Thursday, September 06, 2007

Misusing History

Name the place:

War displaces the dominant economic and ethnic group from power and gives a previously oppressed ethnic group power and political enfranchisement. The invading Army, viewed as foreign occupiers, tries to impose order and rebuild the war-shattered land. The displaced former power group forms militias to resist the invaders and suppress the newly enfranchised ethnic group. Violence simmers for years.

Sound familiar? But, if you said Iraq, you’d be wrong. Try the American South during reconstruction. And how long did it take for “reconstruction” to work? When did the American Civil War really end? You could argue that it took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to finally bring the Civil War to a close—a century of reconstruction, a century of Phase IV. And we still struggle with race issues to this very day, and in some quarters, the wounds are still raw, and it will always be the “War of Northern Aggression”.

Recently, the President said in a speech before the VFW that "One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people', 're-education camps' and 'killing fields'."

Predictably, his statements generated a storm of controversy on both sides of the political aisle, but nobody has really talked about what not withdrawing from Vietnam would have meant. My assessment is that had we not left Vietnam in the 70’s, we would still be there today, either in a role similar to our presence in South Korea or in a prolonged occupation of the North. Phase IV in Vietnam would have lasted for decades.

It is easy to misuse the lessons of history. In Iraq, the argument is that if we leave now, the country will descend into further violence and chaos. I have no doubt this is true. The killing fields of Southeast Asia may be repeated. However, history also provides more instruction on what staying in Iraq looks like. History tells us that Phase IV lasts forever.

And that is precisely the debate that we are not having. How long can we realistically stay in Iraq? How many lives and how much treasure are we willing to spend? How many decades are we willing to stay? That’s the question nobody is asking in any of the political debates.

Update: In a Fred Kaplan article in Slate Stephen Biddle, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations says that "the strategy in Iraq would require the presence of roughly 100,000 American troops for 20 years—and that, even so, it would be a "long-shot gamble.""

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