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Steve Weissman: Will Bush Learn from Vietnam?

Will Bush Learn from Vietnam?

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Monday 13 September 2004

Though never more than a C-student, George W. Bush has made the same classic blunder that far smarter presidents - Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon - made in Southeast Asia. But if he - or his successor - fails to learn from his mistake, the cost could prove far more fatal, both in Iraq and in the wider war against radical Islamic terrorists.

On the surface, al-Qaedi and the Iraqi rebels seem a world apart from Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong. In most ways, they are. But, whether protestors or policymakers, Americans now need to focus on the similarities.

Washington strategists tended to see Vietnam through overlapping lenses. They saw the conflict there as central to the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union and China, as key to defeating Communist-supported "Wars of National Liberation," and as essential to ensuring Western control of oil and other natural resources, especially in nearby Indonesia.

The Vietnamese saw the war differently. Their leaders were longtime Communists. Ho himself had been a member of the French Communist Party and was active in the Communist International. But for all the talk of worldwide revolution, he and his comrades remained primarily Vietnamese nationalists fighting to free their country from foreign rule. In their view, the Americans replaced the French as colonial masters, and Vietnam continued to fight for its national independence.

The rest is history. Vietnamese nationalism outlasted Americans resolve. We left, they won.

To Americans who tried to figure out why, the answer seemed simple enough. The war lacked popular support among the American people, either because our leaders failed to create it or - perhaps - because anti-war protestors sapped the national will to stay the course and do whatever was necessary to win.

To Vietnamese thinkers, the answer went deeper. No force in the old colonial world was stronger than nationalist feelings. And - if prepared to pay the price - nationalist movements would always hold out longer than foreigners who attempted to impose their rule or install their puppet governments.

Undermined by his deadly detour into Iraq, Mr. Bush's War on Terror faces the same set of problems, but in a different guise. Instead of defending freedom and democracy against an expansionist Communist empire and its Third World lackeys, Team Bush fights against global terrorists who fly the banner of Islamic Holy War. The Red Menace has become a Muslim Green, while Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles give way to suicide bombers.

But, Washington has found a new will to dominate, nurtured by old conservatives who want to forget Vietnam, neo-conservatives who want us to become the new Rome, and Christian fundamentalists who yearn for a new crusade against the Islamic hordes. Add the threat of declining oil supplies, and even foreign policy realists see virtue in nailing down reserves, whether in Iraq, Central Asia, or Sudan, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea.

On the other side, the picture is more confusing, especially to outsiders. Nationalism remains a potent force, and - at least so far - motivates most Iraqi opposition to American occupation. According to the University of Michigan's Juan Cole, an expert on Shi'ite Islam, the nationalist urge dominates even when rebels like Moqtada al-Sadr rally their troops under religious banners and thuggishly threaten their own people for not following a Puritanical view of Islamic law.

But Islamic Jihadis like Osama bin Laden, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood have fought for decades to transcend national limits. Like true Communist revolutionaries of the past, or pan-Arab Nationalists now in decline, they see their fight as reaching far beyond the borders of any nation-state, whether Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Chechnya. Theirs is a regional, if not global calling, and they work fervently to channel widespread anti-colonial feelings into a far-reaching religious and political movement.

In other words, they want precisely the same clash of civilizations that academic ideologues and Christian fundamentalists preach and predict. The greatest danger of Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq is that he gives the Jihadis the trans-national holy war they want. Every day, more outsiders pour into Iraq to fight "the Great Satan." The longer we stay, the stronger they grow. And the more Americans and Israelis talk of expanding the war to Iran and Syria, the more average Muslims see a radical Islamic Holy War as the only force to drive out the Zionists and Crusaders.

Bin Laden writes the script, and Bush acts out the role even better than the bearded one could have expected.

Vietnam teaches us how to avoid the trap. The lesson is to work with the nationalist forces, not against them. At the end of the Second World War, Washington might have struck a deal with Ho Chi Minh. But, the Truman Administration was unwilling to turn against the French colonialists or to accept a Communist regime, even one willing to stand up against both Russia and China. That is, in fact, what we got, but only after untold slaughter in Vietnam and a bitterness that still divides American society.

Throughout the Middle East, independent nationalists are probably our best hedge against the Jihadis. But they must remain independent, not creatures of the C.I.A. or Pentagon. In Iraq, this means holding the promised elections in the face of whatever violence and allowing the Shi'ite majority to take power, hopefully under the moderating, but still Islamic influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. We should have done this months ago, as many of us wrote at the time.

Instead, Mr. Bush continues to rely on too many "reformed" followers of Saddam, most of them Sunnis, and on a strongman like interim Prime Minister Allawi, whom Washington hopes will allow us to keep our military bases and control of Iraqi oil. American puppets never worked against the nationalists in Vietnam. Why should we expect them to work any better in Iraq?


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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