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The Iraq Invasion Could Be a Worse Foreign Policy Decision than the Vietnam War

Anniversaries are always points of introspection: a time to consider the paths taken, choices made, or consequences suffered. As the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War passed less than two weeks ago, there have been a number of thought-provoking pieces written in honor of this practice of introspection. Peter Van Buren has argued that the Iraq War was the single worst foreign policy decision in American history. Christine Amanpour has questioned why the media failed to recognize the lies surrounding the Iraq War and how the media became a tool for the government to sell its narrative. International critics, like Sebastian Fischer, writing for Spiegel Online, have written about America’s “Dumb War.” Last month, Rachel Maddow prompted early conversations about Iraq when she released her documentary, “Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War,” based on the book by Michael Isikoff and David Corn.

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The decision to call the Iraq War the single worst foreign policy decision in the country’s history is not easily justified. The Vietnam War left 58,000 Americans dead and 520,000 physically disabled. There are 3 million veterans of that war, and a significant number of them have led miserable lives. The casualties among Southeast Asians in the war go into the millions. There are over 1.5 million veterans who spent time in Iraq; 4,422 soldiers are dead, and over 30,000 were injured. The Iraqi casualties soar into the hundreds of thousands. Like the Vietnam War, over a trillion dollars was spent executing the War. So what makes the Iraq invasion so much less forgivable? Why would Iraq be a worse policy decision that going to war in Vietnam? The answer to what makes it more reprehensible is that it thoughtlessly repeated history in so many ways.

One of the defining characteristics of Maddow’s “Hubris” was its juxtaposition of the lies that led the United States into Vietnam versus the lies that led the country into Iraq. At this point in history, Americans all know that the stories told by the government about the Gulf of Tonkin were fiction. However, we cannot similarly say as much about the stories sold by the Bush Administration to get the country into the Iraq War, since the “vast majority” of Republicans still believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Perhaps that is why we see so many representatives of the Bush administration out on the airwaves this month continuing to sell their version of history, hoping that public opinion will turn a favorable light on the Iraq War invasion and the decision to pursue it. They always offer an arrogant promise during their rigmarole that the historians will vindicate Bush and his entourage.

As Rachel Maddow effectively demonstrated in her documentary, one of the first travesties of a decade ago was that the people of the country blindly followed the Bush administration into war, completely duplicating the unfolding of events in Vietnam. Just as people breathlessly hung on the words of Lyndon Johnson as he described the horrors to come if the nation didn’t get involved in war in Southeast Asia, the American people and their press were wide-eyed and gullible in their consumption of information from the Bush administration. There were dissenters, but they were silenced. They would have to wait for their vindication in the form of the Downing Street memo, the confession of Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi (“Curveball”), and the lack of WMDs.

The “neo-cons” of the 1950s and 60s wanted to curb the spread of communism. They sold the notion of the domino theory: if any nations succumb to a communist regime, then nations across the world will do so. According to historian, Craig Lockard, writing about the Vietnam era in the Journal of World History,

“There was construction of a national security state at home, furthered by a ruthless ‘ends justify the means’ ethos and almost paranoid fears. These attitudes were expressed in the top secret report of 1950 known as NSC-68, which became one of the most pivotal documents in U.S. history…the rhetoric of the domino theory ultimately became irrational, as Lyndon Johnson warned that defeat in South Vietnam would bring communist threats to the beaches of California and Richard Nixon contended that a Viet Cong victory would herald ‘the destruction of free speech for all men for all time.'” [emphasis added]

The rhetoric of the post 9/11 neo-cons about terrorism, the ultimate security of the United States, and danger from nations that are not compliant with the wishes of our country, echoes these sentiments from decades ago. Just as neo-cons wanted to remake Iraq into a country they designed, run by policies they endorse, the U.S. administrations of the past had thought in exactly the same way about Vietnam. Lockard writes,

“Lyndon Johnson speaking of Southeast Asia said, ‘I want to leave the footprints of America there…We can turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley…Their country [Vietnam] was viewed as a laboratory in which to test American political theories, military strategies, and technologies. The policies pursued in Vietnam entailed…fluctuating and half-hearted attempts at pacification through ‘hearts and minds’ programs of civic action.”

Given that Lockard wrote his scholarly assessment of the meaning of the Vietnam War in world history in 1994, it is eerie to see him write about campaigns for hearts and minds, a phrase that would later spill from Iraqi warmonger Donald Rumsfeld’s lips far too many times. It is also no secret that neo-cons were planning to use post-Saddam Iraq as a laboratory for their social policy engineering, imposing their economic and policy beliefs on the Iraqi people. Naomi Klein, who gave us the concept of the “shock doctrine,” explained their plans:

“…the most cherished belief of the war’s ideological architects: that greed is good. Not good just for them and their friends but good for humanity, and certainly good for Iraqis. Greed creates profit, which creates growth, which creates jobs and products and services and everything else anyone could possibly need or want. The role of good government, then, is to create the optimal conditions for corporations to pursue their bottomless greed, so that they in turn can meet the needs of the society. The problem is that governments, even neoconservative governments, rarely get the chance to prove their sacred theory right: despite their enormous ideological advances, even George Bush’s Republicans are, in their own minds, perennially sabotaged by meddling Democrats, intractable unions, and alarmist environmentalists. Iraq was going to change all that.”

Of course, it was a colossal failure. The privatization of public Iraqi goods. The small, ineffectual government. The laissez-faire economic policies for big business including no trade tariffs and lack of taxes to support citizens’ needs. All of their policy fantasies ended in the notoriously failed reconstruction of the country.

In summarizing what the United States had learned from Vietnam, Professor Lockard wondered, “Americans, too many of them lacking historical memory, may be unable to accurately access this world.” Anyone who hasn’t had the chance to watch Rachel Maddow’s documentary showing parallels between the quagmire in Vietnam and our most recent one in Iraq should take the opportunity to watch. What is disheartening while watching her film is realizing that Lockard appears to be right. We don’t have a particularly effective historical memory. We allowed leaders to dupe us into senseless wars with scare tactics, not just once, but at least twice. The question now becomes are we finally going to learn our lesson, or are we destined to repeat history yet again?

Deborah Foster

Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.

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