Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2004

My recent visit to Vietnam and Thailand brought to mind this pressing question: does the insurgency facing U.S. forces in Iraq resemble the one our troops fought in Vietnam in the 1960s? Last week Senator Edward Kennedy charged that Iraq is "George Bush's Vietnam."

Thirty-six years ago, in 1968, the United States was heading into an election in which foreign policy, specifically Vietnam, was the burning issue. Will history repeat itself in 2004? To answer that question, let's compare the two conflicts from three vantage points: size of the forces deployed, strength of the enemy's insurgency, and the mood of the American people.

* Size of U.S. forces In April 1968 the United States had over 500,000 personnel from all military services engaged in the war in Vietnam. Most were in South Vietnam, but the Air Force also had units based in Thailand, and the Navy had personnel both on ships off Vietnam and on river patrol in the country. In Iraq, by contrast, the total U.S. force committed to the war is about 125,000, some at bases in Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states.

Even if this force were increased somewhat to deal with the recent spike in violence, the force remains small compared with the one in Vietnam. Regarding casualties, the number of Americans killed in Vietnam in 1967 and early 1968 was several hundred a week, compared with some 650 who have died from all causes in in Iraq during the past year.

* Strength of the insurgency. In Vietnam U.S. forces battled a massive Viet Cong insurgency supported by North Vietnam's army, which was provided with large amounts of arms and supplies by Communist China and the Soviet Union. Contrast this with Iraq where the insurgency is centered on die-hard supporters of the ousted Saddam Hussein and a minority of Shiite Muslims determined to fight a holy war against the occupation. As of this writing, this radical minority has not instigated a general uprising among the larger Shiite majority of Iraqis. Unlike Vietnam, no neighboring state--Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia--has given support to the insurgency, although Iran's Islamic government may covertly encourage the Shiite radicals..

* Mood of the U.S. public. In the spring of 1968 anti-war demonstrations were spreading across America, especially on college campuses. A bloody Tet offensive launched by Vietnamese insurgents in February shook the confidence of the Johnson administration that the insurgency could be crushed. Prominent Democrats, including Senator Robert Kennedy, challenged the president's bid for reelection and in late March President Johnson announced that he would not be a candidate in November and that he had ordered a de-escalation of the war.

Today public opinion continues to support the war in Iraq, even though polls show that Americans are questioning the Bush administration's ability to bring peace to that country. No large anti-war demonstrations have occurred on college campuses, and even the brutal killing and mutilation of four Americans in Falluja two weeks ago did not spark public outrage or calls in Congress for withdrawal from Iraq, as occurred after a similar incident in Somalia in 1993.

Nevertheless, the potential for trouble for George Bush's reelection is growing. Two factors concerning Iraq will play a big role in how the American public views the war during the months before the November elections: Is the Iraq insurgency gaining or losing momentum? Will the European NATO allies pitch in with troops and money to make the rebuilding of a democratic Iraq a truly international effort?

George Bush seems determined to turn over sovereignty to a provisional Iraqi government on June 30 regardless of whether the insurgency is abating. His top representative in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, is convinced that the occupation must end in order to blunt the argument in Iraq and elsewhere that the United States is the new colonial power, and to encourage other countries to join the coalition. Large numbers of troops will remain to train Iraq's security forces, and major economic aid will continue to flow in order to assist an elected government, to be installed next year, to establish a democratic, federal Iraqi state.

Will the American public accept this plan for Iraqi rule if it does not result in a big decline in the violence and if American troops are needed indefinitely?

A second factor influencing public opinion is the perception that most of the world does not support the war in Iraq and that America and Britain are virtually alone in bearing its costs. The recent election in Spain and its new prime minister's pledge to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq reinforces this apprehension.

Richard Clarke's testimony before the commission investigating the 9-11 attacks underscored the concern many Americans feel about the war and occupation of Iraq, that it was ill-conceived by the Bush administration. Even though polls show a majority of the public still believes that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was a good decision, they are troubled by the president's failure to stop the insurgency and greatly reduce the size of our forces

In my view, the Pentagon bears the major responsibility for poor planning on the post-war period in Iraq. Hubris--overconfidence--by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and his deputies accounts for the gross misunderstanding of the major problems that would face coalition forces once they captured Baghdad. Middle East experts in the State Department and in universities were ignored.

Although Iraq is not another Vietnam in terms of the magnitude of its insurgency, the president needs to have a good answer in the next seven months to this question: when will the war end and when will the troops come home?.

File last modified on Thursday, 12-AUG-2004 09:00 PM EST

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