View Full Version : Is Iraq becoming quagmire for U.S.?

07-20-03, 03:35 AM
Michael Hill
Baltimore Sun
Jul. 20, 2003 12:00 AM

It is hard to determine when the word "quagmire" was first used to describe a foreign military adventure gone bad, but its etymology shows that it is an appropriate term.

Quagmire's first syllable comes from the word "quake," as in earthquake, and it originally referred to ground that appeared solid but actually gave way when stepped upon.

That could be the description of the British in South Africa in the 1890s or the French in Algeria in the 1960s.

In U.S. foreign policy, "quagmire" is usually associated with the war in Vietnam, which appeared to many to be a clear-cut case of stopping Communist aggression and expansion but turned out to be a far more complex situation.

Both the 1991 Persian Gulf War that kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and this year's invasion that toppled him from power in Iraq have been credited with curing the American military and public of the "Vietnam syndrome" that had made the country reluctant, even ashamed, to use force in the world.

Reluctance to discuss it

And that stance has certainly made many reluctant to talk about Iraq developing the characteristics of a quagmire: "a situation from which extrication is very difficult." But the continuing deaths of U.S. troops, the apparent growth in anti-American sentiment, the lack of a clear exit strategy and the huge cost have made many begin to note the similarities to the Vietnam conflict.

"I don't think we're in a quagmire yet, but I do think the preconditions are there," said Natalie Goldring, executive director of the Program on Global Security and Disarmament at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The United States government appears to have erred in its assessment of how long the war would be, what would happen when it was put in control of Iraqi territory and where the resistance would come from."

The differences with the Vietnam War are clear. In that conflict, the United States was essentially entering into a long-standing nationalist-based revolution that had taken on the trappings of a Cold War ideological fight. It was facing an opponent that had spent decades in a guerrilla struggle against the Japanese and the French. And that opponent was supplied by the military might of the Soviet Union.

None of that is true in Iraq. But the parallels are still troublesome. For one, many in Iraq see the United States just as many Vietnamese did: not as a force bringing liberty from oppression, but as part of a continuum of colonial powers seeking to dominate the land. The French preceded the United States in Vietnam; the British and the Turks in Iraq. For another, the opposition the United States faces seems slippery and elusive, perhaps not completely supported by most Iraqis, but not opposed by enough of them to stop it either.

"The U.S. allowed a great deal of destruction to occur in Iraq and that engendered a great deal of reactions, from open hostility to a willingness to wait and see what happens," Goldring said. "But the images of U.S. soldiers guarding the Oil Ministry even as a huge amount of the country's infrastructure was destroyed is not a good image and that's a persistent one.

"Every Iraqi citizen killed has friends and neighbors, a far wider network than people are willing to think about. When victims are caught in the crossfire, it is seen as another sign that the U.S. does not know what it is doing."

Perhaps the most bothersome parallel with Vietnam is that what had appeared to be the solid ground of liberating a country from a brutal dictator and saving the world from his ruthless ambition has become a bit more unstable.

"I think it is inadvisable to leap pell-mell into Vietnam analogies," said William Galston, director of the Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy at the University of Maryland. "It is too soon and it may actually be misleading. But one thing is increasingly clear: the difficulties that we face in Iraq are more serious than the Pentagon and other administration officials will yet publicly acknowledge."

Lessons forgotten

David Segal, head of the Center for Research on Military Organization in the University of Maryland sociology department, says that if the military had remembered the lessons of Vietnam, it would be in better shape in Iraq today. It was in Vietnam that the Army's special forces - Green Berets - came into their own. These troops, Segal says, are the best prepared to fight the kinds of engagements facing troops in Iraq. "For a period of time in the early- to mid-'70s, the way to success in the Army was to have a special-forces tab on your shoulder," he said. "Now it's to have a Ranger tab."

That, Segal argues, is emblematic of what is wrong with the military approach to Iraq. It centers on organized operations in maneuver formations which not only are ineffective in combating the kind of insurgency seen in Iraq, they are also vulnerable to just those sorts of attacks.