The eerie thing about the Bush press conference on April 13 is how much he sounded like Lyndon Johnson. All the same arguments he made about staying in Viet Nam— no matter how grim it looked– are now presented by George W. Bush– in that same drawl– to justify staying in Iraq. He even has the beginnings of what some people used to call Johnson’s “shame-faced” expression.
You felt bad for Johnson (I did– a little) because it wasn’t through malice or greed that he got into Viet Nam. It was just plain stupidity.
That doesn’t mean Iraq is inevitably going to be like Viet Nam. I think it is fairly likely, but I’m not willing to give up entirely just yet.
But it does bring to mind a few interesting issues related to game theory. What is game theory? Suppose that you entered an auction in which you are required to pay even if you lose the bidding? At a certain point, you will realize that you are bidding more than the item is worth. But if you stop bidding, you get nothing. So you can’t stop.
In other words, suppose your soldiers are killed even if you don’t win the war? That’s what happened in Viet Nam. As the war progressed, the cost to the U.S. (in soldier’s lives) became higher and higher compared to the value of winning the war and stopping the spread of communism dead in it’s tracks. Therefore, the cost of losing the war also became higher and higher. Whereas the U.S. could have withdrawn relatively painlessly in 1963 (as John Kennedy seems to have intended), by 1965 the cost of withdrawing had become immense, and was growing larger by the moment. So Johnson felt he had no choice but to continue “bidding” it up. It took another eight years before Richard Nixon finally ended the bidding, and the U.S. lost the item (Viet Nam) and 55,000 lives.
So, if, in 1963, the U.S. public knew that it would cost 55,000 lives, they would probably have never tried to “purchase” the victory.
It would be hard to believe that the Bush White House is too stupid to realize that they are in precisely this kind of auction in Iraq. The more expensive the overthrow of Saddam becomes, the more unacceptable it will appear to be to withdraw. The more unacceptable it is to withdraw, the higher the U.S. must “bid”.
That doesn’t mean the U.S. should withdraw. Not necessarily. Not yet.
The U.S. could win this war. It could turn over political power to an Iraqi government at the end of June and establish a democracy in the heart of the middle east. All that oil will keep flowing for America’s SUV’s. Iraqi’s will start establishing new businesses and industries and enjoy the fruits of capitalism: new cars, wide-screen tv’s, personal computers, iPods… The country won’t be wracked by continuous civil war between the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds. There won’t be terrorists who perceive the democratic government to be a sell-out to the decadent west. Iran will mind it’s own business. Syria will block the border. Israel will be safe.
Or does that all seem rather unlikely to you now?
It is up to the American public, with an election coming up in November, to assess George Bush’s grip on events. Does the U.S. have a realistic chance of obtaining it’s objectives in Iraq? Or will it devolve into an endless cycle of violence, repression, retribution, and chaos?
I don’t think John Kerry has a viable alternative plan. That’s the nature of a quagmire. But Kerry will be hamstrung by circumstance. If he withdraws American troops, he leaves Iraq in the hands of violent, intolerant extremists, or, perhaps, civil war. If he stays, he may have to deal with increasing numbers of casualties and the inevitable comparisons with Viet Nam. I don’t see how Kerry can be a white knight on this issue. All the voters can do right now is punish the man who got them into this mess with an electoral defeat.
Nixon took over for Johnson in 1968. It took him 5 years before he could withdraw from Viet Nam, in 1973, with “peace with honor”. Shortly afterwards, South Viet Nam collapsed. Thirty years later, it’s easy to look back and see what should have been readily apparent at the time: all of the death and destruction of the Viet Nam War was for nothing.
The problem is that real U.S. objectives in Iraq are not the same as the objectives that appear to be at stake in public statements about the U.S. position. The U.S. claims that democracy and the freedom of the Iraqi people are at stake. I think that George Bush really believes it, but even George Bush’s friends admit he doesn’t think deeply about anything.
The problem is that the U.S. doesn’t really care about democracy or freedom in any other Arab dictatorship. The U.S. seems to smile fondly on the governments of Egypt and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and obviously has no interest in the victims of oppression in Sudan. So why does it care about it in Iraq? It doesn’t. The real objective, all along, was to depose Saddam, to punish him for having fought George Bush Sr. and for his arrogant refusal to allow the U.S. unfettered access to it’s alleged weapons laboratories, and, of course, to ensure a ready supply of cheap oil for the massive engine of the U.S. economy.
If these are the real stakes, the real thing that the U.S. is “bidding” on, it becomes clear that Iraq will not be free to choose, even in a supposedly free election, a government that is inimical to the interests of the United States. Any political party that declares itself to be opposed to U.S. interests in Iraq, will be declared to be an enemy of democracy, and will not be permitted to contest an election, even if a majority of Iraqi citizens appear to support it.
What the U.S. is doing right now, with it’s interim ruling council, is trying to ensure that the outcome of any future election will be to it’s liking, while appearing to represent the will of the majority of Iraqi citizens.
That may all be beside the point. The real question is, can the U.S. impose a democracy upon a nation that is unwilling to stand up for itself against the violent tactics of a minority of Islamic extremists? The general population of Iraq might prefer a democracy to an Islamic republic, but they don’t appear to be willing to fight for it. There are no demonstrations or rallies in support of the U.S., or the interim ruling council. The Iraqi policemen and soldiers the U.S. is training flee at the first sign of a mujahidin. There is no political party or leader with popular support to speak in favor of continued U.S. occupation. The members of the interim council that are friendly to the U.S. will be perceived to be stooges of the West, almost by definition.
It is fundamentally irrational for the U.S. to attempt to impose a democracy upon a nation that doesn’t want it badly enough to pay even a portion of it’s cost. If people are unwilling to fight for it now, why would they be willing to fight for it after the U.S. leaves and the Islamic fundamentalists have even more room to maneuver?
If the U.S. couldn’t plant democracy in Kuwait after liberating it from the first Iraqi invasion, why does it think it can plant democracy in Iraq? If our “friends”, the Saudis, have no inclination to hold democratic elections, why should Iraq?
If Libya now meets our standard of good world citizen….
It’s not going to happen. The U.S. can never leave. It’s going to get uglier and uglier as the U.S. is forced to aggressively defend itself against determined fanatical enemies.
My guess is that the U.S. will eventually begin to devise some kind of window-dressing, a strategy that would allow it to pull most of it’s soldiers out of Iraq without appearing to be surrendering the country to the forces of darkness and chaos. It may take five more years before they begin this process, and then another five years before it really gets under way. Some kind of Iraqi strong-man congenial to the U.S. will have to emerge, with the backing of the new Iraqi army. Radical Islamic movements will have to be violently repressed. Iran will grow interested.