Viewing Iraq through Viet prism
WASHINGTON-- As the president contemplates a "surge" of U.S. troops into Baghdad, a Vietnam analogy is pertinent. A surge might merely intensify a policy that is akin to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's and Gen. William Westmoreland's policy in Vietnam. A better policy might resemble that of two men who subsequently occupied the offices those men held -- Mel Laird, President Nixon's first defense secretary, and Gen. Creighton Abrams, who in 1968 replaced Westmoreland as U.S. commander in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon won the 1968 election with an implicit promise to replace the McNamara-Westmoreland policy of engagement and attrition ( & quot;search and destroy & quot;), which was failing militarily in Vietnam and politically in America. Nixon's policy, formulated with Laird and Abrams, was for phased withdrawals of U.S. forces, coinciding with increased U.S. advisers and other aid for South Vietnam's army. The announced policy of withdrawals gave the U.S. some leverage to force the government in Saigon-- not a paragon, but better than the government in Baghdad today -- to recognize that the clock was running on its acceptance of responsibility for Vietnam's security.
Back to the '40s
Unfortunately, the political climate in Washington today is analogous to that of 60 years ago. In 1946-47, partisan divisions, deepened by disdain for a president considered in over his head, were threatening to make it impossible to reverse the unraveling of the U.S. position in the region that then was most crucial to U.S. interests -- Europe. In 1946, the president's party lost control of both houses of Congress, in what was partly a vote of no confidence in President Harry Truman. A shattered Europe was sliding toward chaos, with communism gaining ground in Western as well as Central Europe.
Truman, however, embraced a proposal for substantial U.S. aid to Europe, but directed that Secretary of State George Marshall's name, not his, be on it. Marshall made the proposal in his June 1947 Harvard commencement address. Truman also instructed Marshall and his deputy, Dean Acheson, to make necessary accommodations with Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the Michigan Republican who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee.
Today, no one has a promising idea for Iraq comparable to the Marshall Plan. And who would be the Democrats' Vandenberg, capable of muting the party's' ferocious rejection of all the president's ideas?
Recently, after his 10th trip to Iraq, Bing West, a former Marine and current correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, noted that 70 percent of U.S. casualties are not from bullets but from roadside bombs. The enemy rarely engages in sustained firefights with U.S. forces, so U.S. forces are killing fewer insurgents than the insurgents recruit. Furthermore, U.S. units spend 15 percent to 30 percent of their time training Iraqis: "If winning is not a direct goal for U.S. units, we don't need so many troops in Iraq. If winning is a direct goal, we don't have enough units in Iraq."
Under a "Laird-Abrams" approach, winning would be the "direct goal" of Iraqi units. There is, however, this sobering arithmetic: Based on experience in the Balkans, an assumption among experts is that maintaining order through sectarian strife requires one competent soldier or police officer for every 50 people. For the 6.5 million people in the Baghdad metropolitan area, that means 130,000 security personnel. There are 120,000 now, but 66,000 of them are Iraqi police, many -- perhaps most -- of whom are worse than incompetent. Because their allegiances are to sectarian factions, they are not responsive to legitimate authority. They are part of the problem. Even a substantial surge of, say, 30,000 U.S. forces would leave Baghdad that many short, and could be a recipe for protracting failure.
Today, Gen. George Casey, U.S. commander in Baghdad, is in hot water with administration proponents of a "surge" because he believes what he recently told The New York Times: "The longer we in the U.S. forces continue to bear the main burden of Iraq's security, it lengthens the time that the government of Iraq has to take the hard decisions about reconciliation and dealing with the militias. And the other thing is that they can continue to blame us for all of Iraq's problems, which are at base their problems."
Baghdad today is what Wayne White -- for 26 years with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now with the Middle East Institute -- calls "a Shiite-Sunni Stalingrad." Imagine a third nation's army operating between -- and against -- both the German and Russian forces in Stalingrad. That might be akin to the mission of troops sent in any surge.
Washington Post Writers Group