Iraq Is Korea?
Bush's latest appalling historical analogy.
It's no news that George W. Bush and his handlers don't know much about history, but their latest stab at pretending otherwise is among their most ludicrous.
At a press conference on Wednesday, White House spokesman Tony Snow said that President Bush thinks Iraq will develop along the lines of "a Korean model," and defined that to mean a situation in which the United States "provides a security presence," and serves as a "force of stability," for "a long time."
Let's set aside for a moment whether the comparison is valid—much more on that to come—and ask why on earth Bush would make it. Huge numbers of U.S. troops have been in South Korea for 57 years. Do Bush and Snow really mean to suggest that U.S. troops will still be stationed in Iraq in the year 2060 and beyond?
Now back to the merits—or rather demerits—of the analogy. In 1950, the United States beat back North Korea's invasion of South Korea, became embroiled in a Chinese-assisted guerrilla war, fought the Communists to a stalemate, and, in 1953, after suffering 54,000 combat deaths, negotiated a truce (but not a formal peace). Ever since, American troops—at present, 37,000 of them, stationed at 95 installations across the Korean peninsula—have remained on guard at the world's most heavily armed border.
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, overthrew its regime (which posed a hypothetical threat), and, in the four years since, has kept about 150,000 troops in the country to kill terrorists (who weren't in Iraq before the war), to train the Iraqi army (which the Bush administration, for still-mysterious reasons, dismantled at the occupation's outset), and to keep a "low-grade" sectarian civil war (which erupted amid a vacuum of authority) from boiling over.
In the half-century-plus since the Korean armistice of 1953, just 90 U.S. soldiers have been killed in isolated border clashes in Korea. In the mere four years since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, more than 3,000 American servicemen and women have been killed, and the number rises every day.
To sum up, we intervened in South Korea as a response to an invasion and as part of a broad strategy to contain Communist aggression. We intervened in Iraq as the instigator of an invasion and as part of a broad strategy to expand unilateral American power. We remained in South Korea to protect a solid (if, for many years, authoritarian) government from another border incursion. We are remaining in Iraq to bolster a flimsy government and stave off a violent social implosion.
In other words, in no meaningful way are these two wars, or these two countries, remotely similar. In no way does one experience, or set of lessons, shed light on the other. In Iraq, no border divides friend from foe; no clear concept defines who is friend and foe. To say that Iraq might follow "a Korean model"—if the word model means anything—is absurd.
At times during Wednesday's press conference, Snow seemed to recognize this absurdity. Take these passages from the transcript:
Q: So you're not suggesting that U.S. troops would be there for over 50 years in a—
Snow: No, no, I'm not. I don't know. It is an unanswerable question, but I'm not making that suggestion.
Q: You're not suggesting that there's a parallel between the Korean model today and the Iraqi model today, in terms of U.S. force posture?
Snow: No, what I'm saying is you get to a point in the future where you want it to be a purely support role. But no, of course, we're in active combat ...
Q: [W]hen you talk about this Korean model, would that kick in whether things are going poorly after the surge or going well after the surge? I mean, do you have to maintain a stability of some sort?
Snow: … I'm not going to get into any of the details of those sorts of things.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.