George W Bush’s drive-by presidency continues to haunt the world. This week finds Mr. Bush in the unlikeliest of places. After driving us into a quagmire in Iraq, Mr. Bush took a holiday in another American quagmire – Vietnam. His visit to Vietnam, however, did not suffer from the common touch:
President Bush likes speed golf and speed tourism — this is the man who did the treasures of Red Square in less than 20 minutes — but here in the lake-studded capital of a nation desperately eager to connect with America, he set a record.
On Saturday, Mr. Bush emerged from his hotel for only one nonofficial event, a 15-minute visit to the Joint P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Command, which searches for the remains of the 1,800 Americans still listed as missing in the Vietnam War.
There were almost no Vietnamese present, just a series of tables displaying photographs of the group’s painstaking work, and helmets, shoes and replicas of bones recovered by the 425 members of the command. He asked a few questions and then sped off in his motorcade.
Mr. Bush conducts his state visits like he conducts his presidency – with little understanding and an aloofness underpinned by ignorance. He has famously said that he does not do nuance, indeed, lacking an understanding of the issues nuance is hardly possible. From his elitist flyover of New Orleans to his frat boy antics at the G-8 summit, we have learned of his accidental, often comical, style of management. Therefore, I find it noteworthy that Mr. Bush would dabble in a little bit of historical analysis while in Vietnam.
Vietnam was a strategic disaster for the United States. It was an ideologically driven war with no clear objective. It was a war of choice.
It has generally been accepted that a primary lesson of Vietnam is that the United States should not commit military forces abroad unless the national interest and the objective were clear. This lesson was ignored when Ronald Reagan committed American Marines to Lebanon. Since that mission, the lesson has been further refined and articulated by the likes of Casper Weinberger and Colin Powell:
After 241 American troops on a pointless mission in Beirut were killed by a suicide bomber in 1983, the Reagan Administration struggled to draw lessons from the disaster. The next year, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger offered a checklist for evaluating the future uses of military forces abroad. Such actions should be necessary to protect vital national interests, he advised, and permit the use of powerful force to achieve a decisive victory. The objective must be clear and attainable by military means, and it must be supported by Congress and the people.
These lessons become known as the Weinberger Doctrine and the Powell Doctrine. In both doctrines, the use of force was an option of last resort. In other words, wars of choice and wars lacking public support were off the table.
Enter the Bush Doctrine. Wars of choice were in vogue again. A President who was historically challenged ignored history. Or so we thought.
In Vietnam this week, Mr. Bush graced the world with the lessons he learned from Vietnam while serving gallantly in the Texas and Alabama Air National Guards:
Asked what lessons the war in Vietnam offered for the war in Iraq, Bush’s response suggested a need for patience and determination—a nod toward the U.S. decision to abandon Vietnam after a protracted and unsuccessful war there.
"We’ll succeed unless we quit," Bush said.
"We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take awhile," Bush said. Calling the Iraq war a "great struggle," he said: "It’s just going to take a long period of time for the ideology that is hopeful, and that is an ideology of freedom, to overcome an ideology of hate." [Emphasis added by me.]
The Vietnam War, or the Second Indochina War, saw the deaths of over 1 million Vietnamese and over 58,000 American service personnel. What exactly would have been the shape of "success" or "victory" if we had not quit?
The American objective in Vietnam was spelled out in the National Security Action Memorandum 52 as follows:
The U.S. objective and concept of operations stated in report are approved: to prevent Communist domination of South Vietnam; to create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society, and to initiate, on an accelerated basis, a series of mutually supporting actions of a military, political, economic, psychological and covert character designed to achieve this objective.
These objectives should sound vaguely familiar. Replace "Communist" with "Islamist" and "South Vietnam" with "Iraq", and these objectives sound very much like Mr. Bush’s last remaining rationale for our presence in Iraq:
The rise of a free and self-governing Iraq will deny terrorists a base of operation, discredit their narrow ideology, and give momentum to reformers across the region. This will be a decisive blow to terrorism at the heart of its power, and a victory for the security of America and the civilized world.
A war once again driven by ideology over national interest is taking place in the sands of Iraq and in the mind of George W Bush.
The American military operations in Vietnam began with General Westmoreland’s "search and destroy" operations:
In 1965, Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of ‘search and destroy’. The objective was to find and then kill members of the NLF. The US soldiers found this difficult. As one marine captain explained: "You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike." Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As one Marine officer admitted they "were usually counted as enemy dead, under the unwritten rule ‘If he’s dead and Vietnamese, he’s VC’."
The American military involvement in Vietnam ended with the policy of "Vietnamization".
And so it is with Iraq. The strategy of finding and killing an endless supply of insurgents is giving way to the policy of "Iraqization", or, "we will stand down as the Iraqis stand up". Our Iraqi misadventure is following the same arc as our misadventure in Indochina. Now, as it was then, we are fighting an insurgency in the middle of a civil war. The goals are unclear, the enemy is hard to find, and "peace with honor" is the catalyst for more killing.
The United States underestimated the nationalism of the Vietnamese. While America was fighting communists, the Vietnamese were fighting invaders. The United States military could not kill Vietnamese fast enough to stem the tide of nationalism. Ho Chi Minh laid out the math that ultimately proved correct:
"You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win"
Ultimately Vietnamese nationalism defeated the United States, and it was Vietnamese nationalism that has led to unification.
Similarly, the United States in Iraq has consistently underestimated Iraqi nationalism. While America was fighting al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgency was fueled by nationalism. Long after the United States has left Iraq, it will be Iraqi nationalism that will have the best chance of putting out the fires of sectarianism.
The war in Iraq is lost for the Americans, it never was winnable. We can kill more Iraqis and we can sacrifice more of our soldiers for ideology. Reality suggests that we leave now.
So, while Mr. Bush relearns the lessons of Vietnam, the rest of us need to get our men and women out of Iraq. We cannot sacrifice our soldiers while an addled schoolboy belatedly learns his lessons.