WHAT THE COLD WAR SUGGESTS ABOUT TERROR FIGHT
By Ron Hutcheson
January 23, 2007
President Bush has called Iraq a crucial battleground in a decades-long struggle against Islamic terrorism.
"It's important for our fellow citizens to understand that failure in Iraq would be a disaster for our future," he told soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga., last week. "It's a different kind of war in which failure in one part of the world could lead to disaster here at home . . . That is why we must, and we will, succeed in Iraq."
Historians and Middle East experts, however, say that America's last "long war," the four-decade Cold War against Soviet communism, offers some cautionary lessons as the nation debates its next moves in Iraq.
Previous presidents, they note, made many of the same arguments about Vietnam that Bush and his aides are making about Iraq: The war there was part of a larger struggle against a monolithic enemy, and Vietnam's neighbors would fall to communism like dominoes if the United States were defeated.
That turned out not to be true: The United States lost the battle in Vietnam but won the war against communism anyway.
Indeed, critics argue that Bush is making some of the same mistakes in Iraq that his predecessors made in Vietnam, seeing a monolithic enemy where none exists, backing questionable allies, overlooking some of the causes of the conflict and believing that victory is essential to America's future.
For Bush, the lesson of history seems to be that patience is a virtue -- patience with a long war against radical Islamist terrorism and patience with the war in Iraq. The president has been urging patience since the earliest phase of the war on terrorism.
"We are planning a broad and sustained campaign to secure our country and eradicate the evil of terrorism," Bush told Americans four days after Sept. 11, 2001. "You will be asked for your patience, for the conflict will not be short. You will be asked for resolve, for the conflict will not be easy."
At the time, few of his listeners knew that the president and his advisers were already targeting Iraq, although it had nothing to do with Sept. 11 and no operational links to al-Qaida. Even now, the link between Iraq and global terrorism is questionable.
While al-Qaida affiliates became active in Iraq after the United States invaded, Bush now acknowledges that the biggest problem in Iraq is sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims -- Iraqis killing Iraqis, not terrorists targeting Americans.
Some administration critics think the concept of a "war on terrorism" is equally murky. They say the phrase puts too much emphasis on military action and overlooks the fact that Sunni and Shiite terrorists use the same tactics but are enemies, not allies.
"It shouldn't have been conceptualized as a war. Terrorism is not something you can make war against. Terrorism is a tactic, not a movement in itself," said Anatol Lieven, a strategist at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank that leans toward Democrats. "Terrorism is not a free-flowing miasma of hatred. It flows from particular issues."
The administration fears that failure in Iraq would embolden Islamic extremists and give anti-American terrorists an oil-rich haven.
"Iraq is just part of a larger war; it is, in fact, a global war that stretches from Pakistan all the way around to North Africa," Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News last weekend. "If the United States doesn't have the stomach to finish the task in Iraq, we've put at risk what we've done in all of those other locations."
At one point Cheney said, "It is the kind of conflict that's going to drive our policy and our government for the next 20 or 30 or 40 years."
Many foreign-policy analysts, including some who generally support the president, question the premise that victory in Iraq is essential to winning the larger war against radical Islamic terrorism.
"I don't put too much emphasis on what happens in Iraq in terms of the long war," said Tom Nichols, the chairman of the strategy and policy department at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
James Jay Carafano, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said no one can predict the fallout from success or failure in Iraq.
"That's one piece of a long-term competition. You might be better off when you're done. You might be worse off," he said . "It's important, but the future is full of unintended consequences."
Vietnam proved that.
U.S. troops remained in Vietnam long after hopes for victory had faded, in part because U.S. officials feared that withdrawal would hasten the spread of communism. In hindsight, many scholars think the communist takeover of Vietnam backfired by prompting the Soviet Union to become overly ambitious.
The disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 put the brakes on communist expansion, exposed the limits of Soviet power and contributed to the Soviet Union's dissolution.
"The U.S. loss in Vietnam emboldened the Russians to become more aggressive, and then they overreached. The irony is, our defeat in Vietnam contributed to our victory in the Cold War," Carafano said.
Some Iraq war critics contend that the demands of a long struggle against terrorism offer another reason to withdraw from Iraq.
"If Iraq was really as important as President Bush says it is, and we believed it, then we should be able to send 100,000 or 200,000 additional troops. But we don't believe it," said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University. "If indeed we are serious about the long struggle, then it makes sense to cut our losses and staunch the bleeding."