major American media.
Global opposition to a U.S. attack on Iraq is far more staggering. According to last month’s Gallup International poll of 41 nations, only three countries (the United States, the Netherlands, and New Zealand) offered majority support for a war even if the United Nations were to grant approval. Now, lacking UN sanction, Bush will wage war in defiance of overwhelming international dissent.
World criticism of U.S. policy takes many forms, but underlying it all is a fundamental distrust of Washington’s depiction of the Iraqi threat and of American motives for invading without broad international support. From Business Week magazine to European capitals to “the Arab street” (as commentators reductively label a diverse and complex region), many millions of people have openly challenged or rejected out of hand official American claims. Long before the first missile could be fired to “shock and awe” Iraq, global public opinion had launched its own pre-emptive attack, wielding the weapon of mass incredulity. On the eve of war, Bush has already produced an enormous global credibility gap, the largest any U.S. president has faced since at least the “Christmas bombing” of North Vietnam in 1972.
“Credibility” has long been a preoccupation of American geopoliticians. Though never clearly defined, its primary meaning for Washington has been the need to demonstrate our persistent will to defend American policies throughout the world. From the first days of America’s emergence as a superpower, our leaders have normally acted as if U.S. credibility depended less on truthfulness than on an image of or the exercise of raw military strength. Beginning early in the Cold War, presidents, national security advisers, and nuclear strategists insisted that credible threats to use force were essential to protect vital U.S. interests whenever and wherever they were challenged. In Vietnam, American leaders prolonged the fighting not so much out of confidence that their objectives in that small, distant country could be achieved, but out of a fear of losing and thus sapping our “global credibility.”
The phrase “credibility gap” first entered American political vernacular in 1965, in the middle of an era of “gaps” (from the “missile gap” to “the generation gap”). Journalist David Wise used it to highlight the gulf between President Lyndon Johnson’s claim that American military escalation in Vietnam was limited and defensive and an emerging public perception that it was, in fact, massive and aggressive. In light of the current situation, it is important to recall that the Vietnam-era credibility gap took years to form and did not become a Grand Canyon until the Nixon years, late in the war, after some 35,000 Americans and at least a million Vietnamese had already died.
The war against Iraq, by contrast, begins at a level of unpopularity not reached domestically in the Vietnam War era until after the Tet Offensive of 1968. The President is gambling that a rapid victory will rally a dissenting and disbelieving world. No doubt he also expects the war to generate ex post facto evidence — real or invented — that Saddam Hussein was indeed plotting to use weapons of mass destruction in acts of international terror. For many years, the experience of Vietnam conditioned American leaders to believe all future wars must be brief and conclusive to prevent the erosion of public support. In this instance, the White House hopes a brief, conclusive war will provide the retroactive support it failed to gain at the outset.
Throughout the world, Saddam Hussein is rightly perceived as one of the most monstrous tyrants of our time and there is a widespread international will to check whatever foreign ambitions he may have. Yet Washington’s credibility has foundered on its failure to persuade even many longtime allies of the following:
–That Iraq had significant links to Al-Qaeda.
–That Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to U.S. and global security.
–That UN inspections could never succeed in disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.
–That every diplomatic effort to seek a peaceful resolution was exhausted.
–That the United States had no self-interest in Iraq (oil, military bases, regional hegemony), but only sought democracy for Iraqis, stability in a crucial region, and an end to terrorism for the world.
–That democracy can be established in Iraq under the auspices of an American military occupation.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is that so many Americans have rejected those assertions despite a generally uncritical media. Imagine how much deeper home-front disaffection would have been if the media had given prominence to the many holes in the administration’s case against Saddam Hussein. If so, would nearly half the American public believe, as polls assure us they do, that Hussein was responsible for the attacks of 9/11, a wholly unsubstantiated faith the White House has subtly encouraged? That the Iraqi dictator is horribly oppressive can be easily documented, but the Bush administration has repeatedly proffered trumped up evidence to make him an uncontainable evil-doer of Hitlerian proportions who must be overthrown.
Recent stories, often relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers, have posed fundamental challenges to Bush’s claim that Iraq is capable of deploying weapons of mass destruction beyond its own borders. One nightmare scenario pushed by the White House had Hussein sending unmanned drones to drop chemical and biological weapons on his neighbors, American troops in the area, or even the United States. In a page-12 piece in the New York Times of March 13, John F. Burns describes one of these drones finally displayed at the Ibn Firnas weapons plant outside Baghdad. According to Burns, it seemed “more like something out of the Rube Goldberg museum of aeronautical design than anything that could threaten Iraq’s foes. . . .Its two tiny engines, each about the size of a whiskey bottle, and attached to minuscule wooden propellers, looked about powerful enough to drive a Weed Whacker.” It had no mechanism for dropping a payload, had never successfully flown more than two miles from the airfield, and could only be controlled by visual tracking. Yet Secretary of State Colin Powell made Iraq’s unmanned aerial vehicles an important part of his crucial testimony against Hussein at the United Nations National Security Council.
Amply contradicted, but underreported, was Washington’s warning that Iraq is on the brink of possessing nuclear weapons. The administration made much of high-strength aluminum tubes Iraq had purchased. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that those tubes, while suitable for artillery shells, could not have been used for enriching uranium for a nuclear weapon. And the claim that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger proved to be based on obviously forged documents. According to a recent story in the San Jose Mercury, angry UN inspectors, now fleeing Iraq, claim that “none of the nuclear-related intelligence trumpeted by the administration has held up to scrutiny.”
Bush betrays no concern about his failure to persuade. For him, the only “credibility” that counts is the kind that makes good on military threats. It matters not whether people believe your arguments; only that they believe your willingness to use deadly force to make your point. During the Vietnam War, Americans GIs were sometimes told to “make a believer” out of their enemy. It meant, of course, to kill them. Now the President begins a crusade to “make believers” out of unknown numbers of Iraqis. When Americans occupy Baghdad and the bodies are still being buried, he will tell us that the Iraqis are free to chart their own destiny. Who will believe him then?
Chris Appy is the author of Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides (to be published by Viking in May)
Copyright Chris Appy