The Soviet Union was in its final days of existence when I visited Vietnam in late December of 1991. The cold war was about to end forever with the collapse of one of the two adversaries that had kept it going for 40-odd years. A lot had changed in Vietnam, too, I discovered during my trip. The coziness between Moscow and Hanoi, once comrades within the Soviet bloc, had curdled into mutual hatred. Throughout the country, but especially in the North, the Vietnamese had come to despise the large resident Russian population for its cheap spending habits and arrogance. Visiting Americans, by contrast, were welcomed with smiles ("Russians with dollars," we were called.) On the day I visited the old U.S. Embassy in Saigon—the where some of those iconic photos symbolizing American defeat were taken—I discovered government workmen removing a plaque that once commemorated the North's victory over the "U.S. imperialists." In the waning days of that epochal year, 1991, the propaganda against American involvement in Southeast Asia was suddenly no longer politically correct. Hanoi's new message: Yankee Come Back (and bring your investment dollars). Today Vietnam remains nominally communist, but Hanoi knows it is an ideological relic surrounded by Asian capitalist tigers, all of them U.S. allies or dependents (one reason Vietnam was so eager to have Bush visit last November: it wants to be part of that club). The cold war dominoes did fall—but the opposite way.
This was the "harsh" aftermath that George W. Bush attempted to describe this week when he warned against pulling out of Iraq as we did in Vietnam. His remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City on Wednesday were an abuse of historical fact—no surprise, perhaps, coming from a president who is just now catching up with the Political Science 101 reading he shrugged off at Yale. Yes, a lot of Vietnamese boat people died on the high seas; but many others have returned to visit in the ensuing years. Above all, we have learned that Vietnam and Southeast Asia were never really central fronts in the cold war (although Korea at the time of the outbreak of war in 1950, when Beijing still kowtowed to Moscow and before the Soviet Union and China split, might have fit that bill). The decision to pull out had very little effect on the ultimate outcome. America triumphed in the cold war because it had the right kind of economy—an open one—compared to Moscow and Beijing, and its ideas about freedom were more attractive to the states within the Soviet bloc than their own failed ideas were.
The president would like to make the argument that Iraq is about the same struggle. It's not, for several important reasons. In contrast to the Soviet and Chinese communists, or for that matter the fascists of the 1930s and '40s, Al Qaeda and its ilk have no universalist program, no persuasive alternative ideology to globalization and some brand of democracy. They are nihilists, and they have failed to capture half the world's attention as communism and socialism once did. So, yes, while a U.S. pullout would no doubt inspire a great deal of Al Qaeda propaganda about how they succeeded in forcing the Americans to withdraw from Iraq as they forced the Soviets to do in Afghanistan, the majority of the world's elites won't buy it. And the truth is, the slow bleed of America's might and prestige on the streets of Iraq makes for a far more compelling picture of U.S. weakness than any Al Qaeda propaganda could ever do. If we leave, Al Qaeda will rant triumphantly on the Web sites and perhaps win more adherents, but that won't get them any closer to "victory" over us than they are now.
We need to face facts. The problem of Iraq has very little to do with "the terrorists" whom Bush vaguely refers to in speech after speech. The problem of Iraq is that four years of a botched bloody occupation have created a failed state defined by fear, sectarian slaughter and the flight of Iraq's educated class. Iraq is being held together by just one thing now: American glue, the glue of U.S. troops on the ground. The noises you hear now about the ineffectiveness of the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are merely the sound of an approaching collapse long in the making. The only really appropriate analogy to Vietnam is that Bush's policy of Iraqification—handing over things to the Iraqis—is far too similar to Vietnamization. Like the South Vietnamese government, the Iraqi politicians hunkered down in the Green Zone have little legitimacy any longer. Whatever authority they gained in the January 2005 elections has long since been frittered away and overtaken by the sectarian power struggle that is the governing reality on the ground. This power struggle is the reason why the Parliament is hopelessly paralyzed and why Maliki has almost no freedom of action. As a loyal Shiite of the Dawa Party, he is and will remain incapable of defying the new consensus among his sect for Shiite dominance. So powerful are these centrifugal forces pulling Iraq apart that the Iraqi Army seems to be disintegrating faster than it can be trained up. 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. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias."
Iraq will have to sort out these problems itself. There needs to be dramatic scaling back of the U.S. presence so that U.S. attention and resources can turn to the real terrorists. Most of them are still outside Iraq, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the whole thing started and where the "war on terror" should have always been focused. Even some very smart people don't seem to understand that Bush's larger idea of a "war on terror" has always been a fraudulent concept ginned up to justify his invasion of Iraq by broadening the enemy beyond the handful of Afghanistan-based bad guys who attacked us on 9/11. Mark Lilla, the Columbia University professor whose forthcoming book, "The Stillborn God," was excerpted in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday, is so intimidated by the threat of Islamism that he argues, nonsensically, that the separation of religion and politics achieved in the West is the exception rather than the rule in the world today. Lilla writes: "A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism."
This is a misreading of history almost as profound as Bush's. In fact this process has happened. It's called globalization. Yes, there are some pretty large parts of the globe that haven't experienced it much yet: much of the Islamic world—let's narrow that to certain Islamist and Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran—and most of Africa. But in every other developed or developing part of the globe—the Americas, Europe, most of Asia, even Putin-controlled Russia—this Western-engendered system in which secularism eclipses religion in politics and governance has been accepted. (In fact, when it comes to mixing religion and politics, the most backsliding we've seen in the developed world in recent years has been right here in the United States, with the rise of the evangelical right). Even if we were to vastly oversimplify the terms of the conflict, we'd have to conclude it's the 4 or 5 billion (give or take a few hundred million) of the international community versus 1 billion or so Muslims. And thanks to this process, we of the majority—the international community—are still winning. Just ask that dwindling band of communists in Hanoi.