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Iraq Parallels Vietnam, Not Korea

By Ivan Eland
June 7, 2007

Editor's Note: A new Bush administration talking point for the Iraq War is to tell the American people that the bloody conflict will morph into a Korean-style armistace, not a Vietnam-style catastrophe.

In this guest essay, the Independent Institute's Ivan Eland says the reassuring Korean parallel is the latest Iraq War deception:

The Bush administration has decided its new model for a long-term solution in Iraq is Korea. It’s an attempt to stifle the inevitable comparisons of the Iraq quagmire to Vietnam and a way to justify the eventual reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq (to take the heat off of Republican candidates in the 2008 elections), while retaining a substantial U.S. military presence by establishing three or four long-term major military bases.

The plan would ultimately be a disaster for the United States.

Merely suggesting the long-term establishment of U.S. military bases in a historically significant Muslim country will confirm to the Islamist radicals, mainstream Muslims, as well as Bush critics that the U.S. desire for a continued land-based military presence in the oil-rich Persian Gulf was the administration’s real objective in invading Iraq.

As one of those critics, I had long assumed that oil was one of the major underlying reasons for the invasion of Iraq. The administration knew that the Saudi Arabian government wanted the United States to withdraw from land bases in the desert kingdom, and the administration likely believed in the need for replacement bases to keep its finger on the jugular of Gulf oil.

Open talk by the administration of retaining a long-term military presence in Iraq, à la Korea, merely provides hard evidence for this thesis. For more than a half century after the Korean War, the United States has maintained tens of thousands of U.S. forces in South Korea.

Of course, the need for a U.S. land presence in the Persian Gulf to defend oil is highly questionable. The United States did not have a permanent military land presence in the Gulf during the Cold War when the biggest threat to that oil existed: the Soviet Union.

The United States didn’t even have such a presence when it waged war for oil against Saddam in the 1991 Gulf War. After Saddam invaded Kuwait, the U.S. military brought in land and air forces from the United States for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Revealing its imperial intentions, the United States only established a permanent military presence on land in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1991 after the Soviet and Iraqi threats melted away.

Certainly, with these two major threats eliminated, the United States could easily “defend” Persian Gulf oil offshore, as it did successfully during the 1991 conflict. Many economists, however, believe that oil will flow from the Persian Gulf, even without U.S. military forces protecting it.

Oil is a valuable commodity to the Gulf countries, including radically Islamist Iran, only when it is sold, making the profit motive the best guarantor that oil will continue to flow freely.

Furthermore, non-Muslim military forces occupying Muslim lands is the major factor that energizes radical Islamists, and even mainstream Muslims, to oppose the occupiers. This factor was the source of zealous resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Chechnya.

It also explains Palestinian and Lebanese opposition to Israeli occupation and the aggressive Iraqi and Afghani push back against the U.S. occupation.

Any U.S. bases remaining in Iraq, either to keep a finger on the oil, or to act as a jumping off point for attacking Iran, will similarly quickly come under withering attack from Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda. It will not be easy for these bases to be used effectively for these roles if they are constantly under siege.

In Vietnam, U.S. bases became major targets for the communists. In addition, unlike post-war Korea, which had a clearly demarcated border that ensured stability in South Korea, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, sectarian violence, and chaos in Iraq have no fronts and are ubiquitous—much more like Vietnam.

President Bush has stated his belief that the United States left Vietnam too soon before the job was done, saying that the United States should not make the same mistake in Iraq—an ironic statement from a man who successfully avoided serving in Vietnam.

In the president’s eyes, U.S. withdrawal after an unsuccessful U.S. effort to transform Vietnam over more than two decades was “cutting and running.” Apparently he’s willing to see Americans continue to be killed in Iraq indefinitely with the same result.

Even some of the administration’s critics, however, believe that the United States cannot leave Iraq in chaos. But chaos is a reality. A permanent U.S. military presence is likely to be the worst of all worlds.

The president appears to be reversing his position and considering a pull back of U.S. forces to bases away from major Iraqi cities, the elimination of regular U.S. security patrols, and more focus on training Iraqi security forces and launching U.S. raids against al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, this tack has been tried in the past and failed. The problem is not that the Iraqi forces cannot be trained, but that they will end up fighting in the escalating civil war for the Shi’ite, not the Iraqi, cause. Furthermore, as one senior administration official admitted to the New York Times, there is little reason to believe that retaining U.S. bases will prevent the country from remaining “the great jihadist training camp it is today.”

Even some administration critics argue that the United States has too many interests in the Persian Gulf for the United States not to have a Korea-like long-term military presence in Iraq. Although they are vague about what these interests are, they are usually assumed to be oil and Israel.

The myth of the need to defend oil already has been debunked; Israel is a rich country with 200-plus nuclear weapons that doesn’t need to have its security subsidized by endangering U.S. lives in Iraq ad infinitum.

The failure in Vietnam is the correct lesson; Korea is not the correct model for Iraq. The United States should have learned in Vietnam that accepting inevitable defeat, cutting losses, and withdrawing sooner, rather than later, would have saved lives, money, and U.S. prestige.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review. Dr. Eland has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and Investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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