The Other Vietnam Syndrome
What went wrong in Saigon, and how it could happen again in Iraq.
Last week the United States concluded the military phase of the war in Iraq and began discussing the creation of a new political regime and a new system. During the war—just as in every other U.S. military intervention of the past decade—Washington had to face the so-called Vietnam syndrome: the fear that conflict in a foreign country will lead to quagmire, especially in a country where the native population can use guerrilla tactics to stymie superior military technology. But there's another type of Vietnam syndrome, less well-known but just as pervasive. It derives from our relationship with South Vietnam and the political quagmire that resulted from our experience as democratic imperialists there. And if we don't address it, we may very well repeat it in Iraq.
What wrong turns did the United States take in South Vietnam?
Underestimating nationalism. The alliance between the United States and South Vietnam was uneasy and ambivalent. The failure of America's "hearts and minds" campaign in the South can be attributed as much to nationalism as to the North's resolve to expel foreigners from Vietnamese territory. Americans saw themselves as protectors; many South Vietnamese viewed them as occupiers. Early warning signs were plentiful but ignored. The majority of Saigon streets were named after Vietnamese heroes who had liberated the country from a millennium of foreign occupiers: Chinese, French, and Japanese. Washington's opposition to a reunification vote was based in part on intelligence that Ho Chi Minh would win a free election in the South because his nationalist credentials trumped reservations about ideology. A similar cognitive dissonance appears to be brewing in Iraq, evidenced by the mounting anti-American demonstrations in Mosul and other areas.
Reinforcing religious and ethnic divisions. When France gained control of Vietnam in the 19th century, French administrators put many Catholics in official government positions, replacing the traditional Vietnamese leaders who had quit their posts in protest against colonial rule. By the mid-20th century, Catholics made up 20 percent of the Vietnamese population and formed the political elite. When the United States took up the struggle against Vietnamese communism, Washington, too, showed an initial preference for the Catholic elite. Many Buddhist leaders equated the repressive South Vietnamese government with its American sponsors and were an early source of anti-Americanism.
In an eerie parallel, the percentage of Sunni Muslims to Shiites in Iraq is roughly that of the Catholic-Buddhist ratio in Vietnam in the 1950s. The United States has historically been closer to the Sunni community, and some Shiite groups have issued calls to resist any American involvement in a postwar government. Conversely, some Sunni groups fear that the U.S. will try to compensate for its past slight of the Shiites and are protesting the American presence in Iraq on the grounds that they will be disadvantaged.
In both countries, the United States also enlisted ethnic minorities as military mercenaries: Montagnards in Vietnam (as well as Hmong in Laos) and Kurds in Iraq. In Southeast Asia this patronage exacerbated ethnic tensions, which have rippled outward ever since: Twenty-eight years later, Montagnards are still fleeing the Central Highlands. The Kurds have undoubtedly improved their position with the U.S. victory in Iraq this month, re-enlisting to help maintain order in the north. However, giving Kurds a military franchise will do little to persuade the rest of the country that we have the best interests of all Iraqis at heart.
Importing political leadership. Following the 1954 Geneva Conference, which partitioned Vietnam, Washington found few political allies in Saigon. So the United States promoted Ngo Dinh Diem, an exiled Catholic politician, who returned to become South Vietnam's head of state. Virtually unknown in Vietnam, Diem had spent several years in the United States and was dubbed both the "new George Washington" and the "Churchill of Asia" by President Eisenhower. He proved to be neither. With no real constituency or grass-roots support, Diem became increasingly corrupt and oppressive while publicly shunning Western democratic mores. He was murdered in a 1963 coup that had been blessed beforehand by the United States. Forty years later, the internal debate in the Bush administration is over Ahmad Chalabi, the exiled Iraqi National Congress leader who has a strong chance to become the interim head of state in Iraq. Before returning to the country this month, Chalabi had not lived in Iraq for more than 40 years. (For more on Chalabi, see this "Assessment.")
Creating the illusion of democracy. From the beginning, U.S. policy in South Vietnam was a conflict between realpolitik and democratic ideals. For the Johnson administration, the solution was to legitimize Washington's choice of a leader after the fact with elections. But in the "demonstration elections" of 1967, the designated favorite, Nguyen Van Thieu, won a plurality of only 35 percent. The runner-up, Truong Dinh Dan, had promised to support a cease-fire with the North. Shortly after the elections, Thieu threw him in jail, sparking anti-government demonstrations in Saigon that nearly turned into riots.
In Iraq, early indications cast some doubt on Washington's insistence that Iraqis will choose their own leaders. The 75 officials invited to attend last week's conference on a new government were handpicked by the American military, on the basis of their cooperation with the United States rather than their political relevance or resonance.
Americans make poor imperialists because we are uncomfortable in the role and seek the most expedient path out of it. With the scant 18-month time frame the administration has allowed for political reconstruction in Iraq, if that, we run a high risk of repeating past mistakes. That possibility is even greater if we attempt to direct Iraqi political development alone. For Iraq's sake, and our own, the time has come to bring in the international community.
Catharin Dalpino is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former deputy assistant secretary of state.