Iraq Needn't Be a Vietnam


Aug 12, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on August 12, 2002.

With knowledge, we can avoid a quagmire

Thirty-eight years ago this week, two U.S. Navy vessels reported being attacked by North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress promptly passed the Southeast Asia Resolution, giving the president almost unlimited authority to make war.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was a surprise; the resolution was not. Many of us working in the White House knew that the draft had already been written, waiting for the right moment to introduce it. It followed several years of national consensus-building.

Yet the military consequences of going to war in Southeast Asia were barely considered; the nation was confident it could succeed where France, a second-tier, colonial power, had failed.

Today, there is equal confidence of prevailing militarily against Iraq. But this time, the belief is founded: The U.S. defeated Iraq 11 years ago and since then America's military strength has risen dramatically while Iraq's has surely gone down. As in the case of Vietnam in 1964, we have not yet sufficiently sorted out the "why" of attacking Iraq, at least not enough for the American people--or our friends and allies abroad--to understand.

Yes, Saddam Hussein has earned his villain's stripes, and Iraq, the region and the world would be better off without him. But deposing him does not guarantee that Iraq, under new leaders, would not continue to seek nuclear weapons--the threat that really matters.

Perhaps those who support invading Iraq are right that deterrence would have no value; perhaps even intrusive inspections, imposed on Iraq with a gun at its head, would fail to cleanse it of mass-destruction weapons. But such courses should be explored while they are options, not historians' conjecture.

Vietnam raises another issue worthy of debate before we strike: Do we have the will to achieve our long-term goals? It is not clear either that the U.S. has the "staying power" needed to stabilize Iraq and its neighborhood after victory or that we have the knowledge to do it right.

The Middle East and Southwest Asia can no longer be treated as separate islands of isolated threats and challenges. Long-term victory is not just about defeating Iraq or wiping up what is left of Al Qaeda. It is also about "nation-building," preventing conflict over Kashmir, fulfilling America's ineluctable destiny to lead Israel and the Palestinians to peace, building policies to inhibit the spread of mass-destruction weapons and to deal with them if they do, drawing Iran out of its isolation, and promoting political, economic and social reform in so many societies over so many years.

All these matters are in play as we think about war with Iraq.

Knowledge is the linchpin. There was no lack of people who knew Vietnam, its history, culture and people and who warned against hubris and overconfidence.

Today, there is no lack of American expertise about the Middle East or Southwest Asia. The challenge is to get that knowledge to the top leaders of government and for them to use it.

We can't ignore past British and Russian failures while we try to shape Afghanistan to our liking. We can't simply assert that U.S. invaders will be welcomed as liberators by a grateful Iraqi people, ready to convert rapidly to democracy; that there will be no spreading turmoil in the region; and that northern Kurds will at last work together and abandon ambitions for independence that so trouble neighboring Turkey.

We only damage our own interests by continuing the delusion that Iran, so far advanced with internal reforms, really teeters on the edge of a "revolution from below," when we should support those leaders working to lead it toward responsible behavior.

Ignorance mired us in Vietnam. Four decades later, we must summon knowledge and assume due humility. We must finally start widespread, sustained, open, serious and uncensored debate on Iraq, free of cant and emotion on all sides; we must be willing to accept permanent commitment to responsibility in the region--and do all this before the march to Baghdad.
Robert E. Hunter, a senior advisor at the RAND Corp., was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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