Professor May's dictum is one of the relatively few bits of wisdom I retained from my graduate studies long ago. I have on several occasions found it useful in trying to understand current events.
In reviewing the President's January 10 speech announcing a new strategy for Iraq and the background materials issued by the White House to support it, as well as the report of the Iraq Study Group, I discovered several rhymes with the Vietnam War, in which I was extensively involved during the first half of my Foreign Service career, both in Vietnam and in Washington.
There are several other rhymes in these documents, especially with the period before 1968. These include a large and growing number of internal refugees that need to be dealt with, an unstable and ineffective national government, and a serious shortage of American trainers and advisers who speak the language and understand the culture.
But the most important rhyme of all may be the development of fierce opposition to the war by a majority of the American people and their congressional representatives, opposition marked by an ever harsher tone and deepening mistrust of anything the Administration reports or proposes about the war.
It's hard to understand why the lessons from our Vietnam experience were apparently forgotten when we went to war in Iraq and found ourselves faced with an insurgency.
The principal issue today, however, is whether such lessons can now be applied, along with other strategic and tactical changes announced by the President on January 10, to achieve a reasonably successful outcome in Iraq or at least to avoid yet another rhyme, an Iraqi version of the helicopters on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon in 1975. All Americans should fervently hope the answer is positive, since failure in Iraq will almost certainly have consequences much worse and longer lasting than those that attended our failure in Vietnam.
Extending the Vietnam analogy to the present situation in Iraq offers some grounds for hope, but stronger grounds to brace ourselves for disaster.
On the positive side, even though few Americans realize it, following the 1968 Tet Offensive and the strategic and tactical changes implemented in its wake, South Vietnam and the U.S. defeated the Communist insurgency. That is, by 1972 almost all of the populated areas of the country were pacified and secure, the Viet Cong insurgents were no longer a major factor in determining the outcome of the war, and the South Vietnamese, with U.S. air and logistical support but without U.S. ground units, had turned back the first of the North's conventional military assaults. It was not insurgents, but the conventional Army of North Vietnam, with its armor and artillery and division-size units, rebuilt and re-supplied after the repulse of its 1972 offensive, that in 1975 defeated the Government of South Vietnam, a government whose armed forces we had crippled in 1973 and 1974 by eliminating most of their funding and cutting off most of their supplies.
On the gloomy side, the success of the counter-insurgency effort in Vietnam, even after we finally got the strategy right and began to implement it effectively, took three years. Moreover, the climate of mistrust for any claims of success by the Administration meant that few Americans would believe what the evidence showed. Success in this sort of warfare is inherently difficult to measure, gradual rather than dramatic, and much more visible in hindsight than when it is happening. By 1973, American public opinion, and especially the Congress, had so strongly turned against the war that it proved to be politically impossible to provide even the relatively small amount of support to the South Vietnamese that would have given them a reasonable chance to maintain their independence.
The most important element of the President's new Iraq strategy is not the temporary surge of 21,000 American troops, but a new focus on providing long-term security for the population, putting the Iraqis in the lead, and providing them the training and equipment they need to succeed. This may well be, as critics suggest, too little and too late, and too dependent on the performance of an Iraqi government that has thus far proved disappointing, just as our 1968 strategy change that led to success against the insurgency in Vietnam could not prevent the ultimate loss of the war. But the alternative of setting in motion a speedy and irreversible U.S. withdrawal from Iraq offers even less hope of avoiding catastrophe.
How much time do we have to achieve success in Iraq before our political system requires a rapid and total American disengagement, no matter what the long-term consequences may be for both our national interests and our honor? No one knows for sure, but that time is most likely measured in months, two years at the most.
I fear we will soon hear another Iraq-Vietnam rhyme, sad and somber.