Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Unconventional Wisdom

The New York Times op-ed page carried a provocative piece by Dominic Tierney and Dominic Johnson, respectively a professor at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and an assistant professor of political science at Swarthmore. The two Dominics (you didn't think I was going to miss that one, did you?) suggest looking at events in Vietnam and Somalia to provide perspective on Iraq.

I found the following comment especially interesting:

"The Tet offensive was an unmitigated disaster for the communists. Despite the advantages of surprise, the South Vietnamese insurgents, the Vietcong, failed to hold on to a single target in South Vietnam and suffered staggering losses. Of the 80,000 attackers, as many as half were killed in the first month alone, and the Vietcong never recovered. The United States had clearly won this round of the war."

This statement is clearly true, even though it flies in the face of received wisdom. The Tet offensive of 1968 was a disaster for the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies. Before Tet, the North Vietnamese had stayed mainly in the background, supplying the mostly southern Viet Cong and generally keeping out of the front lines. After Tet, the North had no choice; it was forced to commit its forces to the war against the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies.

Despite the objective truth that the Tet offensive was a major defeat for the Communists (and for anyone who wants to argue that the VC and NVN forces were really nationalists, they called themselves Communists), the perception of it as a defeat persists unabated to this day.

That is a tragedy for truth, but did that mistaken perception affect the outcome of the war? In the end, I do not think that it did. Although millions of Vietnamese opposed the Communists, they were overmatched. Many of the same factors that we see in Iraq and Afghanistan--corruption, the absence of cohesive ideology or theory of government, factionalism--worked to undermine the Republic of South Vietnam. Where the North had Ho Chi Minh (a hero even to non- and perhaps anti-Communists), the South produced no Churchill or Ataturk. Misperception of the Tet offensive may have speeded the end of the war--had Americans realized that their forces had won a real victory we might have waited longer before letting the Vietnamese hash out their nation's fate--but unless one theorizes that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese would have given up the fight, the end would probably have been the same.

While professors Johnson and Tierney deserve credit for controverting conventional wisdom, they did not go far enough. They did not dispute the general conclusion that the United States lost the Vietnam War. While it is true that our allies succumbed, and that we were defeated in a tactical sense, I suggest that the US achieved a strategic victory in Vietnam.

Is that a case of the operation being a success, but the patient dying? No. In an operation, preserving the patient's life is the main object; curing the condition that led to surgery is secondary. In the Vietnam War, however, the primary object was to stop the advance of Communism in Southeast Asia; keeping South Vietnam independent and non-Communist was secondary.

In the 1960's, Communism was an ideology that held sway over more than a billion people. It was self-admittedly hostile to the values and interests of the United States and its allies, and--at least in Asia--it was aggressive. Chinese and Vietnamese theoreticians and political leaders in particular espoused a doctrine of "wars of national liberation" that was openly intended to overthrow pro-western and anti-Communist regimes.

The turning point came in 1965, when the Indonesian Communist Party backed an attempted coup d'etat. The Indonesial army resisted and, led by General Suharto, used the incident as an excuse to push President Sukarno aside, to destroy the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party, and to kill several hundred thousand Chinese (who were thought to be, and perhaps were, Communist supporters).

I have a vantage point on this. At the time of the coup, I was a college student. One of my professors, Donald Hindley, had done his PhD thesis on the PKI; the result was a book that I recall as having been 400 pages, maybe much longer. When I read it, in the fall of 1965, the work was something of a curiosity, as the Indonesian Communist Party had ceased to exist a few months before.

Prof. Hindley, an Australian by birth, was no fan of American involvement in Vietnam, but he freely admitted that if US forces had not been in that country, the Indonesian army would have joined the Communists in the coup.

What would the late-20th Century world have looked like if Indonesia--with its strategic position and natural resources (especially oil)--had fallen under a Communist regime? Any answer must be speculative, but it seems safe to say that it would have been much more hostile than what we actually faced.

To return to Profs. Johnson and Tierney. Their article also discusses the "Blackhawk Down" incident in Somalia in 1993, where misinformed public perception turned a minor incident into a humiliating defeat. The lesson that they would learn from that--and from Tet--is that we should hesitate before judging Iraq to be a hopeless case.

Here, I must part company with the professors. Many of the factors that led to defeat in Vietnam, and made it impossible for us to find anyone to deal with in Somalia, are present in Iraq today. Indeed, a comparison of Iraq with South Vietnam in 1968 shows that the situation in the former nation is worse than it was in the former. South Vietnam was in the throes of what today we would recognize as a civil war (despite the international agreement that had declare the North a separate nation); there were, essentially, two sides. Iraq--the present debate notwithstanding--looks more and more like a failed state where a large number of factions seem to agree only on making the country ungovernable. In Iraq, as in Somalia a dozen years ago, there is no one to deal with who has enough power or influence to serve as a unifying force.

In Iraq, unfortunately, the conventional wisdom is almost certainly right.

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