Much was changing in Vietnam when I visited in December 1991, in the waning hours of the Soviet Union. The coziness between Moscow and Hanoi, once comrades, had curdled into mutual contempt. The Russians, aware their empire was imploding, had little interest in their former client-state and were looking to leave. The Vietnamese had come to despise the large Russian population for, among other things, its cheap spending habits. By contrast, they welcomed Americans—“Russians with dollars,” we were called. The day I visited the old U.S. Embassy in Saigon—where some of the iconic photos symbolizing American defeat were taken—government workmen were removing a discolored brass plaque that once commemorated the North’s victory over “U.S. imperialists.” At the time of my visit, propaganda against American involvement in Southeast Asia was no longer politically correct. Hanoi’s message: Yankees come back (and bring your investment dollars). The cold-war dominoes had fallen—just in America’s direction.
Vietnam remains only nominally communist today; Hanoi knows it is an ideological relic surrounded by capitalist tigers, most of them U.S. allies or dependents (which is why Hanoi was eager to have George W. Bush visit last November—it wants to be part of the club). This is the “harsh” aftermath Bush described last week when he warned against pulling out of Iraq like we did in Vietnam. His speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in Kansas City, Mo., was an abuse of historical fact, mainly because we know now Vietnam was never a central front in the cold war. The decision to pull out had little effect on the ultimate outcome of what John Kennedy called the “long, twilight struggle.” America triumphed in the cold war because it had an open economy and its ideas about freedom were more attractive to states in the Soviet bloc than those coming from Moscow and Beijing.
The president is arguing that Iraq is a similar struggle. But in contrast to the Soviet and Chinese communists, Al Qaeda and its ilk have no persuasive alternative ideology to democracy, free markets and globalization. They’re nihilists. So while a U.S. pullout would inspire Al Qaeda to propagandize that it beat the Americans, the majority of the world’s elites wouldn’t buy it. The slow bleed of American might and prestige on the streets of Iraq makes for a more compelling picture of U.S. weakness than any Qaeda propaganda could. If America dramatically reduces its forces in Iraq—it will be a long time before we can leave altogether—Al Qaeda will brag on its Web sites, and perhaps win more adherents, but that won’t get the terrorists any closer to a “victory” over us than they are now.
The most appropriate analogy to Vietnam is that Bush’s policy of Iraqification—handing control of the country to Iraqis—is uncomfortably similar to Vietnamization. Like the South Vietnamese government then, which was despised in the country because of its corruption and ineffectiveness, the Iraqi politicians now hunkered down in the Green Zone have little legitimacy. Whatever authority they gained in the January 2005 elections has been overtaken by the sectarian power struggle that is the governing reality on the ground. This conflict is why Parliament is paralyzed—and why Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has almost no freedom of action. So powerful are the forces pulling Iraq apart that the Iraqi Army seems to be disintegrating faster than it can be trained. As seven soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division wrote in The New York Times on Aug. 19: “Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric.”
Iraq will have to sort out these problems itself. There needs to be a dramatic scaling back of the U.S. presence so that the attention of America’s military and intelligence community can turn to the real terrorists. Most of them are still outside Iraq, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the focus of the war on terror always should have been. Similarly, during the cold war, our attention should have been focused on the Soviet Union’s systemic weaknesses, rather than on the purported reach of its ideology in isolated places like Vietnam.
And just as we did during the cold war, America is underestimating its strengths and accentuating its vulnerabilities. In every other developed or developing part of the globe—the Americas, Europe, most of Asia, even Vladimir Putin-controlled Russia—the Westernized system in which secularism eclipses religion in governance is accepted. American-sponsored globalization is dominant. As ugly as the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam was—it did cause thousands of deaths, as the president said—in the end, it worked strategically. The cold war was won. The international community, led by the American superpower, is still winning. Just ask that dwindling band of communists in Hanoi.