Iraq: another Vietnam?


Iraq isn’t another Vietnam for the US, sure it isn’t?


Only about 500 Americans (plus 100 other occupying forces) have been killed from all causes in Iraq so far, whereas over 58,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam.


But consider the following.  The first 400 US combat troops arrived in Vietnam on 11 December 1961.  In the next three years, until the end of 1964 by which time there were over 17,000 US troops there, 392 US servicemen died (53 in 1962, 123 in 1963 and 216 in 1964).


More than that have already died in Iraq in 9 months, and more than 50% of them since President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” on board the USS Abraham Lincoln off California on 1 May.  And there are about 130,000 US troops there today.


But there is a way in which Iraq is much worse than Vietnam for the US: withdrawal from Vietnam was always going to lead to a politically stable end result; withdrawal from Iraq may not.


At any time after the US intervention began in the late 50s, the US could have withdrawn its forces, and the end result would have always been a stable state in a united Vietnam under Communist control.


That would have been the end result before US intervention began – if the US had not prevented elections being held in a united Vietnam in 1956, as stipulated in the 1954 Geneva Accords, which ended French colonial rule in Indo-China.  That was the end result 20 years later after 58,000 US and more than 2 million or more Vietnamese and Cambodian deaths.


No such stable end result is likely in Iraq – because Iraq is a completely artificial state, containing Shia and Sunni Arabs and Kurds.  It owes its existence to British imperialism, which carved it out of the Ottoman Empire after the first World War.  It would not exist otherwise.


Up until 1958, it was ruled by a Hashemite monarchy under the protection of Britain, which guaranteed its integrity.  The monarchy, and British hegemony, was overthrown by military coup in 1958, and ten years later an independent Iraqi state was consolidated under the Ba’ath Party based on the Sunni Arabs and led by Saddam Hussein.  The US/UK destroyed that state by invasion and occupation in March 2003.


There is an unspoken assumption around that, despite the current difficulties, all will be well once elections are held and a representative Iraqi government is formed and takes control.  Then, it is assumed, the unrepresentative “Ba’athist remnants” will be put down by the forces of the new government, and all will be well.  That makes the rash assumption that a functional government can be formed.


On 26 November 2003 there were elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.  In reality, there were two separate elections, one amongst Protestants to elect Protestant representatives and another amongst Catholics to elect Catholic representatives.  Likewise, in Iraq any election there will in reality consist of at least three separate elections, one amongst the Sunni Arabs, one amongst the Shias Arabs and a third amongst the Kurds, and since the Shias are in a majority the Shia parties will always win.  Iraqi politics as such doesn’t exist: politics in Iraq is either Sunni, Shia or Kurd.


Ah but, it is said, the ethnic and religious diversity can be coped with by having regional autonomy, and power-sharing at the centre between the diverse groups.  That’s all very fine in principle, but it is fraught with difficulty in practice.  Even if a constitutional scheme of this kind were agreed, there is no guarantee that, without external pressure, the system will keep Iraq together, let alone ever produce a functional Iraqi government.  After all, Prime Minister Blair has spent the last 5 years failing to keep a power-sharing government together in Northern Ireland.


Bush and Blair destroyed the Iraqi state, without a thought for the chaotic consequences.  And it’s not as if they weren’t warned long ago:


"If you're going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you've got Baghdad, it's not clear what you will do with it. It's not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that's currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Ba'athists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists. How much credibility is that government going to have if it's set up by the United States military when it's there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for the government, and what happens to it once we leave?" (New York Times, 13 April 1991)


That was Dick Cheney, now US vice-president.



Labour & Trade Union Review

January 2004