Waiting for Tet

Michael Goldfarb, reviewing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book Imperial Life in the Emerald City in the December 17 New York Times, remarks: “Regardless of how the war ends, Iraq is not Vietnam.”

Wanna bet? Engaged once more in a fantastic imperial over-reach, we are retracing the steps that led to the final defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam. Let us hope it is sooner than later, and no new Richard Nixon emerges to slow it down.

Once More Vietnam
Consider the parallels and what they tell us about American imperialism. The Vietnamese Tet offensive two months shy of 39 years ago destroyed the illusion of a possible American victory in Vietnam. President Johnson, realizing that the US was losing the war, sacked Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and charged his successor, Clark Clifford, with making and “A to Z” assessment of the US war effort. All the wise men of the time were convened, ranging from famous retired generals like Omar Bradley, Maxwell Taylor and Matthew Ridgeway, future Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance, Under-Secretary of the Treasury and future Wall Street financier George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, then head of the Ford Foundation, powerful Wall Streeter and former Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon, and finally to Dean Acheson, Truman Secretary of State, principal architect of the Cold War, and the wisest of wise men. Perhaps only the figure of a President of Harvard was missing from the august cast.

Their recommendations changed the course of American involvement in the Vietnam War. American Commander William Westmoreland’s request for 250,000 more troops was rejected, and bombing North Vietnam for peace was declared a failure. The group decided that a military victory was unattainable, and that de-escalation and a negotiated peace were the only viable options.

Professor Richard Hunt sums up in Vietnam and America (edited by Marvin Gettleman, et.al., 1995) how the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese in January, 1968, set the policy shift in motion:
“This demonstration of the vulnerability of U.S. leadership was not lost on many sectors of the ruling class who now began to argue openly that the government had made a mistake and that policy in Vietnam and elsewhere had to be rebuilt around a recognition of the limitations of U.S. power. Never again would any administration be able to unite the entire ruling class behind a strategy of U.S. aggressive military victory in Vietnam.”

And Now Iraq
Once more the Secretary of Defense has been sacked, and the wise men have spoken. “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating,” the Iraq Study Group reports. The new Secretary of Defense Gates admits “we are not winning.” Colin Powell says “we are losing,” though “we have not lost.” The Army is broken, he believes. The Army will break, says its head Peter Schoomaker, without additional troops to meet current combat levels, never mind additional troops to be used in what the White House is calling “a surge,” newspeak for escalation.

Negotiation, “Iraqization” of the ground war, and pressure on the Iraqi government to take up the slack: just the approach recommended by the Vietnam wise men almost 39 years ago. The new wise men, as James Baker and Lee Hamilton make clear in their letter of transmittal of the Iraq Study Group Report, back a “bipartisan approach” to retrieve “the unity of the American people in a time of political polarization,” so that the country can develop “a broad, sustained consensus.”

The wise men, stalwarts of the American ruling class, seek to salvage the American empire in the Middle East and create true believers once more of the American people. They offer a skimpy fig leaf to Brother Bush, though with a plan that even Michael Gordon, the New York Times military aficionado noted was a re-hash of several already shelved proposals for winning the war in Iraq, with his front page offered perhaps in penance by his publisher. So endangered is American hegemony in the Middle East, however, that the wise men put Israel on notice that territorial withdrawal and a two-state solution must be part of the plan for peace and American success in the region. No wonder Israeli Prime Minister let slip that he had nuclear weapons. He and his gang must be a bit scared right now.

But Bush resists, and despite public protests of many a retired general, something not seen since Douglas MacArthur’s insubordination forced Truman to fire him. Bush seems still in control of Iraq policy. He and his cabal, reports Robert Dreyfuss in the December 18 issue of the Nation, recently considered supporting a coup against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Malaki. Better a general, a strong man, to set things straight, they reasoned. But, alas, no Diem he. Apparently, al-Malaki had heard the news too. After initially snubbing Bush, he showed up in Amman on November 29 for his half-hearted anointing by Bush “as the right guy for Iraq.”

So Bush still has his war, but he has not yet had his Tet offensive. The wise men strive in vain: there can be no consensus on their terms or Bush’s for the resolution of the Iraq War. There is no basis for their consensus, as there is no basis for their success. Just like Ho Chi MInh thirty-nine years ago, no one now is going to give the United States an out.

Would you? After a war that has killed an estimated half a million Iraqis, that has triggered a civil war that has set Sunnis and Shiites upon each other?

We must grimly await anew a Tet. Only then, will Americans say to their rulers and their ruling class that enough is enough. Or perhaps they will say it to us.