Stop Comparing Iraq to the Vietnam War

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Pundits, journalists, and scholars are once again comparing the conflict in Iraq to the Vietnam War. After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, observers began drawing the analogy in earnest, and now that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is threatening the government in Baghdad, analysts are continuing to draw parallels between the two wars. They point out the lack of motivation of Iraqi and South Vietnamese troops, the unpopularity of Nguyen Van Thieu and Nouri al-Maliki, and the inability of U.S. military power to achieve decisive victory. Commentators chide the U.S. government and military strategists for not learning from the mistakes their predecessors made in Vietnam. Some envision a chaotic evacuation of the U.S Embassy in Baghdad a la Saigon 1975.

It is easy to understand why this line of comparison is convenient. U.S. troops and political advisors went to Iraq and Vietnam ostensibly to help establish a democratic nation. In both cases, Americans severely misunderstood the local conditions that made it difficult for democracy to take root. The inability to make sense of the domestic contexts caused the U.S. to sink into a military quagmire in which winning battles did not lead to overall victory in war. In both countries, ideological movements -- radical Islam in Iraq, communism in Vietnam -- trumped nationalism so that brothers fought brothers in civil wars. For those on the Left, the Vietnam War remains the ultimate symbol of the hubris of American imperialism. Some on the Right see Vietnam as an example of what happens when the U.S. abandons an ally. Across the political spectrum, the Vietnam War has become shorthand for U.S. foreign policy and military failure, and so when a shaky government that Americans have tried to pass off as a democracy begins to crumble, some analysts are quick to christen it "another Vietnam."

Despite the commonalities, it is time to stop comparing Iraq to Vietnam. It is unproductive to view the conflict in Iraq through the lens of the Vietnam War, in which U.S. intervention began more than fifty years ago and ended forty years ago in a very different international context. To justify the war in Vietnam, American policy makers exaggerated communism's threat to American security and considered Vietnam a place where the U.S. could showcase its nation-building capabilities as post-World War II decolonization produced new countries in Africa and Asia. The U.S. has executed military engagements since Vietnam, particularly the first Persian Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan, that offer more accurate points of comparison. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 1991 was America's first post-Cold War conflict and one that illustrated the "new world order" in which the U.S. was the globe's sole super-power. Gulf War I was also the root of the current conflict in Iraq. From the crippling sanctions the U.N. Security Council imposed on Iraq in 1990 to George W. Bush's effort to "finish the job" of his father and get Saddam Hussein, the first Gulf War offers a more direct map for understanding the progression of events that led to ISIS's advance in Iraq than the Vietnam War does. Looking beyond Iraq, Afghanistan reveals how difficult it is to impose and maintain democracy in the face of violent religious extremists. Afghanistan is America's other 21st century war, and it, like Iraq, began as part of the "global war on terror." By returning to the old Vietnam War comparison every time the U.S. stages a military intervention, we miss opportunities to evaluate more recent conflicts which are directly related to Iraq, rather than basing analysis on the general parallels between the Iraq and Vietnam wars.

That the U.S. has not learned from Vietnam is obvious now. What can more recent wars teach us about the perils and potential consequences of attempting to implement democracy through military force? If we turn our attention to subsequent American military engagements, perhaps we can find some useful lessons about the 21st century global order and American affairs in the Middle East.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a 2013-14 Fulbright Scholar in Vietnam, where she is a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. She is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011).

TopicsIraq RegionsMiddle East

Explained: Why We Must Negotiate With Terrorists

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The prisoner swap that brought Bowe Bergdahl home gave rise to an intense debate about the legitimacy and prudence of negotiating with terrorists. Those objecting to such deals have two worries: first, that negotiating with groups like the Taliban or Al Qaeda provides them with incentives to continue snatching soldiers; second, that the released operatives would go back to their old ways. Once out, they might devise new ways of harming us. 

The Israelis have been engaged in a similar debate - most recently after the release of 1027 Palestinian prisoners in return for Gilad Shavit, an Armored Corps soldier abducted by Hamas in 2006, and held in Gaza for more than five years. The worry there, too, was that the exchange would encourage further acts of terror and that the militants released would return to their dangerous activities. In the past few weeks those raising such concerns have been vindicated by events: three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas operatives who hoped to bargain for the return of their bodies. Around the same time it emerged that one of the Hamas prisoners released in the Shalit deal was involved in the recent murder of an Israeli Police Colonel.

Clearly, then, critics such as Ambassador John Bolton and Senator Marco Rubio, who raised these kinds of worries about the Bergdahl deal, have a point. But these skeptics are, ultimately, off the mark. Negotiating with terrorists does spur them on. And some of the militants we release will reoffend. And yet there is no choice but to conduct such negotiations.

Since the end of World War II, most conflicts involving western powers have been asymmetrical.  They involve a modern, well-trained and well-equipped army, with an orderly chain of command on one side and, on the other, loosely affiliated paramilitary groups who do not wear uniforms, do not train or reside in clearly identifiable military bases, and do not answer to anything like a chain of command. To use a cinematic illustration, contemporary war looks far more like the Battle of Algiers than like Saving Private Ryan. There is a vast difference in conventional power and wealth between such fighting sides. The Taliban and Hamas cannot fight in the same way regular armies fight because they would not stand a chance if they did.  Rather, such organizations tend to adopt two strategies: striking from behind civilian cover and selecting “soft” targets – noncombatants, off duty soldiers and so on. From Algiers to Bagdad to Tel Aviv, we have seen, in the past few decades, obscene and gruesome attacks on buses, clubs, travel agencies and schools.  While morally repugnant, such attacks are not going anywhere because they are both tactically and strategically essential to those perpetrating them.

At this point we should introduce an uncomfortable but crucial distinction: terrorism, like guerilla fighting more broadly, is a way of behaving rather than a group designation. Scholars such as Stephen Nathanson have pointed out that it is more coherent to talk about terrorist methods than about “The Terrorists”. These methods are used, disproportionately, by non-state actors like the Taliban, Hamas and (recently) ISIS. But not exclusively. If terrorism consists in the intentional targeting of civilians, then blowing up buses is terrorism, shooting rockets into civilian neighborhoods is terrorism, retaliating in kind is terrorism, and the devastation of German cities at the end of World War II counts as well . Early Americans used both guerilla and terrorist tactics against the British, the French resistance used them against the Germans, the Zionist paramilitary organizations used them against the British mandate before Israel was created, and the African National Congress used them against both Apartheid forces and white South African civilians. We could extend our survey far into the past. Such methods are as old as our tendency to fight.  What has changed in recent years is that asymmetrical engagements have become the primary manifestation of war. As a result, the use of terrorist tactics has grown exponentially.  It is rather absurd to speak of gentlemanly fighting after the two great wars of the twentieth century. But symmetrical warfare at least affords the potential for nobility in battle: English, French and German troops observing an informal truce on Christmas eve, 1914; Rommel discarding Hitler’s 1942 directive to execute prisoners. But when the very possibility of equality between combatants disappears, so does the coherence of anything like the war convention or mutual adherence to rules of engagement.

But let us return to our main argument: we must negotiate with terrorists because in recent years we have been fighting weak non-state entities who will never give up the equalizing benefits that terrorism affords. If we send our soldiers to fight asymmetrical wars, they will be fighting terrorists. Refusing to “negotiate with terrorists” is the same as telling our soldiers that we will never talk to their enemies, which amounts to telling them that they have nothing to hope for if they are caught, which is the same as telling them that we don’t “have their back”. That is wrong (for obvious reasons), bad for morale, and catastrophic for our ability to recruit fighters. If any of our asymmetrical wars are worth fighting (a different question altogether), we need to face up to the moral and practical realities involved. We must, in other words, confront the enemy we find, not the one we would have fashioned for ourselves.   

Nir Eisikovits teaches legal and political philosophy at Suffolk University where he directs the Graduate Program in Ethics and Public Policy. His new book Kill Me Tomorrow: A Theory of Truces will be published next year by Palgrave MacMillan. 

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

China Pushes in the South China Sea: Abe Denmark and Dan Blumenthal talk to TNI

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The United States should play a more active role in assuring allies and deterring China, according to two American experts on Asian security issues. 

The Center for the National Interest hosted Abraham Denmark, the Vice President of the National Bureau of Asian Research, and Dan Blumenthal, the Director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise 

Institute for a robust and wide-ranging discussion of rising tensions in the South China Sea over territorial disputes. Harry Kazianis, the Managing Editor of The National Interest, moderated the event. 

The way China views itself and its role in the region has changed substantially over the last decade and a half, according to both panelists, which has a direct bearing on its behavior vis-à-vis its neighbors. Blumenthal endorsed Robert Kaplan’s view, expressed in his recent book Asia's Cauldron, that what China is doing is perfectly understandable and indeed is similar to U.S. behavior in the 19th and early 20th century when it sought hegemony in the Caribbean Sea and the Americas. China perceives itself as a rising power that is no longer weak and has escalatory dominance over its neighbors in the region, according to Denmark, meaning Chinese leaders believe they can prevail at every level in an escalating conflict. He explained that China therefore seeks to enhance the strength of its sovereignty claims throughout the South China Sea, enhance its abilities to defend these claims, and gain access to resources believed to be in the seabed—even if they are not yet extractable in a way that makes economic sense. While there are factions within China that are more reluctant to embark on a more aggressive path, they have largely been sidelined by the People’s Liberation Army and other voices who favor a harder line on territorial disputes. Denmark mused that U.S. Defense Department reports on Chinese military power might be leading China to think it is stronger than it actually is. He observed that if a country thinks it is stronger than it is, it might be more likely to become embroiled in a conflict.

Key developments in China, its government, and society are closely linked to China’s more assertive behavior in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Denmark explained that Communist Party leaders recognize that an end to their stunning economic growth could pose an internal challenge to their hold on power. They are, therefore, seeking to enhance their nationalist credentials in anticipation of a slower economy. Blumenthal insisted that the Chinese people believe they are in the midst of a “great awakening process” whereby they are less and less willing to be wards of the state. 

The panelists both argued for a strong emphasis on assurance and deterrence in the region to prevent conflict. Blumenthal insisted that the South China Sea is a core national interest of the United States. He argued that the United States must “abandon [its] unthinking neutrality” on the territorial disputes and insist on democratic customary means to resolve them. Denmark agreed that international arbitration is the only legitimate means of resolving these disputes. Blumenthal stated, “Every time the Chinese push on a claim that is illegitimate, they should lose ground [diplomatically with the United States].” 

Blumenthal said that a return to the status quo should be a U.S. policy, even to include escorted convoys of Vietnamese fishing boats back to their fisheries. Liu Weimin of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China countered that it depends on how one defines the status quo. In China’s view, it is trying to defend the status quo. It is not, he insisted, China’s intention to cause trouble in the South China see. From their perspective, they are reacting to what other countries are doing. 

Blumenthal insisted that if the United States does not take the opportunity to create the alliance structure it wants in Asia, it will not happen otherwise. Along similar lines, Denmark observed that a balance of power is not self-implementing. He said that the United States must assure its allies that it will aid them in the event of a crisis or conflict. The fact that other countries are pushing back against Chinese assertiveness, Denmark insisted, provides the United States with opportunities. Denmark also recommended linking American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities with allies in Asia who are in territorial disputes with China. 

One of the more significant points of disagreement concerned the issue of deterrence. Both panelists agreed on the need for deterrence. Denmark noted that the United States should find new ways to deter Chinese actions with paramilitary and non-military forces, such as thinly disguised “fishing” vessels that are used to claim territories. He proposed increased reliance on coast guards to “push back” proportionally, but said that the United States has not yet been able to impose sufficient costs to deter China. Similarly, Blumenthal decried the failure of deterrence in the South China Sea. Paul Saunders, the Center’s Executive Director, and a U.S. government official took issue with that view of deterrence. Saunders argued that we must be more precise about what we mean by deterrence. Looking to the Cold War, he listed numerous crises such as the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, that were not deterred, but that the true purpose of deterrence in that context was the prevent nuclear war and the invasion of Western Europe. By those measures, deterrence was successful. Saunders observed that in the South China Sea, deterrence is unlikely to succeed in discouraging China from assertive territorial claims. Blumenthal conceded that point and agreed that “we’re not there yet.” He did not hold out hope for much progress on U.S.-China ties as far as military matters are concerned. Until we can talk to China about their intentions on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear weapons, cyber, and other important matters, he said, relations are unlikely to improve.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsChina

Memories of Manas: What Central Asia Taught America about Geopolitics

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In 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush asked for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing to open two military bases in Central Asia. This was an act of both strategy and chutzpah. The bases would plant the US military squarely in the middle of what Donald Rumsfeld called the “arc of instability” of the greater Middle East. But the move was also a bold assertion of American influence in Russia’s Asian backyard. Surprisingly—in hindsight—Putin said yes.

On July 1 the lease officially expires on the Transit Center of Manas, Kyrgyzstan, the last remaining US base in the region. This date marks the end of an era in which the US, at the height of its post-Cold War power, sought to extend its geopolitical reach to a critical location bordering on Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan. The move was propelled by President Bush’s faith in the virtues of his Global War on Terror (GWOT), and the belief that no one could rival America’s power anywhere in the world.

From the vantage point of 2014, as Russia reasserts dominance over former Soviet territories and al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents advance in Iraq, this self-righteous confidence seems quaint, if not delusional. But it took a few years until reality started pushing back against the Bush Administration’s grand plans.

When I worked as a translator on K2 Airbase—“Camp Stronghold Freedom” –in Uzbekistan in 2004-05, the troops and contractors I met were disappointed to have been sent to such an obscure destination, distant from the fight against the Taliban and only indirectly part of the GWOT. But they expressed confidence that the mere presence of the US was a force for good, especially in a country consistently rated among the least democratic in the world. President Bush reinforced this belief when he laid out his “freedom agenda” in his second inaugural address promising to end “tyranny in our world.” Viewed from a remote outpost of American power, there was no obvious contradiction between flaunting our military might and promoting our values.

That there was in fact a tradeoff became clear beginning in mid-2005. When the Uzbek government opened fire on peaceful protesters, the US was unwittingly drawn into a domestic political matter involving its terror-fighting but democratically challenged ally. The Bush Administration, unexpectedly, criticized its hosts and demanded an independent investigation—over the Pentagon’s objections. The Uzbek government responded by evicting the US, and K2 was history.

It was around the same time that President Putin began to have second thoughts about the American guests in Central Asia. Arguing that the war in Afghanistan was over and that the base at Manas was no longer needed, he pressured the government of Kyrgyzstan to shut it down. The Kyrgyz, however, saw the geopolitical and financial benefits of partnering with the US, and used Russian pressure as a bargaining ploy. In the end, Russia was rebuffed and the US agreed to increase its rent payments to Kyrgyzstan from $2 million to $17 million. This amount—and the fact that most of it would be siphoned off by the regime—seemed a small price for the US to retain a military foothold in Central Asia.

But this was not the only challenge Manas would face. After claims by a GI that she had been kidnapped in the Kyrgyz capital, US personnel were forbidden to leave the base. US military police shot dead a Kyrgyz citizen working on the base who was reported to be brandishing a knife. Russian TV, popular in Kyrgyzstan, began a propaganda campaign against the US promoting several conspiracy theories. Kyrgyz nationalist politicians jumped on the bandwagon, claiming US jets were dumping fuel on pristine pastureland in villages around the base.

Yet the US clung on, and Manas became even more important when Pakistan shut the Khyber Pass, the main supply line for NATO forces into and out of Afghanistan. The president of Kyrgyzstan bargained the rent up to $60 million in 2009. It was only after he was overthrown in a popular uprising that the new government—under pressure from Moscow—refused further negotiations and followed through on previous threats to close down the base.

Lacking more convenient alternatives—now that ex-Soviet states are off limits on Putin’s orders—the logistics hub for troops leaving Afghanistan was moved to Romania’s Black Sea coast. While not strategically central, operating in a NATO member state means avoiding the geopolitical rivalries and messy internal politics the US was unprepared to deal with in Central Asia. It also brings the US overseas military presence back in line with the realities of American power and public opinion. (Of course, the US still has over 600 military bases globally.)

Putin will cheer the departure of the Americans and the restoration of Russian influence in Central Asia, but it is not worth shedding tears over the end of Manas. The US military presence in Central Asia began in a different era, one of boundless confidence in America’s ability to shape the world in its image. But that goal was illusory, coming at a time of momentary international solidarity—Putin was the first leader to offer President Bush condolences over 9/11—after a decade in which US power was rarely challenged.

When the last traces of American forces in Central Asia disappear, there will only be the memory of a time, fleeting in the sweep of history, when the US took advantage of favorable geopolitical circumstances but was beaten back by forces it could not control: nationalism, protection of sovereignty, great power envy, and public opinion. This is not the first time Central Asians have seen the pretensions of empire surface only to recede, and it will probably not be the last. Nor is it likely to be the last time the US overreaches, gets humbled, and learns some valuable lessons--lessons destined to be forgotten when the US regains its swagger.

Scott Radnitz is an associate professor of international studies at the University of Washington.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsCentral Asia

A Plan to Save the South China Sea from Disaster

The Buzz

Editor's Note: The image above depicts possible joint development areas in the South China Sea that could be created to which an open-access, common carrier energy infrastructure could be added. Such joint development and collective infrastructure could reduce or solve territorial tensions. 

Arbitration, joint development, coordinated investment, shared infrastructure.  The plan above could offer an “everybody wins,” face-saving solution to the increasingly dicey situation in the South China Sea. None of the points are novel. All are on the table or represent logical extensions to existing initiatives. 


The Philippines has appealed to the Permanent Court of Arbitration established under the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea over China’s claim to waters near the Philippines.  Vietnam is likely to follow suit. This, after China placed a deep-sea oil exploration rig—accompanied by a protective flotilla—in waters claimed by Vietnam.  China has refused to respond to the Philippines’ UNCLOS appeal, claiming the arbitration court lacks jurisdiction. China’s certain to take the same stance with Vietnam.

While the jurisdiction of UNCLOS in the particulars of the Philippine-Chinese, Vietnam-Chinese cases is arguable, international arbitration still looks like the best bet on a menu of second-bests. Given this, the Philippines and Vietnam should continue to multilaterize the South China Sea issue. This draws uncomfortable attention to China, which could encourage China to moderate her unilateral assertiveness pending better solutions. 

Joint Development Areas

A second track—China’s favored track—should also be pursued: bilateral negotiation. China, Vietnam and the Philippines all have voiced qualified support for Joint Development Areas (JDAs) in the South China Sea. JDAs therefore, could provide the most promising medium-term avenue for avoiding escalating incidents that could lead to war.  

JDAs have pedigree. They’ve been around for decades. A number exist all around the world, including in the South China Sea. JDAs enable countries to indefinitely postpone resolution of disputing offshore claims while they jointly develop the oil and gas resources within them. Several disputed Chinese-Vietnam, Chinese-Philippine offshore areas look suitable for JDAs. These could lead to others. If JDAs were established (a big if), multilateral investment could follow. 

Coordinated Investment

China is a major investor in Southeast Asia, particularly in infrastructure.  China Southern Power Grid has built cross-border electricity grid interconnections with Vietnam. State Grid of China is several years into a 25-year contract to operate and upgrade the Philippine electricity grid. 

Therefore, this emerging situation of “coop-frontation”—deepening economic ties on the one hand between the Philippines, Vietnam and China and worsening territorial tension on the other—creates awkwardness all around. 

Shared Infrastructure

As China’s internal infrastructure needs wind down, China’s state champion energy infrastructure companies (like State Grid, China Southern Power Grid and China National Offshore Oil Company—CNOOC) face atrophy, shrinkage and decline. They need new projects. That’s why China is looking abroad. Viewed through this domestic Chinese industrial policy prism, China Southern Power Grid’s Vietnam interconnections, State Grid’s investments in the Philippines (and Australia) and CNOOC’s aggressive recent placement of an oil and gas exploration rig off Vietnam make a bit more sense. So does China’s proposal to provide majority capital for a $50+ billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). 

If JDAs were established in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, China’s proposed AIIB could provide the infrastructure funding to develop the South China Sea’s offshore energy resources and bring them to market. 

With JDAs, China gets a regional “social license” for her domestic infrastructure state champions to build new projects.  Vietnam, the Philippines and (potentially later) other Southeast Asian nations, meanwhile, get new infrastructure they can’t afford to build on their own. 

But this happy symbiosis, however, begs the question: who controls the infrastructure once it’s built? But this may be less of a problem than it appears. 

China, like Europe, is  “unbundling” its domestic energy markets to separate ownership of energy generation assets and energy transmission infrastructure.  The aim is to enhance energy market competition, encourage new energy market entrants and increase energy supply security. Applying this plan to the South China Sea, energy transmission infrastructure built to serve JDAs could be built and operated on an “open-access, common-carrier” model. This would avoid the problem of one party (read China) exploiting control of the infrastructure to squeeze the neighbors.

A rough draft for such an infrastructure already exists in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) proposed Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline (TAGP) and Trans-ASEAN Electricity Grid (TAEG). Both are aimed at deepening and broadening ASEAN’s energy markets to increase supply security, and lower prices.

In their most extensive forms, both the TAGP and TAEG look tailor made for providing access to new oil and gas supplies from the South China Sea developed through JDAs. 

Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure

What emerges is a proto-China/Southeast Asia energy network. That, in turn, can provide a template for something similar to be built in the East China Sea connecting the energy markets of China, Japan and South Korea, as well as a template for extending infrastructure southward to Indonesia and Australia. The end result would be a Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure stretching from Beijing to Brisbane, Seoul to Sydney.

A Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure—in its more extensive form—would be a multi-fuel network of gas pipelines, high-capacity power lines and fiber optics cables. These would create the world’s largest common energy market along with the information to trade it. Built correctly, new Asian pipelines could carry natural gas supplies over the short-term, and future fuels like hydrogen, bio-energy and even waste carbon over the long term. Existing pipelines already do this in the US, Canada and Europe. So it isn’t fanciful. It’s an extension of current trends.

A Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure of power lines and gas pipelines, and fiber optics creates the conditions for “cloud energy.” Cloud energy—like cloud computing—involves sourcing marginal supply from anywhere on an interconnected network with dispatch arbitrated by distance, congestion, availability and, in the case of cloud energy, carbon pricing. In short, it represents a frictionless “perfect market”—a big one.

The South China Sea represents a classic case of crisis leading to opportunity. Upcoming multilateral meetings offer a pathway for moving the ideas forward. In October, the United Nations’ Green Climate Summit meets in New York. It will focus on funding clean energy projects in the developing world. In November, China hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group. A week later, Australia hosts the Group of 20 (G20). Both China and Australia plan to push infrastructure and investment agendas. In December 2015—18 months from now—the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meets in Paris. It’s tasked with reaching binding global agreement on post-2020 emissions cuts. Infrastructure could be the key to solving the challenges above simultaneously. These include climate change, territorial tensions, accommodating the rise of China, encouraging energy market innovation and developing low-emission energy sources. Viewed this way, the growing crisis in the South China Sea may really be an opportunity. Handled correctly, it could represent a turning point in history.

Stewart Taggart is principal of Grenatec, a research organization studying the viability of a Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure of high-capacity power lines, natural gas pipelines and fiber optic cables stretching from Australia to China, Japan and South Korea.

TopicsSouth China Sea RegionsASEAN