TCS Daily

Good Morning, Vietnam

By Max Borders - August 23, 2005 12:00 AM

The public's support for the war is ebbing. According to one of the latest opinion polls by Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, 56 percent of those asked said the war is going badly, while 57 percent say the war is making us increasingly vulnerable to terrorism.

Thankfully, we have a representative democracy rather than rule by referendum. Strong leadership and pluck have, thus far, protected the Iraq endeavor. And were it not for the Administration's resolve, both Iraq and the US would be worse off. Indeed, just as the people represent a check against the power of the government, a good administration can provide a check against opinion-poll politics and errant populism. However, it is not clear that the Administration will be able to steer the Iraq war through many more public relations problems -- not to mention US casualties. In this way, it is fighting a war on two fronts.

In the Information Age, access to the daily realities of war -- not to mention an incessant stream of criticisms -- should make Americans better informed. But often it doesn't. Instead, the torrents of bad news -- filtered through talking heads waiting to say "I told you so" -- are making US objectives appear fuzzy, which -- in turn -- makes the job more difficult to finish. On the other hand, instead of a consistent, forthright justification, the White House has tailored many of its messages for what it thinks Americans want to hear. The results have become as mixed as the messages. Thus, the bulwark against popular sentiment is weakening. The mission is becoming compromised.

In light of this, I'm going to make a claim that isn't likely to make me many friends. American foreign policy still suffers from what some have called the "Vietnam Syndrome." First, US "public opinion" can be myopic, especially if an Administration panders to it. Second, when public opinion (or concerns about public opinion) has guided our military efforts, they have either petered out or failed. Third, it is critical that our long-term strategic objectives are protected against the fickleness of popular opinion -- especially when such works against our national interests.

My worry is that the objectives of Iraq -- as well as our strategy for the larger Middle East -- may not fall within a time horizon that can outlast the inflammation of public outcry due to Vietnam Syndrome. Tremendous political pressures reinforced by negative perceptions are building against the Administration. We should wonder whether these are the symptoms of a US public that receives a steady diet of colored information and news of dead soldiers; but gets less information about military and political gains. For example, the fruits of democratization are routinely downplayed. Good news is attenuated, or buried on page 15.

Vietnam, Mogadishu, the Media and Military Action

Why the "Vietnam Syndrome"? Of course, failures of understanding caused the US to pull out of Vietnam with its objectives left unmet. Consider this passage by historian Paul Johnson:

"Once the TV presentation of the war became daily and intense, it worked on the whole against American interests. It generated the idea that America was fighting a 'hopeless' war. Not only did the media underplay or ignore any US successes, it tended to turn Vietcong and North Vietnamese reverses into victories."

The Vietnam War, arguably near a tipping point, ended due to concerns about dwindling public support. The war had, however, raged for more than ten years -- beginning, officially at least, with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Still, the gains being made by US and South Vietnamese forces were truly remarkable. Even the Tet Offensive, spun as a dismal US loss, had actually been "the worst reverse the Vietcong suffered throughout the war," according to Johnson. "They lost 40,000 of their best troops and a great number of heavy weapons." We can only wonder about the outcome had the military continued to accrue victories (especially for the 2 million in Cambodia who subsequently suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge). Now we are but two-and-a-half years into the Iraq conflict and the only meaningful parallels one can draw with Vietnam involve the daily doses of bad news like those Johnson discusses.

Remember the Black Hawk Down story? Now recall the footage of dead US soldiers being dragged through the streets by exultant Somali warriors. That clip helped turn public opinion against the US intervention. Maybe the military should not have been involved in Somalia, as the "humanitarian" action was hardly in US national interests. East Africa is also such a faraway place that the American people would, fairly, have had trouble seeing the necessity of US involvement, even on humanitarian grounds. After all, Africa is a continent that is chronically afflicted by warlordism and conflict.

But Somalia was also an indication that the average American doesn't have much of a stomach for casualties if he-or-she cannot see prospects for a quick resolution, that is, victory as a discreet objective. Still, one can grant the US public more than just simple conflict-squeamishness. As The New Republic's Lawrence F. Kaplan writes:

"[P]olls demonstrate that Americans will sustain battle deaths if they think the United States will emerge from a conflict triumphant, if they believe the stakes justify casualties, and if the president makes a case for suffering them. Each of these measures has important implications for the operation in Iraq."

Failure on these measures contributes further to the Vietnam Syndrome. And this is not only where the Administration has fared poorly, but the American people have, as well. It is the White House's responsibility to communicate the vision of the occupation just as it is the electorate's responsibility fully to understand the stakes. Unfortunately, as in Vietnam and Somalia, the media are so often the intermediary.

From the start, the justification lay in the vision

The question of whether there were ever WMDs in Iraq is probably moot at this point. If there ever were WMDs, they won't be discovered now. And even if US fears about WMDs were justified by the best available intelligence of the time, the public -- rightly or wrongly -- wanted hard proof. In any case, the WMD justification was a major pretext for the Iraq invasion, and when no WMDs materialized, the White House began to lean on the secondary humanitarian justification based on gassed Kurds and mass-graves. But to my mind, neither of these was the best, nor the most important justification for invading Iraq.

It's the broader so-called "neoconservative" justification that gets the honors. If the Administration had been forthright about the neoconservative justification from the beginning, such would never have been transformed by media elites into the grand designs of an insidious cabal. Instead, it could have been cast as what it is: a vision for freedom in the world, directed by the world's sole superpower, conducted for the sake of the right and the good. Strategy and morality converge.

With his 2nd inauguration, President Bush finally attempted to give us a variant of the neoconservative vision of foreign policy:

"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world...

"Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

But with that address, it may have already been too late for the President to carry that vision through the second term. Getting buy-in from the American people on the Big Idea should have started in early 2003. And it should have been more ideological than anything. It should never have promised a swift victory, or a play in one act.

What is at stake?

Again, the stakes are high. Even many who didn't agree with the invasion of Iraq agree that this is a war we cannot lose. While casualties continue to mount, the long-term impacts of the invasion are already beginning to emerge. Indeed, we cannot underestimate the positive effects of the invasion, as summarized here by Charles Krauthammer in Commentary:

"Millions of Arabs watched on television as Iraqis exercised their political rights, and were moved to ask the obvious question: why are Iraqis the only Arabs voting in free elections -- and doing so, moreover, under American aegis and protection? The rest is so well known as barely to merit repeating. The Beirut spring. Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. Open demonstrations and the beginnings of political competition in Egypt. Women's suffrage in Kuwait. Small but significant steps towards democracy in the Gulf. Bashar Assad's declared intent to legalize political parties in Syria, purge the ruling Baath party, sponsor free municipal elections in 2007 and move toward a market economy."

Let us not forget the Iraqi constitution being drawn up as I write. Nor the Kurds of the north and the Shia of the south that are now enjoying relative peace and prosperity. All of these gains mirror a future of what we stand to lose if we give up on Iraq. The neoconservative vision of a world prodded by sticks and enticed by carrots toward liberal democracy is no longer simply a vision, but a foreign policy with a proven record. One can only speculate about the possible worlds a pullout would leave behind. And none of them looks very good.

Will the progress of the Iraq War be undermined by an electorate that is war-weary after less than three years? Vietnam lasted officially for over 10 years. There have been 1862 US casualties in the Iraq war. In Vietnam during 1965, 1966 and 1967 -- according to -- there were already 19,160 casualties -- only 1000 deaths more than the 1968 numbers when the Indochina campaign was at its bloodiest (16,598 deaths in that year alone). All of this is not to concoct some utilitarian baseline for the "acceptable" number of casualties. Rather, it is simply to point out that war is hell and can be a protracted struggle. In the history of wars, less than 2000 dead in two plus years of conflict is an unprecedented low. And while the loss of human life is always grave, those sacrifices were made for a future of freedom at home and abroad.

What is to be done?

Is it too late for anything to be done about Vietnam Syndrome? There are no clear answers, but three basic things will have to occur:

First, the Administration needs constantly to remind Americans of the vision, not just the discreet goals. The war is no longer just about quelling the insurgency, if it ever was. The war has always been about transforming Iraq into an example of peace, prosperity and successful liberal institutions in a dangerous part of the world. No one believes Iraq can be an oasis. It is enough that the Iraqi people have a hand in their own destiny and that they are prepared to accept the transformative power of the rule of law. Such transformations may have short-term costs. But in the longer term, Iraq can be a catalyst for change that makes us all more secure.

Second, we the people need to think longer term. Our obsession with quick victories and homeward-bound troops should be tempered by the knowledge of what is at stake. Our all-volunteer forces are professional fighters who understand that they have been called to serve in real conflict. If we accept the neoconservative vision of the United States' role in the world, we should be prepared for the possibility of other, future engagements as we project our power globally for the sake of a comprehensive liberal order. Minimally, we are in a strategic position in the Middle East. With troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is geographically poised to deal with Iran as an emerging nuclear threat. For that reason alone, we should not be so eager to pull out.

Finally, the media will have to understand that, while they can never be "objective," they have a responsibility fairly to address many facets of an event. Criticism, debate and even dissent are healthy elements of a free society. But the media should be aware of its responsibility to provide the broadest range of relevant facts and perspectives so readers can shape more informed opinions. That means, when it comes to Iraq we need the bad news and the good. Instead of journalistic integrity we get a competition among spin doctors who selectively include or omit at will. We get Cindy Sheehan ad nauseum. We get Abu Ghraib and daily death tolls. And we get those who use their editorial powers to further their own agendas. To treat Vietnam Syndrome, this will have to change.

The author is a writer living in the Washington area.


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