Is Iraq the next Vietnam?

In his televised address to the nation last Sunday, President Bush finally acknowledged what was readily apparent several weeks, if not months, ago: We need substantial international help in order to manage an increasingly chaotic and dangerous situation in Iraq, which has led some critics to ask whether Iraq is the next Vietnam. My answer: Not yet, but it was moving in that direction before the president's speech.

Although my Appeal friend and colleague Sam Bauman used the dreaded "Q" word (quagmire) in a recent column, I think he jumped the gun because we still have time for a course correction in Iraq if we play our diplomatic cards right in the United Nations and at NATO.

Bauman compared the Iraq situation to the Wizard of Oz, arguing that "we've got a wizard ... in Washington hiding behind elaborate public relations the truth of what's going on. And the very sad truth is that we're right back in Vietnam again ...." But I think the Bush administration has finally begun to recognize its errors by reaching out to the international community.

"Terrorists in Iraq have attacked representatives of the civilized world," Bush said last Sunday, referring to the recent terrorist bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed more than 100 international aid workers. ""Members of the United Nations now have an opportunity, and the responsibility, to assume a broader role in assuring that Iraq becomes a free and democratic nation." He put an $87 billion, one-year price tag on the war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan in addition to $79 billion already appropriated by Congress.

President Bush added that U.S. strategy is based on three main goals: 1) destroying terrorism, 2) enlisting international support and 3) assuring that Iraq becomes a free and democratic nation. On Objective No. 2, What took him so long? As the New York Times observed in an editorial, "Washington has been compelled to recognize that it cannot succeed in securing Iraq alone and badly needs much more United Nations help....(But) telling members of the UN that they have a 'responsibility' to step up to the plate may seem a little presumptuous given the way Mr. Bush ignored their earlier concerns at the time of the invasion."

Bush's about-face on the need for international assistance represents a bureaucratic and diplomatic victory for Secretary of State Colin Powell over Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, who was the author of the go-it-alone strategy in Iraq. After all, it was "Rummy" and his allies who assured us that we would defeat the forces of Saddam Hussein quickly and at relatively low cost in lives and treasure.

But more American troops (145) have been killed since May 1, when Bush declared a premature victory on the deck of an aircraft carrier in front of a "mission accomplished" sign, than were killed during the war itself (137), and our troops face daily terrorist attacks. That aircraft carrier show was a great photo-op, but it misled the American people and our armed forces.

Now don't get me wrong. Like nearly 70 percent of my fellow Americans, I believe we're doing the right thing in Iraq, and I'm certain the Iraqi people are better off today than they were under Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. Nevertheless, the task of bringing security to Iraq and rebuilding the country's civic and political infrastructure is an immense undertaking that cannot be accomplished by one superpower acting alone.

In recent days, the U.S. has shown more flexibility in the UN by sponsoring a new Security Council resolution aimed at sending more international peacekeeping troops to Iraq. In a speech at George Washington University, Secretary Powell said the Bush administration is willing to "adjust and adapt" its proposal to expand the UN role in Iraq.

The draft UN resolution would transform the U.S.-dominated peacekeeping force into a UN-authorized multinational force under a unified command led by an American general. It would also urge the fledgling Iraqi Governing Council to work with UN and U.S. officials to produce a timetable for drafting a new constitution and holding democratic elections -- keys to restoring Iraq's sovereignty.

But France and Germany, which opposed the war, are conditioning their approval of the resolution on a more rapid transition of power from U.S. Administrator Paul Bremer to a new government elected by the Iraqis.

Perhaps Rumsfeld and other Bush administration hawks should have remembered the Law of the Six P's: "Proper Planning Prevents Pitifully Poor Performance." Because while Pentagon war-planning was detailed and effective, its peace-planning certainly leaves something to be desired.

I have found the American military to be much better at war-fighting than at peace-making and reconstruction. That's why we need international help, and why experienced State Department diplomats (like Bremer) should be full partners with the admirals and the generals in the reconstruction of Iraq.

New York Times Mideast correspondent Tom Friedman writes that "we are not 'rebuilding' Iraq. We are 'building' a new Iraq -- from scratch," which requires the right mix of civil affairs experts and troops on the ground. Meanwhile, Christian Science Monitor columnist John Hughes reminds us of why Iraq isn't Vietnam: 1) the terrain is completely different, 2) Iraq has already been partially pacified, 3) Iraq's guerrillas aren't backed by a conventional army, 4) volunteer U.S. forces in Iraq are much better trained and equipped than our conscripted forces in Vietnam and 5) President Bush still enjoys the majority support of the American people.

Now that the president has admitted mistakes in Iraq, we can get on with the task at hand, gaining international support for our effort and urging the Iraqis to accept responsibility for their own future. As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told George Bush the elder a few years ago, "This is no time to go wobbly."

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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