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Is Iraq Another ‘Vietnam’?

An indication of just how bad things have become for the U.S. invaders and occupiers of Iraq is that comparisons with the Vietnam War are now commonplace in the U.S. media. In a desperate attempt to put a stop to this, President Bush intimated on April 13, in one of his rare press conferences, that the mere mention of the Vietnam analogy in relation to the present war was unpatriotic and constituted a betrayal of the troops. Yet the question remains and seems to haunt the U.S. occupation of Iraq: To what extent has Iraq become another “Vietnam” for American imperialism?

It is true that any direct comparison of the two wars points to the enormous differences between them. In Iraq the United States is not opposed, as in Vietnam, by a national liberation movement arising out of more than a century of revolutionary struggle against French and then American imperialism. The scale of the U.S. military intervention in Iraq is much smaller than in Vietnam and the number of casualties much smaller as well. The Cold War is long over. The geography of the war is different.

Nevertheless, Iraq, like Vietnam in the previous century, is coming to stand for the limits of American power. The United States is the sole remaining superpower, the greatest military power on earth. Yet its claim to omnipotence is now being shaken once again by popular resistance forces and hatred of the invader in a third world country. In April alone U.S. combat deaths in Iraq exceeded those from the beginning of the American invasion of Iraq to the fall of Baghdad—the period that was supposed to have constituted the full duration of the war. No stable political solution in Iraq that is acceptable to the United States ruling class seems possible. A military solution to the conflict does not exist. And the United States, it is frequently observed, has “no exit strategy”—if indeed it intends to exit fully at all. Under these circumstances the question of defeat once again arises, paralleling Vietnam. Although the world situation has changed dramatically one cannot help but be reminded of the lines of the Chinese People’s Daily in 1966: “The more forces United States imperialism throws into Asia, the more will it be bogged down there and the deeper will be the grave it digs for itself” (quoted in the New York Times, August 31, 1966).

There is no doubt that the U.S. ruling class is acutely aware of the Vietnam analogy and concerned that U.S. imperialism is facing another disaster, which will only get worse the longer it remains in Iraq. At the same time there is an enormous momentum driving the United States toward a continuation and escalation of the war. On April 2, 1970, at a critical point in the Vietnam War, Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared that the enemy “cannot drive us out of Indochina. But they can force on us the choice of either plunging in altogether or getting out altogether.”* This describes the main dilemma that the United States experienced throughout the Vietnam War. It was able to plunge in deeper and deeper and did. But eventually it was compelled by its failures in the face of an implacable resistance to get out altogether—a result that was also encouraged by the growth of a massive antiwar movement at home. A similar unpalatable choice faces the United States in Iraq today. A major escalation is unacceptable to the mass of the world’s population including the populations of the major U.S. allies, and is most likely unacceptable to the mass of the U.S. population itself. However, getting out altogether is unacceptable to the U.S. ruling class, which has real spoils of war to lose and is worried about the credibility of U.S. power. Under these circumstances an escalation of the war appears likely despite the global political fallout this will entail.

The general view of the U.S. power elite can be seen in a report entitled Iraq: One Year Later released in March by the Council on Foreign Relations. The report’s task force was co-chaired by James Schlesinger, former secretary of defense under Nixon and Ford, and by Thomas Pickering, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and under secretary for political affairs in the Clinton administration. The task force as a whole included top figures in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, notably former U.S. representative to the United Nations and member of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Rand Corporation peacekeeping expert (appointed by the Clinton and Bush administrations as a special envoy to help supervise “nation-building” in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan), James F. Dobbins. The report insisted on the need of the United States to maintain its strategic “commitment” to Iraq even in the context of a “transfer of authority” in order to: (1) prevent interference by Iraq’s neighbors, (2) guarantee “long-term stability in the production and supply of oil,” (3) block “the emergence of a failed state that could offer a haven to terrorists,” and (4) avoid a U.S. “policy failure” with the “attendant loss of power and influence in the region” (p. 13). As Schlesinger and Pickering wrote in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (March 30, 2004), entitled “Keep Iraq Above Politics,” both the Republican and Democratic parties should “stay the course” for these very same reasons. Above all Iraq must be kept out of presidential politics: a point directed principally at John Kerry as the Democratic candidate.

The main lesson that the ruling class seems to have drawn from the war so far is that a much larger military force is needed to maintain the occupation. According to Business Week (April 26, 2004), “the U.S. hold on Iraq remains weak. Staying on track will require two things: more troops to maintain security, supplemented by a craftier political strategy.” In the words of Bruce Nussbaum, Business Week’s editorial page editor,

There is a denial [in Washington] that the military strategy going into Iraq, the Rumsfeld Doctrine, is a failure. The best hope left of establishing a stable Iraqi democracy is to replace that doctrine, which emphasizes small, light, and fast military operations, with its rival, the Powell Doctrine, devised by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. The Powell Doctrine calls for overwhelming force shaped by very clear political goals and a specific exit strategy, two things lacking today in Iraq. The failure of the Rumsfeld Doctrine in Iraq is all too clear—too few boots on the ground, too little legitimacy for America and its handpicked Governing Council, too many shifting goals, and no clear exit strategy. The result in recent weeks has been a cycle of kidnappings, ambushes, counterstrikes, death, and destruction that increasingly echoes the disaster in Vietnam….What is to be done now? A return to the Powell Doctrine would accomplish a number of key goals. Significantly higher troop levels would crush, finally, Baathist resistance and provide more security to Iraqis….The realpolitik of the Powell Doctrine would also force Washington to limit its goals and make its exit strategy clear.

Such a reversion to the Powell Doctrine would mean a massive escalation of the military force in Iraq. The United States currently has 135,000 troops in Iraq and more than 150,000 in the entire Iraqi theatre of operations, which includes Kuwait and other neighboring countries. Other coalition forces, about half of which are British, have contributed another 25,000 troops to the occupation. Nevertheless, Business Week writes that “analysts, such as Rand Corp. peacekeeping expert and former State Dept. special envoy James Dobbins say that as many as 400,000 troops are needed to match the peacekeeping clout used in other volatile countries. The 250,000 Iraqis the U.S. hopes to have in uniform will help, but the security services’ recent refusal to fight fellow Iraqis shows they aren’t up to the task—and won’t be for at least a year.” This translates into a demand for stepped-up deployment of U.S. soldiers. Where are all of these additional troops to come from? Initially, according to Business Week, this can be accomplished by rotating back units that have already done service in Iraq. Later on some other solution to the lack of “military manpower” must be found.

Other establishment outlets agree that a major escalation is called for. The New York Times (April 25, 2004) said, “This is not the moment for retreat and it certainly is not the moment for half measures.” Many more troops than present administration plans call for are needed according to that publication:

Sending more troops will cause further pain to an already strained military and it means acknowledging that units now being rotated home should be sent back to Iraq. But there seems to be no other choice. Much of the current trouble could have been avoided if Mr. Rumsfeld had not been so determined to disprove the doctrine named for his rival, Secretary of State Colin Powell, which posits that force, if it is to be used at all, should be overwhelming….The United States should have had a much larger military force ready to actually occupy Iraq and restore order.

The momentum of the occupation thus points to a substantial escalation of U.S. force levels in Iraq at least in the short-term. A major goal of the United States is to create a large Iraqi military force that can confront those Iraqi nationalists currently fighting the American occupation. But so far the efforts to create a new Iraqi army on which the United States could depend to help suppress Iraqi resistance have proven ineffectual. Although the United States has allocated $1.8 billion to the new Iraqi army so far it has managed to train less than 4,000 out of a planned 40,000 soldiers. Half of the first battalion of the new army quit late last year on the grounds that the pay was inadequate. When the second battalion was called in to help fight the Iraqi resistance in Fallujah in April many soldiers refused, saying that they had signed up to fight Iraq’s foreign enemies not fellow Iraqis (Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2004).

One of the most serious problems for U.S. imperialism is that it views most of the Iraqi population as potential enemies of U.S. strategic interests in Iraq, and has no proimperial sector of the population to rely on for support. This contrasts with Vietnam, where a century of French colonialism had left behind a considerable urban middle- and upper-class population that allied itself with the United States once the French departed. The United States disbanded the Iraqi army at the very beginning of the occupation, since it did not trust its Baathist elements. Yet, in the ethnic and religious context of Iraq the United States had no natural constituency to which it could turn to fill the political and military vacuum thus created. The Shiite majority is even less acceptable politically to the United States than the Sunnis with their Baathist connections, since the Shiites are closely linked to the fundamentalist Islamic state in Iran. The Kurds are mostly confined to the northern part of the country, are isolated from the rest of Iraqi society, and have conflicts with the United States over oil and with regard to Turkey. Without deep roots in any major sector of the population, U.S. imperialism is finding it extremely difficult to find the basis for a new Iraqi army to back up and ultimately substitute for U.S. forces.

All of this points to the fact that the biggest military obstacle that the United States faces in its occupation of Iraq is an acute shortage of troops. Here too the comparison with Vietnam cannot be avoided. As MR editors Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy wrote in this space in December 1969:

It is extremely important to understand that U.S. imperialism’s greatest weakness is precisely a shortage of military manpower. The Vietnam war is showing that the once-widespread hope of being able to substitute technology for manpower in fighting counter-revolutionary wars is an illusion. The United States has about 3.5 million men in the armed services at the present time (the largest military establishment in the world), and of this number at least a fifth are directly or indirectly tied down by a war in one small country many thousands of miles away from home. Much of the remainder is spread thin over more than 250 military bases located in some 30 countries around the globe. Considering the fact that the United States has arrogated to itself the role of world policeman…the present extreme dissipation of military resources brought about by the Vietnam war and the world-wide system of bases leaves a perilously small strategic reserve for deployment in any new crisis areas.

In earlier capitalist empires, particularly those of the British and French, it was possible to conquer and maintain control over far-flung global possessions without recourse to conscript armies from the mother country. The chief reasons for this were the weakness of colonial resistance movements, their lack of access to modern weapons (as Hilaire Belloc said, “Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim Gun, and they have not”), and the recruitment of soldiers from amongst the unemployed and underemployed in the advanced capitalist countries (coupled with native armies drawn from colonial territories). By the time of the Vietnam War, however, the United States had no option but to rely on conscripts to carry out its imperial objectives. No longer were third world resistance movements politically incohesive, their capacity to obtain modern weaponry sufficient to fight a guerrilla war had increased, and a pool of unemployed in the United States adequate to maintain a volunteer army on the scale required did not exist. Still, the United States shied away from universal military service as a means of maintaining its empire. After the Vietnam War, which had shown the dangers of relying on conscripts to fight an unpopular imperialist war, the United States turned to a smaller all-volunteer military (made practicable by a larger reserve army of labor in a period of stagnation), under the renewed belief that technology could limit the need for troops on the ground.

In only a year Iraq has demonstrated this to be an illusion. The entire volunteer army scheme for maintaining the U.S. empire is in tatters. The U.S. ruling class is demanding more combat troops for Iraq and there are no forces available, given that the United States, eager to monopolize the spoils of war, chose to intervene in Iraq virtually alone, with significant support only from its much smaller British partner. The extremity of the situation was foreshadowed by a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report submitted as testimony before the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on November 5, 2003. That report indicated “the active Army would be unable to sustain an occupation force of its present size beyond about March 2004 if it chose not to keep individual units deployed to Iraq for longer than one year without relief.” To maintain a “steady state” or “indefinite” occupation under present conditions, the CBO report stressed, troop levels would have to fall to the 38,000 to 64,000 level. The only other options were for the United States to alter rotation patterns (taxing the strength of its volunteer army and going against the basis on which recruitment and retention occurs); drawing heavily on Marine, National Guard, and special forces units; using financial incentives to try to get soldiers to accept another tour of duty; reducing its military deployments in the Sinai Peninsula, Bosnia, and Kosovo; and finding ways to privatize many military activities, thereby freeing up more soldiers for combat. (The growth of mercenary forces in the form of private military contractors in Iraq, now amounting to some 20,000 private soldiers, who do many of the things that the regular military used to do, is a product of this privatization strategy.) Even if its existing forces were stretched to their utmost, including much heavier use of the Marine, special forces and National Guard units for combat duty in Iraq, the CBO still estimated that forces available for the Iraqi theatre on a steady-state basis—without breaking the promise to the troops to keep their service in Iraq down to 12 months and without depleting force commitments elsewhere—would not be over two-thirds of the present level at best. The fact that the administration in early May announced that it would be keeping tens of thousands of troops in Iraq longer than one year, rotating some units back, is a reflection of the depth of this crisis in the available forces for the occupation.

It is in these circumstances of an acute shortage of soldiers that Congress is once again sending signals that the draft will have to be reinitiated in the United States, despite its enormous unpopularity. This is presented as a case of fairness designed to equalize the class burden of the war, which right now is falling entirely on the working class—or in establishment parlance the middle and lower classes, representing ordinary working people and the poor. “Who’s doing all the fighting?” Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska asked on the NBC Today show in late April. According to Hagel the War on Terrorism is possibly “a generational, probably 25 year war” and thus should fall on all classes in the society. On the same program Joe Biden, Democratic senator from Delaware, declared that the U.S. military is too small and probably could not be brought up to its needed strength except on a conscript basis. Charles Rangel, a Democratic congressman from New York, has also come out strongly in favor of a resurrection of the draft. Ralph Nader has warned: “Today, enlistments in the Reserves and National Guard are declining. The Pentagon is quietly recruiting new members to fill local draft boards, as the machinery for drafting a new generation of young Americans is being quietly put into place. Young Americans need to know that a train is coming, and it could run over their generation in the same way that the Vietnam War devastated the lives of those who came of age in the ’60s” (Toronto Star, “U.S. Weighs the Return of Military Conscription,” April 22, 2004).

Given that the Iraq War has turned against the United States even supporters of the war now are demanding that the United States have a clear exit strategy. That strategy insofar as it can be said to exist now revolves around a UN-brokered plan for what is being called “a transfer of power” to Iraqi authorities by June 30. Nevertheless, the Bush administration has indicated that they intend to keep Iraqi sovereignty “limited” in any such transfer of power. Current U.S. plans, for which it is seeking UN Security Council approval, would deny the new Iraqi caretaker government any authority to enact new laws or to alter existing laws. Hence, the new Iraqi government would be precluded from making any changes in the laws put in place since the American occupation began. The caretaker government would also be denied any authority over Iraqi armed forces. U.S. commanders are to be in charge of both U.S. and Iraqi troops. The new government will almost certainly be denied control over the Iraqi money supply and its oil revenues. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 27, John D. Negroponte, the administration’s nominee for ambassador to Iraq, assured Congress that the caretaker Iraqi government would have no authority to sign long-term oil contracts.

A disturbing sign in all of this is that while it is supposedly working on setting up a caretaker government the United States is trying to recruit thousands of former Baathist military officers in order to create the nucleus of an Iraqi army that can be used to suppress the national resistance, and possibly construct the basis for a power bloc within the country that the United States can count on. This is likely to undermine any attempt to create a political process and government acceptable to the majority Shiites, calling into question the centrality of any semblance of the democratic process in the American strategy. U.S. commitment to democracy is further called into question by scandals arising from the torture and degradation of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere, undermining what few traces of legitimacy the U.S. occupation may have had in Iraq. A sovereign Iraqi government capable of carrying out its own investigations into such atrocities is clearly out of the question for U.S. imperialism.

What is clear from all of this is that Washington is hoping to delay any substantial transfer of political control to Iraqis by denying the caretaker government any real sovereign powers. U.S. political, economic, and military goals are interrelated. Pursuit of the economic and military objectives of U.S. imperialism precludes any quick solution of the political crisis in Iraq. The primary purpose of the caretaker government, we are told, will be to set up the basis for elections leading to the installation of a supposedly genuine Iraqi government next year. In the meantime and doubtless for some time to come the real power governing Iraq will be the U.S. military. According to existing plans a U.S. withdrawal is still years away at best.

Propaganda notwithstanding, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not meant to stop Iraq from using weapons of mass destruction (which it turned out not to have), nor was it to create a democracy in that country. The real motives of the war were to extend U.S. control over Iraqi oil supplies—the second largest reserve of oil in the world—and to create a major U.S. military presence in Iraq, probably taking the form of permanent military bases that would increase the U.S. hold over the entire Middle East. The presence of U.S. imperialism in Iraq was also supposed to help it to project its power beyond the Middle East into Central Asia, with its enormous supplies of oil and natural gas. These are the real spoils of war and have clearly been the primary concerns governing the U.S. intervention from the start. Any outcome that does not lead to continuing U.S. control—by a combination of economic, political, and military means—of the Iraqi oil reserves will be deemed a failure by U.S. capitalism, since such control and the geopolitical power that it represents was a major objective of the invasion. Thus General Jay Garner, the former head of the Iraq occupation authority, declared in an interview on BBC television on March 19, 2004, that privatization of oil and the promotion of a neoliberal economic model in Iraq had taken precedence in the administration plans over all else, including not only political changes but also restoring Iraqi electricity and water supplies.

According to General Garner, the model used when he took over in Iraq saw the U.S. imperial role in that country as analogous to the Philippines, which in U.S. geopolitical strategy in the early 20th century had been “in essence a coaling station” for the navy (gained through the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War that followed), allowing the U.S. military to project its power far into the Pacific and into Asia. In General Garner’s words, “I think…it’s a bad analogy, but I think we should look right now at Iraq as our coaling station in the Middle East, where we have some presence there and it gives a settling effect there, and it also gives us a strategic advantage there, and I think we ought to just accept that and take that for a period of time, as long as the Iraqi people are willing to allow us to be guests in their country” (

Such spoils of war, viewed as means to the restoration of U.S. global hegemony, will not be readily abandoned. There is every reason to believe therefore that the United States will attempt to maintain its hold on Iraq keeping it within the American Empire through a combination of military, economic and political means.

There is a further reason for the United States to continue to prosecute the war in Iraq. Anything that would appear to be a defeat would bring back the “Vietnam Syndrome”—a term coined by conservatives to refer to the popular refusal on the part of the American public to support major military interventions in third world countries following the defeat in Vietnam. The Iraq War was supposed to have marked the final recovery from the Vietnam Syndrome and the full restoration of U.S. imperial power. Now suddenly memories of the most disastrous aspects of the Vietnam War from the standpoint of U.S. imperialism (frequent guerrilla ambushes, unrelenting popular resistance, flag-draped coffins, and U.S. atrocities) are flooding back. This loss of credibility for U.S. imperial power is rightly regarded by those at the top of U.S. society as the greatest danger raised by the present war. It also represents the ultimate reason that the U.S. war machine finds it difficult to withdraw, unless it can find some face-saving formula. All of this produces a momentum for a continuation and even escalation of the war.

Yet, there are also forces driving in the other direction. The most important of these is the growing Iraqi resistance. Another is the negative response with which U.S. allies are likely to greet any escalation of the war. Finally, there is the diminishing support for the war in the United States itself, which could translate eventually, if further escalation occurs, into a powerful antiwar movement. At that point the Vietnam War analogy would be inescapable.


* Quoted in Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, “The War Spreads,” Monthly Review, May 1970.

2004, Volume 56, Issue 02 (June)
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