Saturday, December 02, 2006

Lessons? Vietnam, Indonesia, and Iraq

I. Wallerstein, 198, "Lessons? Vietnam, Indonesia, and Iraq":
Commentary No. 198, Dec. 1, 2006
"Lessons? Vietnam, Indonesia, and Iraq"

George W. Bush has just visited Vietnam and Indonesia. He himself and the press in general used the occasion to reflect on the "lessons" from the Vietnam war, meaning what were its implications for U.S. policy in Iraq. It might have been more useful to reflect on the lessons from Indonesia, and the differing receptions Bush got in the two countries.

Vietnam is today one of the few countries in the world where the U.S. Secret Service will allow Bush to travel in a public motorcade. When Bush was there, he said that the Vietnam war should teach the United States patience. In a quote that every news service picked up, he added: "We'll succeed unless we quit."

Only George W. Bush could have said that the lesson he drew from Vietnam about Iraq is that the United States will succeed unless it quits. For, as even he should know, the United States did quit in Vietnam. Was Bush's comment supposed to be a denunciation of Richard Nixon for having quit, for not having had the patience to win? Or was it just a witless restatement of his stay-the-course line in Iraq, despite what happened in Vietnam?

What are the most obvious lessons to be drawn from the long war in Vietnam? One is that the United States was defeated by a small nation that could not begin to match its strength in military hardware. The second is that the long war with Vietnam tore the American people apart and sapped in important ways the long-term economic strength of the United States. The third is that, despite all that or maybe precisely because Vietnam defeated the United States, Vietnam today is one of the most friendly countries in the world to the United States, indeed one of the few friendly countries.

The ostensible reason the United States fought in Vietnam was to oppose Communism and to make sure that there was no "domino effect" of Communism in Southeast Asia. Well, the Communist Party still rules Vietnam today, and they are actually friendly to the United States. And there was no domino effect. So, why did the United States sacrifice all those lives and financial resources? Maybe it would have made more sense not to have gotten involved in the first place.

President Bush proceeded to Indonesia, where he spent a few hours, holed up in a government palace. No motorcades - too dangerous; no staying even one night - too dangerous. So let us review U.S. policy in Indonesia. There, unlike Vietnam, the U.S. intervention was "successful." The CIA helped arrange the overthrow of Sukarno, a leader of the world's "non-aligned" powers - someone the United States felt was too friendly to the Soviet Union. In his place, a rightwing general, Suharto, became the ruler. He promptly engaged in a mass slaughter of the Indonesian Communist Party, the largest in the world outside the states where the Communist Party was the government.

Indonesia is also the state with the largest Muslim population in the world. Indonesian Islam has been, by world standards, of a quite "moderate" variety. But after the fall of the secular government of Sukarno, the Indonesian government has felt the need to take account of the political views of Muslim parties. And in Indonesia there has been the "domino" effect that never occurred in Vietnam. Only the domino effect came from the U.S. policy in Iraq. The United States is seen these days by many, possibly most, Indonesian Muslims as an enemy of Islam, and they are very angry. Had there been a motorcade in Jakarta, it probably would have been stoned. So the Secret Service nixed it.

So, what lessons should we draw? In 2006, one of the world's few remaining Communist governments is a friend, relatively speaking, of the United States. And the country where we arranged to wipe out the Communist Party is a country in which it is physically dangerous for the U.S. president to set foot.

Will the U.S. president who visits Iraq in twenty years get the kind of reception George W. Bush got in Vietnam, or the kind Bush got in Indonesia?

by Immanuel Wallerstein

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