The Washington Times
The Vietnam syndrome
By Arnaud de Borchgrave
Published June 21, 2005
Admittedly stretched very thin, the U.S. military has the courage, the stamina and the weapons to see the Iraq insurgency through, however long it takes.
The body politic is another story. Already, congressional support for the war is flagging. Some Republican internationalists are letting it be known, albeit off the record, if the Iraq war vote came up today, knowing what they now know, they would be nays.
Cartoonists juxtapose Vice President Dick Cheney's conclusion the insurgency was in its "last throes" with President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" from the deck of an aircraft carrier May 1, 2003. Public impatience with the war of liberation that turned out to be a guerrilla war of attrition is growing. Diminished public support is palpable.
The pernicious Vietnam syndrome is worming its way through the halls of congress -- and the court of public opinion. Over half the country no longer supports the war. Half those polled take the Vietnam analogy seriously and want to get out now. Fifty-six percent say it wasn't worth it. More than half also say U.S. security was not enhanced by the war.
Army recruitment and re-enlistment goals are falling short by 40 percent. The capabilities for fighting two-and-a-half wars simultaneously have long since fallen to the post-Cold War cost-cutters in two Clinton administrations. The two wars at the same time strategy is also a distant memory.
The now famous Downing Street memo, written by Sir Michael Dearlove, then head of MI6, the British secret intelligence service, and now dean of Pembroke College at Cambridge University, has convinced many former war hawks the Bush administration's strategy for a quick war on the cheap was snare and delusion. The Rumsfeld Doctrine did not foresee the need for prolonged occupation, as Iraq required.
If Kim Jong-il -- the unpredictable absolute dictator of North Korea -- were to order his million-man army to cross the Demilitarized Zone and dig in a few miles to the south, on the outskirts of Seoul, the U.S. would have to resort to tactical nuclear weapons to force him back whence he came.
It is now glaringly obvious the war had nothing to do with Iraq's phantom weapons of mass destruction, and everything to do with a strategy that may have been misguided. Iraq, the war's strategic thinkers posited, was to become the Arab world's first democracy. Democratic Iraq would then become a magnet for surrounding authoritarian states. And Israel, surrounded by Arab democracies, could at last relax and look forward to at least a quarter-century of peace and tranquility.
The illusion that 24 million Iraqis would go back to work after a few joyous days of celebration a la France circa 1944, and that oil would pay Uncle Sam's war bills, was conventional wisdom at the highest echelons of government. Everything was slam-dunk, from WMD to the rallying of the Iraqi army to the coalition. Talk of a possible Sunni-inspired-insurgency was ridiculed.
Recently retired generals, speaking off the record with journalists they have known since they were junior officers in Vietnam 35 years ago, go so far as to say Iraq has broken the back of the U.S. military. Richard A. Clarke, former top counterterrorist honcho at the White House, writing in the Sunday New York Times magazine, has picked up similar asides from his military contacts.
"One victim of this slow bleeding in Iraq," says Mr. Clarke, "is the American military as an institution. Across America, the National Guard, designed to assist civil authorities in domestic crises is in tatters. ... Now the rot is beginning to spread into the regular Army. Recruiters are coming up dry, and some, under pressure to produce new troops, have reportedly been complicit in suspect applications."
By the end of President Bush's term, Mr. Clarke writes, "the war in Iraq could end up costing $600 billion, more than 6 times what some key Pentagon officials had projected." Many other costs are also beginning to become clearer.
Mr. Bush is unlikely to change course because opinion polls show the majority of Americans don't like the heading. He has staked his presidency on seeing it through to a viable Iraqi democracy taking root and then being able to defend itself without the U.S. cavalry standing by to ride to the rescue.
Cutting out in the middle of an insurgency would have incalculable consequences. Islamist extremists would see this as the defeat of the world's only superpower -- and a clear track for jihadi mayhem in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan, not to mention a civil war in Iraq.
But the American people know more about Social Security's cloudy future than about the stakes in Iraq. It is now incumbent on Mr. Bush to use the bully pulpit to spell out the tragic geopolitical consequences of failure in Iraq. Failure is not an option. But at present, failure is an all too tragic possibility.
Karl Rove can't wait for the dog days of August -- or another Michael Jackson circus to keep the president's poll numbers from getting any worse. But only Mr. Bush can do that. From Abu Ghraib to Sen. Richard Durbin's addlepated remarks about Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot, the U.S. continues losing ground all over the world. Repair work is long overdue there.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.