Monday, December 8, 2008

Honesty About Vietnam And Iraq

The Iraq war got substantially less attention during the election campaign after Lehman Bros. collapsed on Sept. 15. As debate about U.S. policy resumes, and in view of the mathematical possibility that one of my four readers is an Obama adviser, I'm reposting a submission to The New Nixon from May:

Vietnam is in the news again. A vigorous debate about whether South Vietnam could under any circumstances have survived the withdrawal of U.S. forces began at Matthew Yglesias’s blog after Rick Perlstein, in Nixonland, called Saigon’s army a “joke.” Then Robert O. Borosage wrote indefensibly that the South Vietnamese army disintegrated after we left and also claimed that President Nixon always knew Saigon was doomed.

As Borosage shows, the history of how South Vietnam fared — and the what-if of how she might have fared better if we’d supported her more reliably after our troops came home in 1973 — pertain directly to the looming argument about Iraq during the fall campaign and after the election. Let’s hope the Iraq debate is more honest and less emotional than the Vietnam one, then and now, which is still burdened by the canard that the glorious Vietnamese revolution could not have been stopped, the Vietnam war could never have been won.

Of course it could. It only depended on how much the United States and South Vietnam were willing to commit and sacrifice, kill and destroy. Throughout its time in Indochina, the United States was fighting with one hand and three fingers tied behind its back. I’m not saying some Curtis LeMay exercise in total war would ever have been justified or appropriate. But had it chosen to, the United States could’ve destroyed North Vietnam’s capacity to wage war in a matter of days. What kept us from doing so was not the communists’ superior commitment but our superior scruples. After 1973, if as President Nixon had intended the U.S. had punished violations of the Paris Peace Accords with air strikes and continued to provide sufficient non-personnel aid, there is no reason why South Vietnam couldn’t have survived.

By the same token, as the surge showed, the U.S. has the capacity to bring substantial order to Iraq by deploying additional troops. These days fewer people claim that we can’t help militarily in Iraq, that there’s something uniquely hostile or foreign about the setting such that U.S. force is destined to be ineffective. The more honest argument is how long we should continue to do so.

During the debate at the Yglesias blog, some said that even if South Vietnam could’ve been propped up indefinitely, it wouldn’t have been in the U.S.’s interests to do so. That’s a good, rational argument, if a debatable one in view of the string of Presidents who identified a free Indochina as a U.S. interest and of the tens of millions of people we pledged to help. But let’s please have an debate like that about Iraq instead of saying that there’s nothing more we can do to help owing to our incompetence or even that of our allies. Our capacity to help is virtually unlimited, but our will to do so may not be.

There’s an analogy to the abortion argument. Pro-choicers often stress that the fetus isn’t human. Yet think of each one’s inescapable potential — another Mozart, or the greatest mother or father in town. It would be better, if more harsh-sounding, to say that while one acknowledges each fetus’s indefinite potential, one can see and touch the definite person who has decided her potential would be better realized by having an abortion. The honest antiwar position is to say that while if the U.S. spent and risked enough and stayed long enough, we could permanently transform Iraq for the better, we must choose not to, because we have more important work awaiting elsewhere. After 1973, the United States could have helped preserve South Vietnam as an independent country. It merely decided it didn’t want to.

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