Sunday, April 11, 2004

Iraq, Vietnam, escalation and quagmire: does Kerry have a plan? 

Newsweek's new cover story compares Iraq and Vietnam. I'm not going to analyze the comparison in detail, but two things struck me. First, while the Vietnam war was on a scale far larger than what is going on in Iraq -- it involved a higher level of American troop commitment and a much higher casualty rate -- Vietnam, too, started out as a small-scale conflict. We just couldn't stop it from escalating. That brings me to my second point. The recent difficulties we've had in Iraq are sure to provoke calls for more troops. Many Americans seem to accept the need for more troops, at least in the short term. The idea of sending more troops to Iraq is not unreasonable, and it should be considered. At the same time, we should be wary of allowing Iraq to escalate into the same sort of quagmire as Vietnam. Daniel Schorr reminds us of the Vietnam-era meaning of quagmire:
Maybe it's time to dust off that unhappy word from Vietnam days - quagmire. For those too young to remember, quagmire means that, whether or not you should have been there in the first place, you're stuck there now because you can't get out without making things infinitely worse.
I was surprised to read such a specific definition. Being one of those "too young to remember," I had thought of a "quagmire" as nothing more specific than "a big mess."

The amazing thing about Schorr's very specific definition of quagmire is how well it applies to Iraq. Pulling out of Iraq really would  be a disaster. The Sunni/Shiite united front against the occupation wouldn't last for two days after the United States left. It could turn into another another Bosnia, religion taking on the role of ethnicity, Kurds undertaking "ethnic cleansing" of the Turkmen, who knows. Turkey, Syria and Iran would be drawn into the power vacuum. The end result could be an Iranian-style Islamic state, another dictatorship, or a partitioned Iraq. We really can't leave. And that's what makes the Vietnam parallels so accurate. Sure, it's not a "domino effect" this time. Nobody thinks pulling out of Iraq would turn the whole world communist. But pulling out could have some pretty horrible consequences. We can't pull out, and we may not be able to control the country with current troop levels. We may need to send more troops. More troops might not solve the problem either, and we'll still be stuck there. Escalation and quagmire.

I want to see a detailed plan from Kerry. What's he going to do about Iraq? Out of the current generation of national politicians, Kerry is potentially among the best-qualified to handle the Iraq crisis. He fought in Vietnam and understood its follies. He has decades of foreign-policy experience. If anyone can stop Iraq from turning into another Vietnam, Kerry can. Yet I've been disappointed by his response so far. Calls for more international involvement are all well and good, but we've heard that point a hundred times already. International involvement is not going to magically fix the current crisis. So what's Kerry's plan? Why do I suddenly find myself afraid that he doesn't have one?
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