Why the analogy doesn't hold water.
Here is how the imperialist plot in Iraq was proceeding until recently. The Shiite Muslim pilgrimages to Najaf and Karbala and the Sunni pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina had been recommenced after a state ban that had lasted for years and been enforced in blood. A new dinar had been minted, without the face of the dictator, and was on its way to becoming convertible. (Indeed, recent heists at the Beirut and Baghdad airports suggested that the Iraqi currency was at last worth stealing.) The deliberately parched and scorched wetlands of the south were being re-flooded. At the end of June, the American headquarters was to be converted into an embassy. At that point, almost $100 billion was to become available for the reconstitution of the Iraqi state and society. By the end of the year, campaigning would be under way for the first open election in Iraqi memory, and the only such election in the region (unless you count Israel).
There are those—not conspicuous for their bravery under a less indulgent regime—who would prefer not to give this process a chance to breathe. For them, it is nobler to take hostages and dismember prisoners and to conceal explosives in the bodies of dead dogs. When confronted with those who were brave under the previous regime, they tend to back away. (I don't see Muqtada Sadr taking on the Kurdish peshmerga any time soon, and I'd be fascinated to see what happened if he did. He has said that "Kurdistan is the enemy of God.")
Of what does this confrontation remind you? Why, of Vietnam, says Sen. Edward Kennedy. No, more like Lebanon in 1982, says the New York Times. The usually admirable Colbert King, in the Washington Post, asking how we got ourselves into this, compares pro-American Iraqis to the Uncle Toms on whom liberal opinion used to rely for advice about the black ghetto. And Thomas Friedman, never more than an inch away from a liberal panic of his own, has decided that it is Kurdish arrogance—in asking to keep what they already have—that has provoked theocratic incendiarism.
If the United States were the nation that its enemies think it is, it could quite well afford to Balkanize Iraq, let the various factions take a chunk each, and make a divide-and-rule bargain with the rump. The effort continues, though, to try and create something that is simultaneously federal and democratic. Short of that, if one absolutely has to fall short, the effort must continue to deny Iraq to demagogues and murderers and charlatans. I can't see how this compares to the attempt to partition and subjugate Vietnam, bomb its cities, drench its forests in Agent Orange, and hand over its southern region to a succession of brutal military proxies. For one thing, Vietnam even at its most Stalinist never invaded and occupied neighboring countries (or not until it took on the Khmer Rouge), never employed weapons of genocide inside or outside its own borders, and never sponsored gangs of roving nihilist terrorists. If not all its best nationalists were Communists, all its best Communists were nationalists, and their combination of regular and irregular forces had beaten the Japanese and French empires long before the United States even set foot in the country, let alone before the other Kennedy brothers started assassinating the very puppets they had installed there.
As for Lebanon: Gen. Sharon in 1982 set out to "solve" the Palestinian problem by installing a fascist-minded Phalange Party, itself a minority of the Christian minority, in Beirut. (To watch American policy in Iraq, you would never even know that there was a 6 percent Christian minority there.) And Sharon invaded a country that already had a large population of Palestinian refugees, a country that had committed no offense against international law except to shelter those Palestinians—against their will and that of Lebanon—to begin with.
Colbert King is actually nearer the mark than he knows. Those Arab Iraqis who take a pro-American line do have a tendency to be secular, educated, and multicultural. They also, often, have had to spend time in exile (as 4 million Iraqis have been compelled to do), and many of them have barely had time to come home and start over. Then there is a potential majority, according even to the most depressing opinion polls, who want to be given time to think. The above qualifications don't apply so much to Iraqi Kurdistan, which did its own fighting and doesn't suffer so much from that elusive feeling of "humiliation," and where the "street" is pro-American. This does force us to face the fact that there is no pro-Western militia, with ready-made slogans of religion and nationalism and "martyrdom" and Kalashnikovs to spare. And facing that fact means asking whether we will abandon the nascent Iraqi civil society to those who do have those things.
The scenes in Fallujah and Kut and elsewhere are prefigurations of what a transfer of power would have looked like, unedited, in the absence of coalition forces. This is the Iraq that had been prepared for us by more than a decade of sanctions-plus-Saddam, with a new lumpen class of impoverished, disenfranchised, and paranoid people, with bullying, Khomeini-style, Wahhabi-style and Baath-style forces to compete for their loyalty. Such was the future we faced anyway. This is implicitly admitted by those antiwar forces who asked, "Why not Zimbabwe?" or, "Why not Rwanda?"
I could give a list of mistakes that I think the Bremer administration has made, but none that would have justified theocratic barbarism. I don't feel I should give free advice to officers in the field, but if the locations seized by Sadr or his Sunni counterparts had been left to their own devices for a few days, there is some reason to think that the local population would have gotten a glimpse of that future and rejected it. A few days rule by the inflamed Party of God. … Or what about a quarter-century of it, as the Iranian people have just had to endure?
Here is the reason that it is idle to make half-baked comparisons to Vietnam. The Vietnamese were not our enemy, let alone the enemy of the whole civilized world, whereas the forces of jihad are our enemy and the enemy of civilization. There were some Vietnamese, even after the whole ghastly business, who were sorry to see the Americans leave. There were no Lebanese who were sad to see the Israelis leave. There would be many, many Iraqis who would be devastated in more than one way if there was another Somalian scuttle in their country. In any case, there never was any question of allowing a nation of this importance to become the property of Clockwork Orange holy warriors.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph on Slate's Table of Contents of scene in Abu Gharib by Karim Sahib/AFP.