IN THE NEWS
When William F. Buckley, Jr., one of the grandfathers of modern conservatism, argues that the American war effort in Iraq is a failure, we've reached some sort of crossroads in the sad history of this conflict. There has not been a dramatic, Tet Offensive-like moment when a sudden hurricane of events smashes the domestic political support for the war effort. Instead, the foundations of the war effort have been crumbling bit by bit, while we watch the edifice of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy sink slowly.
Meanwhile, back at National Review, where Buckley recently retired as the journal's editor-in-chief, columnists resist all Vietnam parallels, except for the ones that cast the critics of the war in an unflattering light. Arguing over the appropriateness of the Vietnam analogy can easily lapse into pedantry, obscuring what useful points of similarity or difference one can find. However, if the staff of National Review thinks that the worst historical analogy possible is defeated, once they've chased away the grim specter of Vietnam, think again. There is another, obvious parallel that can make the Bush Administration's Iraq misadventure look even more foolish: the American incursion into Lebanon from 1982 to 1984.
In hindsight, the Vietnam War was easier to justify than it might have seemed in, say, the late 1970s, when the post-Vietnam anguish was at its peak. There was a genuine Cold War dimension to the conflict, one that wasn't just invented by the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Administrations. There was a domino theory of sorts in effect: North Vietnamese troops effectively occupied large swathes of Laos and Cambodia, where indigenous Communist movements seized power in the wake of North VIetnamese military power. North Vietnam proved to be a cruel overlord of both its own population and its newly-conquered South Vietnamese subjects. While none of these outcomes substantially affected the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union, there was some nobility in the effort to prevent them from occurring.
In contrast, the Reagan Administration's Lebanon intervention pursued far murkier goals, and the means were clearly inadequate to the task (whatever it really was). Ostensibly part of a multi-national effort to help the PLO escape an Israeli invasion, the military mission in Lebanon mutated into an unsuccessful effort to compel warring Maronite, Shiite, and Druze militias into a peace agreement. The battleship New Jersey's volley of Volkswagen-sized shells into the Bekaa Valley was supposed to work the same way that the Bush Administration hoped the invasion of Iraq would: a demonstration of American military might would so awe the locals that they would drop their weapons and run for the political exits.
In both cases, the strategy didn't work. Worse, the American presence in Lebanon and Iraq proved to be politically convenient for some of the worst elements in those conflicts. American civilians could be kidnapped; American troops could be bombed. While in Iraq we have not yet had a dramatic, Tet-like moment like the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, we do have the slow decay of American support from roadside ambushes and suicide bombings. Beyond defending themselves, American troops have been unable to stop violence directed against Iraqis, such as the recent bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.
There are worse analogies than Vietnam, and worse problems than admitting failure.