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Opinion: Iraq's not Vietnam

By Nicholas D. Kristof
Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times

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UMM QASR, Iraq Let's be clear: Iraq will not turn into another Vietnam.

I keep getting doleful e-mail from Vietnam vets drawing the comparison, but it's false. Sure, bloody street fighting in Baghdad may lie ahead, even after a couple of days of breathtaking coalition advances. But the U.S. will easily win this war expeditiously by historical standards (remember that just four years ago, President Clinton required 78 days of airstrikes to subdue the Serbs and protect Kosovo).

Yet if this isn't Vietnam, neither is it the Afghanistan campaign, where we were hailed as liberators. I was in Afghanistan during that war, and the difference is manifest. Afghans were giddy and jubilant, while Iraqis now are typically sullen and distrustful and thirsty.

And that's our biggest long-term problem. For all the talk about our forces being short of armored divisions, or our supply lines being stretched so taut that marines were down to one meal a day, those are tactical issues that will be forgotten six months from now. The fundamental and strategic challenge is that so far many ordinary Iraqis regard us, as best I can tell, as conquerors rather than liberators.

Vice President Dick Cheney said on "Meet the Press" on March 16 that "we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." And Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said of the Iraqis in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on March 11: "Like the people of France in the 1940's, they view us as their hoped-for liberator. They know that America will not come as a conqueror."

It's too early to know definitively what Iraqis think, and for now, the signals are mixed, with jubilation in Najaf and anger in many other areas. Iraq these days is almost as varied, tribal and polarized a society as the U.S. (a California bumper sticker declares, "Regime change starts at home"). All in all, most Iraqis seem watchful and ambivalent, as reflected in this conversation I had near Safwan with a Shiite farmer in his 40's.

"Money was O.K. under Saddam," he said. "Freedom was not so good. As a people, we were doing O.K. before the invasion. But the war upsets our lives. It brings destruction."

"Do you think the aftermath of the war will bring improvements?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Only God knows."

"So do you think Saddam is a good president or a bad president?"

"Saddam is a good president." Long pause. "Well, maybe not good. So-so."

Fear of Saddam explains some of the reticence (half the Iraqis I've asked have said Saddam will win the war), but you also see nationalism fermenting in Iraqis who proclaim that they will fight U.S. occupation the way Palestinians fight Israeli occupation. The risk is not that America will lose the war, but that it will never fully establish a peace. Already the coalition-controlled south is, particularly after dusk, a Hobbesian world of banditry and anarchy. One Arab expert dourly suggested to me that Iraq could emerge as "another Lebanon."

Yet even if many Iraqis are suspicious now, there's hope of bringing them around. Consider Germany and Japan in 1945, when initial attitudes toward Americans were ferocious. One of my best Japanese friends was born in 1945, and his father wrote from the field to instruct his mother to kill the baby if the American brutes landed in Japan. As for Germany, the first significant German city occupied by the Americans was Aachen, and there the U.S. troops initially could not find a single German sympathetic to the Allies.

Sensitivity and diplomacy managed to turn around public opinion in Japan and Germany, and it's reassuring that the coalition has shown such sensitivity in its march on Baghdad and its patient siege of Basra, which could be a model for the siege of Baghdad. But this administration wages war better than it wages diplomacy, and the Pentagon's apparent plan to make an Iraqi leader out of Ahmad Chalabi, whose support lies along the Potomac rather than the Tigris or Euphrates, is emblematic of the administration's Attila-the-Hun brand of diplomacy, which risks antagonizing the world and alienating the Iraqi people themselves.

So today the paramount question is not whether we will win this war, but whether we can persuade ordinary Iraqis to accept our victory. The Iraqi jury is still out. The danger is not that Iraq will turn into another Vietnam but that after our victory, it could turn into another Lebanon or Gaza.

Nicholas D. Kristof is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.

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