Georgie Anne Geyer

Little Has Been Learned From the Lessons of Vietnam

Washington, D.C. -- Common wisdom has it that adults, unlike children, lose their native ability to express surprise. As they grow in years, so too do they grow in cynicism, thinking they know everything when in fact they have lost only innocence.

We have been cursed in the Middle East these last few years not to have national leaders with mature wisdom. Instead, we see the naive surprise, not of innocent children, but of unversed and arrogant leaders expressing constant astonishment at what should, in fact, be palpably obvious.

Both Israelis and Americans have been endlessly "surprised" by Hezbollah's admittedly appalling attacks on Israel, and the rest of the world has been equally "surprised" at Israel's outbalanced counterreckoning. The American establishment is, after 3 1/2 years of disastrous meddling, "surprised" as Iraqis veer from insurgency against the always hated occupier to sectarian strife with their eternally despised neighbors and to all-out civil war among the Iraqi sects and sectors. Americans still believe, according to recent polls, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What can one say?

Most incredibly, the U.S. military, after these dangerous years of intervention in Iraq, characterized by an almost total lack of knowledge of the true culture of Iraqis, is now trying to glean lessons from Vietnam. Might one humbly suggest: "Finally!"

In a comprehensive and disturbing piece adapted from Thomas E. Ricks' book "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," The Washington Post recently traced how the American military repeated all the same mistakes of Vietnam and even the Balkans.

They arrogantly thought that their "presence patrols" -- their mere presence -- would control the submissive population. "Few U.S. soldiers seemed to understand the centrality of Iraqi pride and the humiliation Iraqi men felt in being overseen by this Western army," Ricks wrote. "Foot patrols in Baghdad were greeted ... with solemn waves from old men and cheers from children but with baleful stares from many young Iraqi men."

Defense chief Donald Rumsfeld announced at one point, "I guess the reason I don't use the phrase, 'guerrilla war' is because there isn't one."

But later, as the incipient guerrilla war morphed into a full-blown insurgency and well beyond, it became clearer that the United States was waging a "conventional war" -- boots on the ground, full force ahead -- against a classically "unconventional" enemy.

And all these years since the humiliating defeat of American troops in Vietnam in 1975 against a similarly unconventional guerrilla enemy, the Viet Cong (along with traditional Vietnamese troops), American military schools today still do not teach a viable counterinsurgency doctrine.

The Israeli position is quite similar. Despite all proof to the contrary, Israel persists, like the U.S., in thinking it can terrorize its enemies into submission, instead of terrorizing them into ever more lethal and potent irregulars -- thus the Armageddonesque destruction of both Lebanon and Iraq by massive bombing.

But this attitude, as any even reasonably sensitive person should know, is, at the bottom, one of despising one's enemies (always a dangerous business), of believing that he would never react the way you do and thus creating more guerrillas, insurgents and suicide bombers through the humiliation thus inflicted.

Hezbollah, after all, did not exist before Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and stayed for 22 years. Hamas was originally formed with Israeli encouragement to stand up against the PLO. With Iraq, the United States ever so helpfully dismantled the one great enemy of Iran, which kept that imperious and ambitious nation in check. With the same naive destructiveness inside Iraq at the very same time, the American presence was creating new and dangerous insurgent groups -- the Shiite Mahdi Army, the al-Qaida spinoffs, and too many more to mention.

Surprise, surprise, surprise.

Meanwhile, these self-indulgent policies, which refuse to take into consideration the cultural realities of other peoples and groups, are changing the Middle East still further. Old movements are already morphing into new and more dangerous ones.

The New York Times recently wrote about the new war between nations, like the United States and Israel, and "networks," like Hazbollah and al-Qaida, which are simply an advanced form of the classic guerrilla movements of history. At the same time, radical Islamist groups from Lebanon to Somalia to Iraq, and potentially even the moderate Arab regimes, are now gaining power through electoral legitimacy.

And on every level, the American presence in the region is serving to create a new "retribalization" that is destroying what is left of the secular Arab states.

This is not at all to say that these groups are innocent, desirable or unsusceptible to violent confrontation -- far from it. It IS to say that there are intelligent ways to confront them, and to defeat them, other than indiscriminately bombing them to smithereens.

The intelligent policy would be the old middle ground: to address their real grievances, to negotiate and mediate confidently even with difficult governments like Syria's and Iran's and, while using military power prudently, to work on diffuse levels to gradually change the structures of power.

But it's so much easier to drop bombs, even if they only create exactly what you set out to destroy.

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