Lessons Never Learned — From Vietnam to Iraq: Four Essays on Obama’s New War in Iraq and Syria

September 26th, 2014 - by admin

Tom Hayden / The Nation & The Peace & Justice Resource Center – 2014-09-26 23:59:51


Lessons Never Learned — From Vietnam to Iraq
Tom Hayden / The Nation

(September 17, 2014) — I am joining many peace groups around America in expressing opposition to the escalation of the Iraq War into a quagmire that is likely to be costly in lives, tax dollars and our tarnished reputation.

Ann Arbor is the place, along with Berkeley, where the young American peace movement demanded a teach-in, an end to campus business as usual, an end to intellectual conformity and congressional hearings as we confronted the growing horror of the Vietnam War.

There are many parallels between the wars of our youth and the latest one unfolding. Once again, we need to suspend the monotony of our everyday lives and ask the questions that need to be asked. We cannot trust “the best and brightest” to have the answers any more than students trusted their pedigreed elders fifty years ago.

We need congressional hearings, full debate and a vote on authorization of this unilateral war. In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” was contrived and exploited to stampede our country into a hasty and irresponsible authorization. Onlyc two members of Congress had the good sense then to vote “no” on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which permitted an open-ended bloodletting for more than a decade before the Congress finally helped put an end to it.

I would hope that the present Congress learns from the past to check and balance the war “fever” gripping Washington as described this week by The New York Times. I would hope that the Obama administration rereads history and thinks again before excluding the Congress and the American public from a war by executive fiat. Only a congressional debate will give legitimacy to the very real questions — and consideration of alternatives — that many Americans deserve to have addressed about this crisis.

Whatever the outcome of a congressional vote, the dissent deserves to be aired, the hawks must be held accountable and the questioning must begin. No threat justifies the exclusion of Congress from its constitutional role, nor the American people from a voice in a decision that will take American lives and resources.

The Obama administration needs to take its case to the United Nations as well, since war is being planned against Syria, a sovereign state, and because diplomacy, beginning now, will be the only way this conflict will end.

During Vietnam, we were told that the “faceless Vietcong enemy” was disemboweling innocent villagers, slaughtering Catholics, kidnapping children and imposing a dictatorship through aggression against South Vietnam. What we were not told was that our government was intervening in a civil war that had been set in motion by the French colonialists who we replaced in trying to “save” South Vietnam. We were fighting against a communist-led army, yes, but one who represented national independence to most of the Vietnamese people.

We were told it would be an affordable war, that our great country could pay for both “guns and butter.” that it would be short in duration too. It bankrupted the US Treasury and lasted at least fifteen years.

We were told, and still are told, that counterinsurgency would be the answer, that rounding up the villagers in “strategic hamlets” to isolate the guerrillas, then a targeted killing campaign against those guerrillas, would bring stability to South Vietnam at last. The infamous “tiger cages” and Con Son island were the precursors of Abu Ghraib and the dungeons in Iraq where eventually ISIS was born. Our own generals like David Petraeus wrongly interpreted the lessons of Vietnam to propose a renewal of Vietnam’s failed CIA “Phoenix Program” and tried in vain to apply to Iraq in 2007.

We were told we were fighting for democracy, but in fact thousands of Americans were drafted against their will, families on all sides were deceived by one administration after another, secret bombings were carried out against Cambodia and Laos, secret CIA counterterrorism operations targeted alleged terrorists, and the repression came home in countless FBI campaigns to spy on, inform on, harass, indict and demonize the anti-war opposition, from Dr. Spock to Dan Ellsberg, from the Catholic resistance led by the Berrigans to the Chicago Eight defendants.

The Watergate conspiracy was properly described as a cancer on our democratic system, and two presidents were driven from office as a result of that war. Democracy was saved by the anti-war movement, including many soldiers in our armed forces, and by political leaders who found the courage to stand up.

Because our leaders didn’t listen, or listened too late, the end came in Vietnam as a total catastrophe, the implosion of the South Vietnamese government and its armed forces, and the literal expulsion of American diplomats from the rooftop of our embassy.

It may seem implausible, but who is to say these events won’t repeat in some ways again?

Our government even now is spending millions on a multi-year memorial campaign to teach “the lessons” of Vietnam in our schools, while excluding the voices of the Vietnam generation dissenters who were right, and while failing in its ability to accept that Vietnam war a mistake. Some of us are meeting now to demand a say in how the Vietnam era is taught — just as we must demand a say in how to understand and approach Iraq.

If a mistake is repeated over and over, the result will be the same. We must demand of our Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam war hero who threw some of his ribbons away and became a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, that he reflect on the very question he asked the Senate forty long years ago: Who will be the last to die for a mistake?

It is a question as real today as before. Tonight we must begin again, announcing a demand for debate, diplomacy and democracy.

Hayden: Where is Obama’s Exit Strategy?
Tom Hayden / The Peace & Justice Resource Center

(September 9, 2014) — A disturbing omission in President Obama’s proposed Iraq War speech was its lack of an exit strategy. Spokesmen for the White House and Pentagon speak of the mission taking years beyond Obama’s tenure.

Once again our country has been invited to support the “long war” doctrine outlined by key Pentagon officials as lasting as long as 50 to 80 years. This long war is probably both unwinnable and unaffordable, but no president and few politicians have the political willingness to acknowledge failure and end it.

So they escalate just enough to pass it along to their successor. It’s war on an installment plan.

As to blame, the current crisis is not due to President Obama’s “premature” withdrawal or short-sightedness by the anti-war movement. It’s the direct consequence of the U. S policy of abandoning the Sunni population of Iraq to a sectarian, oppressive Shiite regime in Baghdad, which we armed, funded and installed in power.

The Baghdad regime built by the Bush and Obama administrations is an ally of Iran and a mortal enemy of the Sunnis, who previously were the privileged class under Saddam Hussein. It’s no accident that the Shiites would take revenge against the Sunnis. The only question is why we maintained the illusions of “pluralism” and “democracy” while the ethnic cleansing of the Sunni population went on under our gaze.

The disenfranchisement of the Sunnis led to the sweeping military counter-attack by the Islamic State and elements of Iraq’s former Baath Party. They cannot be stopped by the Shiites even with US air power. Nor are they likely to be stopped by tinkering with Baghdad politics and rhetoric about token “inclusion.” Only a grant of virtual autonomy to the Sunnis, similar to the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, will provide for the representation, security and power-sharing that Sunnis need in a new confederated and pluralistic state.

The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) grew from the US-funded dungeons in Anbar Province, just as its predecessor, al Qaeda, arose before in the same desert region. There is a key difference between those Sunnis who seek an autonomous role within a new Iraq and those who fighting for a religious Caliphate in which all borders disappear. Those Western officials who want to preserve an Iraqi national state must pay attention to this fundamental ideological difference among the Sunnis and make substantial concessions as rapidly as possible. Otherwise, the future is one of a sectarian civil war in which the American people have no interest.

The Islamic State offensive is also made possible by Syria having become a vast rear base for the insurgency in Iraq. That rear base is made possible by years of Sunni resistance to the minority Alawite regime in Damascus. While calling for the end of the Assad tyranny, the United States has been ambiguous about its desire to overthrow the Assad regime.

As a result, the Islamic State has gained power in Syria in a factional proxy war against other anti-Assad elements supported by the West. The demise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might divide the ranks of the insurgency between those who demand a change in the Syrian state and those who wish to impose a Caliphate without borders, erasing Syria and Iraq in the process.

Too much commentary has been spent on the violent threat suddenly posed by the Islamic State and virtually none on the question of how to confront the Islamic State at its core political weakness: its rise to preposterous claims of being the new center of the entire Muslim world. That claim to legitimacy is rejected by millions of Sunnis in multiple states, and will lead to internal differences, which will weaken the Islamic State from within.

The reason that the Islamic State wants the Americans and the West to bomb and invade its territory is because they know that foreign aggression is the surest way to unite all Sunnis factions.

So what should Obama be asked to consider?

1) To seek congressional authorization and the widest possible policy debate. Do not go it alone. While claiming sole authority in his speech, the president left the door open to serious Congressional debate, especially if he seeks funding for his plan. Nothing might be more helpful than serious hearings and debate. No matter the outcome, the pubic will be drawn into making choices.

Even if the war is authorized, Congress can debate important conditions: what timelines, whether to fund the one side of a sectarian civil war, or to fight without support from a majority of Islamic countries, among them. Congress can begin by enforcing the Leahy law barring US assistance to any military units committing human rights violations.

2) The president should state, over and over, that there is no military solution. That is a red line, which will be tested by the steady introduction of more American “advisers” in zones of combat. Already at least 1,500 have arrived and their numbers will grow if the Humpty-Dumpty Baghdad regime continues to crack.

3) He should acknowledge that any “boots on the ground” should be Sunni and supported across the Arab world. If that coalition is unwilling, US policy will crater or US troops will be dispatched. There was no announcement of such allied support in the speech, but it’s too early to tell.

4) To conduct aggressive diplomacy at the United Nations, especially including contacts with Iran and Russia.

Above all, remember that the US purpose in Iraq was to “disrupt, degrade and derail” al Qaeda — yet, and after killing thousands of people, the network not only exists but has spread far across the Middle East and North Africa. Oddly, the president gave Yemen and Somalia as examples. Both countries are the scenes of savage, tribal and sectarian conflicts where the American secret war is reviled.

Obama is wrong in asserting that America’s domestic agenda can move forward despite US involvement in multiple battlefields. The greatest tragedy of this conflict is that it will undermine “nation-building at home.”

Who is Creating a Terrorist Threat?
Tom Hayden / The Peace & Justice Resource Center

(June 22, 2014) — Contrary to the original spin, there seems to be no need or rationale for “saving” Baghdad from invading ISIS hordes. As I predicted, the growing Shiite counter-offensive seems to be a sufficient deterrent. It appears that al-Maliki will be forced out politically, perhaps to be replaced by a new Humpty-Dumpty and a patchwork agreement to “reform” the Shiite regime.

The immanent danger is that President Barack Obama is preparing to go to war not to “save Baghdad” but to attack the perceived threat of a Sunni jihadist “sanctuary” in the vast zone from southern Syria into northern Iraq.

It has been US policy, however, which is partly responsible for fostering the terrorist sanctuary threat, if one actually transpires. The US made an alliance in 2006-7 with the very Sunni tribes in Iraq, (remember “the Awakening”?) which it now considers part of the terrorist insurgency.

Similarly, by tacitly supporting the Shiite-related Assad regime in Syria, the US has antagonized Syria’s Sunnis and contributed to the conditions that have given rise to the extremist ISIS faction.

If Obama goes to war on the “Yemen model”, he will be allied with Iran at least on a de facto basis. Whether it’s admitted or not, such an informal alliance surely will affect the US-Iran nuclear talks as they enter a crucial stage. Russia has signaled its full backing of the al-Maliki regime as well, once again aligning Russia with Iran.

In the end, American public opinion will be the center of gravity. Obama has ended the ground wars while embracing the drone wars as a weak alternative. Obama knows that drones are no “solution” to anything, but they are inexpensive compared to ground troops, and avoid American casualties — at least so far. But there is rising criticism of the drones policy from Left and Right.

Obama so far is blocked by the Right, including the Israel and fossil fuel lobbies, from the real pivot America needs to make: ending our unholy alliances with Arab dictators of all kinds, ending military occupations of Arab countries whether by drones or troops on the ground, moving to United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, and investing in a crash program against climate change through conservation and renewable resources. We need to take up these options before they become more expensive necessities.

The Long War alternative needs the full attention of Congress, the media and the American people. It is a failure: a policy reliant mainly on counterterrorism only breeds more terrorist threats. It is unaffordable: if Iraq will cost six trillion dollars, the Long War will be far greater.

It is undemocratic: there is no way to authorize a war projected to last fifty to eighty years, through twenty presidential terms and forty congressional budget cycles, without democracy being undermined.

Representative Barbara Lee should be supported in her long struggle to end the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which launched the open-ended Global War on Terrorism. What the public doesn’t know is that Iraq and Afghanistan are defined as “small wars” amidst the “big one” by the theorist David Kilcullen, chief counter-insurgency adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq. By that measure, we are only in the twelfth year of a slog expected to last another 60 or 70 years.

How to Get Out of Iraq For Good
Tom Hayden and Thom Hartman / The Big Picture: RT News

(August 19, 2014) – On tonight’s “Politics Panel” covers the latest news from Ferguson, MO. Thom Hartman discusses how to get out of Iraq with author and activist Tom Hayden. Mary Small of the Jesuit Refugee Service USA reports how refugee children from Honduras have been killed after being deported from the US. In tonight’s “Daily Take” Thom discusses how we need to stop the culture of poverty and violence in America to protect future generations.

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