From Hanoi to Baghdad. The Avant Garde of Western Civ.
Later on, that year, there were a growing number of Op-eds and other such analyses that were comparing Iraq to Vietnam and which, as a veteran of the later, interested me. While I had no doubt that the same ending for both could be achieved, the actual variations were often more difficult to discern.
On the surface, aspects of it seem immediately similar. The liberal democracies within their perimeters on foreign soil. The forays out into the countryside where there were folk who specifically wanted to hurt you. The asymmetry of the firepower, the vocabulary of 'hearts and minds', the undercurrent of local nationalism, the sense of being so foreign to the place, the public confusion back home. Fear. The exquisite intensity of occasional feelings. The fantastic longings for the 'world' you left.
But back then, in April of 1969, it was as a uniformed and armed troop on the periphery of Marxism-Leninism, engaged in a proxy war...which did, in the end, further bankrupt the Kremlin and send me home, wounded. Vietnam lost 3 million souls. America withdrew to its economy. And the Soviets, 20 years later, went 'belly up'
Now, in 2005, almost 35 years later, I am un-uniformed, un-armed...but still, truth be told, an avant garde for the liberal democracies. I work for one of the few humanitarian organizations still left in Iraq. We seek to respond to the yearnings of young Iraqi's to create, to connect, to make their own particular accommodation with the West.
Certainly, the U.S. mismanagement was comparable (in both wars). The Ministry of Oil still stands majestic and from what I can tell from the road, without a pockmark on it. Much of the rest of Baghdad is still trying to recovered from the trashing and looting visited upon it by the disenfranchised in the aftermath of the war.
Rubble, blast barriers, razor wire...all too familiar again.
And then there is the consumption. One would be astonished at the Iraqi appetite. Cars, Air Conditioners, Alcohol have flooded into Iraq since April 2003. In fact, Iraq cannot produce energy fast enough for the frenzy of consumption.
More significantly...cell phones, satellite dishes, and Internet connections proliferate as if there were no tomorrow. The sign of the times is the mud brick hooch in Southern Iraq with the SAT dish on its roof.
Hundreds of newspapers of all persuasions, political debate on every street corner, the makings of civil society. Yes, indeed...Iraq is roiling with unchecked freedom, open access to ideas, and public argument.
In contrast, even 30 years later in Hanoi...even with its rising economy...there are few such accoutrements of Liberal Democracy.
Further, Iraq is no proxy. It is the heart of the matter. Do a tolerant Christendom and a tolerant Islamic world accommodate each other? Do 500 million Arabs participate actively in the global community or do they revert to despots, other forms of absolutism and/or fantastic dreams of bygone Caliphates?
Americans...still all too visible, 140,000 of them, and by their presence fueling Iraq indignation with foreign occupation. Yes...a shared phenomenon.
And finally there was the ''lie''...the unwillingness of either Johnson or Bush to level with the TV audience. Both Gulf of Tonkin and WMD were essential parts behind a President's will to subordinate 'facts on the ground' to a greater vision which, in and of itself, they believed to be too vague for citizens to agree to sacrifice blood and treasure.
For Bush it was a vision that went beyond protecting the West’s interests in the Persian Gulf. It was typically American and infused with 'manifest destiny' and 'mankind’s best hope'. As opposed to Johnson’s effort to contain the Reds, it argued for the incorporation of the Arab world and ,to some extent, the Islamic world into a global society...a society currently inspired and managed by the West, principally America. In short, it was a vision of absorption which would save the Arabs and enrich the amalgam...a vision, as stated, whose chances of being sold to the American public were slim to none.
Then, with the inauguration of George W. Bush in January of 2001, that vision got put through his own dispositional strainer and emerged very much more Manichean than the original architects had conceived. A global society which had been defined as 'child' of the new technologies and western pre-eminence, became influenced by notions of good and evil...something much more akin to Reagan's 'Evil Empire'..
And, with that new presentation, our bedfellows in Europe fell even further away. Manifest destiny was hard enough for them to swallow; God is 'on our side'---impossible.
Then 9/11 happened; dropped into George W's lap and the original vision which had been twisted since the inauguration, now became duplicitous. A calculation had been made in the Republican hierarchy to raise support for the cause by promoting it as a necessary defense against immediate threat. Something true, perhaps---if one looks way over the horizon into the 21st century---but certainly not true during the life-span of this administration, yet sold unashamedly to the American public.
That then was the short-cut and the lie which came to undermine the authenticity of domestic support and made “old” Europe shift from disdain for our presumptions about destiny (perhaps a duplicity of their own---given their reluctance to act for any reason)...to outright refusal to be complicit in the lie. That is to say: WMDs and imminent threat.
In the worst case scenario--which we may be now approaching---only Zarqawi, his sickle dripping in blood, and a reconstituted America-as empire are still sitting at the table. The prophecy of Manichea vindicated.
No doubt, as i try to figure it out in the spring of 2005, George W. has stuck our arm in a beehive. As of now, there is no 'on boats' such as when George McGovern was asked how we do leave Vietnam. No Paris Peace talks as a fig leaf for expeditious retreat.
In Vietnam, America wanted to stay but got persuaded out. In Iraq, America, God knows, wants to leave (all too quickly) but can not yet - not without a regional score-setting.
Should American have let the Arabian Peninsula stew in its own despotic juices? Or, should America have precipitated an 'accommodation' that has an historic inevitability to it...though more difficult (read bloodier) with each decade of delay.
Should we few American humanitarian agencies ply the dangerous roads of Iraq in the promotion of transformation and salve? Should we play to this part of U.S. foreign policy, which is fundamentally based on the propagation of liberal democracy among Islam and the Arab peoples. Or should we also have kept far distant from the authentic 'yearnings' of the vast majority of Iraqi's for the accommodation - on their terms?
Very high value...as I tell my team. Right at the very heart of right relations. What comes down over the next decade will not only be transformative for the Arabs but for us..
This is the eleventh post in a series on how Foreign Assistance really happens, taken from the perspective of a manager for one of the large organizations which are typically granted or contracted Federal funds for Relief and Development Overseas.
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