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Starting From Zero

by Bruce Sharp

Thirty-two years ago, a brutal guerrilla army seized control of the country of Cambodia. The reign of these guerrillas, the Khmer Rouge, lasted less than four years. Yet in the short space of forty-five months, one-quarter of Cambodia's eight million people died: starved, beaten, stabbed, shot, suffocated, tortured, and worked to death in a nightmare of slavery, disease, and madness.

As reports of these horrors emerged, many on the Left voiced skepticism. There were, however, exceptions. British journalist William Shawcross went to the Thai-Cambodian border in 1975, and came away a believer. "Their horrific stories of people with glasses being killed as 'intellectuals' and of 'bourgeois' babies being beaten to death against trees were being dismissed as CIA propaganda by the antiAmerican Western Left, but it seemed obvious to me that they were true."Shawcross, William: "Remember: for Cambodia, read Iraq," London Times, March 3, 2007, online at

Shawcross resolved to discover how the guerrillas had come to power, and how the Khmer people — on the surface so kind, warm, and caring — could have given birth to such a violent, destructive movement.

The book he wrote, published in 1979, was called Sideshow. It remains one of the finest books ever written on the conflict in Southeast Asia.

The book detailed Cambodia's horrifying slide into chaos. Sparked by the Nixon administration's massive bombing of Cambodia, and the subsequent invasion of Cambodia by American and Vietnamese troops, the war in Vietnam became the war in Indochina. Cambodia, routinely described as a quiet and gentle land, was suddenly engulfed in violence.

With a recent article in the London Times, Shawcross would like to persuade us that even greater disasters lurk on the horizon. "The consequences of an American defeat in Iraq," Shawcross writes, "would be even worse than in IndoChina."ibid.

Even worse.

Those who opposed the war in Iraq, those who remembered the lessons of Indochina, those who tried in vain to warn against the disastrous venture in the Middle East read these words with immense sadness. There is deep, bitter irony in these words, made all the more bitter by the fact that they were written by a man who should have known better. It is not that Shawcross is wrong: the consequences could indeed be as bad or worse than what happened in Indochina. The problem is that Shawcross is entirely too late coming to this realization. William Shawcross, you see, argued in favor of the invasion of Iraq.

We have now arrived at a positively surreal moment: After four years of hearing supporters of the war tell us that Iraq would be nothing like Indochina, we're suddenly confronted with a dire warning that... Iraq is going to be just like Indochina.

Without question, there are parallels between Iraq and Cambodia. Sadly, Shawcross has not chosen to explore these parallels. He has chosen instead to exploit them, and the result is an article that is short, superficial, and utterly misleading. He does not, however, want to be seen as a mere mouthpiece of the Right; thus he reminds us that he was "very critical of the way in which the United States had brought war to Cambodia while trying to extricate itself from Vietnam." War had its horrors, yes. But so did defeat:

"But horror had engulfed all of Indo-China as a result of the US defeat in 1975. In Vietnam and Laos there was no vast mass murder but the communists created cruel gulags and, from Vietnam in particular, millions of people fled, mostly by boat and mostly to the US. Given the catastrophe of the communist victories, I have always thought that those like myself who were opposed to the American efforts in Indochina should be very humble. I also think it wrong to dismiss the US efforts there as sheer disaster. Lee Kuan Yew, the former longtime Prime Minister of Singapore, has a subtler view. He argues that, although America lost in IndoChina in 1975, the fact that it was there so long meant that other SouthEast Asian countries had time to build up their economies to relieve the poverty of their peasants and thus resist communist encroachment — which they probably could not have done had IndoChina gone communist in the 1960s."ibid.

Plausible? Before we consider the present state of the Middle East, perhaps we should consider — or reconsider — events in Indochina.

Although Shawcross describes Lee Kuan Yew's comments as "a subtler view," there is really nothing at all subtle about it: Lee Kuan Yew's argument is simply a rehash of the familiar "domino theory," implying that a communist victory in Vietnam would have meant that the other nations in the region would have gone communist, too. Proponents of the domino theory argued that nations were highly susceptible to a bandwagon effect. In this view, countries were destined to choose an alliance with one of two competing forces: The communist bloc, or the free world. They would follow the prevailing currents, jumping on the bandwagon of whichever force demonstrated greater momentum.

Proponents of realism, however, argued that conflicting national interests meant that global politics were inevitably subject to a balancing effect. Attempts to establish regional hegemony would be resisted. Far from jumping on the bandwagon of the dominant power, these countries would instead pursue actions and forge alliances to protect their own sovereignty.

Arguing in favor of the realist view in 1967, the late Arthur Schlesinger suggested that "the most effective bulwark against an aggressive national communist state in some circumstances may well be national communism in surrounding states. A rational policy of containing China could have recognized that a communist Vietnam under Ho might have been a better instrument of containment than a shaky Saigon regime led by right-wing mandarins or air force generals."Schlesinger, Arthur: The Bitter Heritage, p. 85. (Fawcett World Library, New York, 1967)

His words would be borne out years later, when the Chinese found themselves mired in combat against the decidedly unsubmissive Vietnamese.

During the Cold War, however, proponents of the domino theory prevailed. Thus, "containment" became the centerpiece of American foreign policy. This was ironic, given that the man generally regarded as the architect of containment had argued against its application in Vietnam. George Kennan had conceived of the policy as a response to events in Europe specifically, and he described American policy in Vietnam as "grievously unsound."

Nations did behave like dominoes, and policies which assumed that they did were not merely ineffective: They often provoked precisely the behavior that they were intended to combat. Writing in 1965, Hans Morgenthau noted that this could be seen even in the early days of the conflict in Indochina:

"[T]hose Asian nations which have allowed themselves to be transformed into outposts of American military power — such as Laos a few years ago, South Vietnam, and Thailand — have become the actual or prospective victims of Communist aggression and subversion. Thus it appears that peripheral military containment is counterproductive. Challenged at its periphery by American military power at its weakest — that is by the proxy of client-states — China or its proxies respond with locally superior military and political power."Hans Morgenthau, "Vietnam and the National Interest," in Vietnam, edited by Marvin Gettleman, pp.368-369 (Fawcett, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1965)

Cambodia would ultimately become the most dire example of this effect.

The view expounded by Lee Kuan Yew raises more questions than it answers. How did slaughtering peasants in Vietnam deny victory to communists in Singapore or Malaysia? If the key to keeping other Southeast Asian countries free of communist domination was to relieve the poverty of their peasants, wouldn't development aid have helped them more than carpet-bombing?

One of the sad ironies of the Cold War is that many in the Free World seemed to believe the Communists more than they believed themselves. If Communism was unworkable, why was it necessary to resort to military force to destroy it? Indeed, by the end of the Eighties, it was communism, not capitalism, that was on the ash heap of history. What, then, was accomplished by fighting in Indochina? True believers in the myths of the Cold War may claim that fighting in Vietnam speeded communism's collapse. Even if this were so, we would have to ask: Was it really worthwhile? The lubricant for expediting the inevitable was the blood of six million people.

More than two million of those deaths came in the "gentle land" of Cambodia.For a detailed analysis of the death toll, see

In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew invokes the familiar metaphor, describing the country as "that oasis of peace and prosperity in the war-torn Indochina of the 1960s."Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First, p. 364 (Times Media Private Limited, Singapore, 2000)

By the late Sixties, however, Cambodia's position was precarious: the Vietnamese communists had established clandestine bases inside Cambodian territory, and the Americans were becoming increasingly frustrated.

The jungle sanctuaries established by the Vietnamese were of little consequence to most Cambodians; after all, for obvious reasons, they were in remote areas. Under the Johnson Administration, Viet Cong and NVA targets inside Cambodia were occasionally attacked, but these were tactical strikes, and the effects on Cambodia were negligible.Owen, Taylor, and Kiernan, Ben: "Bombs Over Cambodia," The Walrus, Oct. 2006; online at

Nixon, however, had no intention of playing the same cat-and-mouse game. He quickly escalated the attacks to include B-52 strikes.

Cambodia's leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, had long tolerated the intrusions from both the Vietnamese and the Americans. Realistically, his small country was powerless against either side; as the Prince once remarked in a speech, "When two elephants are fighting, the ant should step aside."Abercrombie, Thomas J.: "Cambodia: Indochina's 'Neutral' Corner," National Geographic, Oct. 1964, p.522

Thus, while he allowed the Vietnamese to establish bases inside Cambodia, he also informed an American ambassador that he did not object if American forces engaged in "hot pursuit" of enemy soldiers in unpopulated areas. Bowles, Chester: Promises to Keep, p. 672 (Harper and Row, New York, 1971)

Determined to keep his country out of the war, he tilted toward one side or the other as he deemed necessary. "I believe in a 'sawtooth diplomacy,'" Sihanouk once remarked. "The path of neutrality is never a straight line."Abercrombie, op. cit.

Within his government, however, a right-wing faction led by Marshall Lon Nol had no stomach for Sihanouk's vacillations. While Sihanouk was traveling abroad, they cast their lot with the Americans and overthrew the Prince in a coup in March 1970.

The results fit the pattern Morgenthau had warned of years earlier: Cambodia, suddenly transformed into an American outpost, immediately became the victim of communist aggression and subversion. Lon Nol's corrupt, incompetent government was indeed American military power at its weakest, and the dominant local powers — the North Vietnamese, and the Chinese — immediately responded with vastly superior military and political power.

The Vietnamese communists contributed their military power, mauling Lon Nol's inexperienced, poorly-equipped troops. The Chinese, meanwhile, also contributed arms and munitions, but their more important contribution was political: Chou En-lai persuaded Sihanouk to ally himself with his erstwhile enemies, the Khmer Rouge communists.Sihanouk, Norodom: War and Hope: The Case for Cambodia, pp. 122-123 (Random House, New York, 1980); Shawcross, William: Sideshow, pp. 124-125 (Touchstone, New York, 1987); Chandler, David, The Tragedy of Cambodian History, pp. 199-200 (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1991).

Before the coup, Cambodia's own communists, the Khmer Rouge, were an irrelevant, marginal force, with no hope of attaining power. As one writer put it: "The 1970-75 war did not prevent the Khmer Rouge coming to power; it created them and created the opportunity for them to come to power." And by 1975, "Cambodian society had been overturned. Just as the Bolsheviks could come to power in Russia only after the destruction of World War I, so the Khmer Rouge were enabled to control Cambodia only by the 1970-75 war."Shawcross, Sideshow, p.443

The author of those words? William Shawcross.

It is difficult to escape the feeling that we learned little from Indochina. The realists whose warnings had gone unheeded a generation ago had no better luck in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq. In an interview with Albert Eisele in 2002, George Kennan was once again prescient:

"Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before... In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end."

Indeed, Iraq was at first presented as a preventative war aimed at finding weapons of mass destruction. Then it was a war to bring democracy to the Middle East. Now, in the formulation of Mr. Shawcross, it has become a war to prevent a bloodbath. You never know where you are going to end.

Aside from a poor grasp of history, supporters of the war also seemed to have a poor grasp of their present foe. And just as they had argued years earlier that communists could only be stopped by military might, they now argued that jihad posed a comparable threat. Lee Kuan Yew argued in December 2005 that the threat might even be more dire:

"This Islamist pull is more powerful than that of communism. The communists never fully trusted one another across racial boundaries. The Vietnamese communists never trusted the Chinese communists and so on. But with the Islamists there is total trust: You are a warrior for Islam, so am I: We swear to fight together.""Lee Kuan Yew Reflects,",,9171,1137705-3,00.html

Clearly, the fallacy of that belief should have been clear long before 2005. Total trust? Apparently, Lee Kuan Yew's attentions were focused elsewhere during the Iran-Iraq war. In any case, however, it is doubtful that anyone continues to hold such beliefs in light of the Shiite-Sunni war now underway in Iraq.

We are left with an inescapable conclusion: While the Realists have been able to chart the course of events in advance, the Right can't even make sense of it in hindsight.

We are now bogged down in Iraq for essentially the same reason that we became bogged down in Indochina: we have not won hearts and minds. We are, in a word, unwelcome. It is difficult to win the hearts and minds of people who are convinced that your motives are evil. Incidents like Abu Ghraib — incidents where no one of consequence was ever held to account — strengthen the conviction of those who believe that our intentions are hostile to their country, their religion, and their people.

And, just as the American bombing in Cambodia led to an increase in the number of Khmer Rouge, the invasion of Iraq has led to an increase in jihad. A National Intelligence Estimate report from April 2006 concluded that "The Iraq conflict has become the 'cause celebre' for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement."

Why does this happen? Although we are confident of our motives, the rest of the world does not share this confidence. If we have to fight only evil, then surely we can prevail; but are the battle lines really drawn so clearly? Is everyone who opposes us inherently evil? It is one thing to fight against evil. It is another thing to fight against evil, and everyone who mistakenly believes that you are evil.

Why would the Iraqis, of all people, believe that we were there to help them? Do we believe that they have forgotten the humiliation of their defeat in Kuwait? Do we believe that they will regard the suffering from the sanctions as something they brought upon themselves? Do we believe that they have no knowledge of Iran-Contra, and that they do not know we provided anti-tank missiles to the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war?Wright, Robin: In the Name of God, pp. 132-136 (Touchstone, New York, 1989)

And if they know that we provided Saddam information on Iranian troop positions, so that he could better utilize his chemical weapons in the Faw Peninsula... does that help us, or hurt us?Wright, p. 175

With the sole exception of Israel, no country in the Middle East would be likely to regard us as saviors, regardless of our present actions.

Our intervention in Indochina, ill-fated as it was, did not carry this same baggage; the Vietnamese, the Lao, the Cambodians did not regard us as monsters when the first Marines landed at Da Nang in 1965. Even at the end, in 1975, it is doubtful that most of the Indochinese held us in the same contempt as the Iraqis today. How bad is it? According to survey commissioned by ABC News, USA Today, the BBC and ARD German TV this March, "Slightly more than half of Iraqis — 51 percent — now say that violence against U.S. forces is acceptable — up from 17 percent who felt that way in early 2004. More than nine in 10 Sunni Arabs in Iraq now feel this way."

Those who insisted that we would be welcomed as liberators clearly didn't learn one of the crucial lessons of Cambodia: gratitude does not last long. The downfall of the Khmer Rouge came when, after years of provocation, the Vietnamese finally decided to rid themselves of their troublesome neighbor. When the Vietnamese stormed into Cambodia in 1979, it took them only two weeks to capture the capital... less time, even, than the vaunted "shock and awe" campaign to Baghdad. The regime they toppled may well have been the most brutal, totalitarian government in modern history. And the Vietnamese were indeed greeted as liberators.

In spite of this, despite the genuine gratitude of the Khmer people, the Vietnamese soon found themselves bogged down in a guerrilla war. It took them more than ten years to withdraw.

Iraq's current civil war contains elements of two of Cambodia's wars: First, the war that brought the Khmer Rouge to power; and second, the war that overthrew them.

In the Cambodia's 1970-75 civil war, the insurgents fought first in the name of a usurped leader (Sihanouk), then in the name of an ideology (communism). In Iraq, the insurgents fought first in the name of a usurped leader (Hussein), then in the name of an ideology (Islam).

Then, in the Third Indochina War, the period from 1979-1990 saw the Cambodians fighting against the Vietnamese forces who had liberated them from tyranny.Etcheson, Craig: After the Killing Fields, pp. 28-29. (Praeger, Westport, CT, 2005) While "the last of Vietnam's main force units" left in September 1989, a "small contingent of combat troops" was briefly re-introduced in 1990.

In Iraq, meanwhile, we now find insurgents fighting against... the American forces who liberated them from tyranny.

Tactics in Iraq, too, also harken back to Indochina. The war in Indochina was characterized by a overabundance of faith in technology. "Shock and awe," touted by Rumsfeld's Defense Department as a revolutionary new strategy, really amounted to little more than a reliance on massive firepower.An interesting essay on the moral implications of "Shock and Awe," written by Mark Root-Wiley, is available at

In reality, it was scarcely different from the tactics employed in Vietnam. Arc light, Rolling Thunder, Linebacker II, Shock and Awe, Rapid Dominance... roses by other names.

Then, as now, American planners underestimated the courage and resilience of their enemies. In November 1968, in one of the first B-52 strikes in Cambodia, an elaborate Viet Cong base was hammered by an Arclight strike. A Special Forces team was sent inside Cambodia to view the damage.

Shawcross quotes the recon team's company commander, Randolph Harrison, in Sideshow:

"We had been told, as had everybody... that those carpet bombing attacks by B-52s [were] totally devastating, that nothing could survive, and even if they had a troop concentration there it would be annihilated... if there was anybody still alive out there they would be so stunned that all [we would] have to do [was] walk over and lead him by arm to the helicopter."

It did not work out that way. As Shawcross explains:

"They were flown over the border and landed in rubble and craters. After the helicopters had taken off, the Daniel Boone men moved toward the tree line in search of their dead or dazed enemy. But within moments, they were, in Harrison's words, 'slaughtered.'

The B-52 raid had not wiped out all the Communists as the Special Forces men had been promised. Instead, its effect, as Harrison said, had been 'the same as taking a beehive the size of a basketball and poking it with a stick. They were mad.'"Shawcross, Sideshow, pp. 24-26

Of the twelve men on the team, only four survived.

And, again as in Cambodia, the excessive faith in technology was accompanied by an excessive tolerance for corruption. No one, in fact, even knew how many soldiers Lon Nol's army really had. Corrupt commanders would inflate the number of men under their command, and would then pocket the wages of these "phantom soldiers."

Again, from Sideshow:

"In Siem Reap, near Angkor, one battalion commander paled when told to redeploy his full unit strength to Phnom Penh; for years he had carried four hundred phantoms on his payroll and in fact had only forty soldiers ready for combat."Shawcross, Sideshow, p. 345

Compare this with a recent report from Iraq:

"In its latest quarterly Iraq report, the Pentagon said 328,700 Iraqis have been trained for the security forces, including 136,400 soldiers — more than double the numbers of two years ago. But it added in the next sentence that the 'actual number of present-for-duty soldiers is about one-half to two-thirds of the total due to scheduled leave, absence without leave, and attrition.'

Many Iraqis go on authorized leaves for days to deliver their cash pay to their families. The Pentagon said Iraq's defense and interior ministers also are aware of 'ghost' soldiers and policemen who exist only on paper — a fraudulent device by which units can receive additional per capita resources, and corrupt officials can collect nonexistent recruits' pay."

Sound familiar?

And, like the Khmer Rouge, the forces arrayed against these ghost soldiers are merciless, savage, and highly motivated, indoctrinated with a belief in their own righteousness. Shawcross, however, notes that "Sunni tribal leaders seem increasingly angry with al-Qaeda brutalities." What does this mean for Iraq? Shawcross makes no effort to analyze, but other Bush cheerleaders were less reserved. The Boston Herald's Jules Crittenden, noting that the Americans were in talks with insurgents to try to persuade them to fight against al-Qaeda, declared that it obviously meant that "we can win in Iraq, we are winning in Iraq, and George Bush's surge strategy is responsible for it."

The day after Crittenden explained this portent of victory, meanwhile, "off-duty Shiite policemen enraged by massive bombings in the northern town of Tal Afar went on a revenge spree against Sunni residents there on Wednesday, killing at least 45 men."

There was, of course, nothing new in all this. Iraq's insurgents have been fighting with each other since at least 2005.

Is this really a positive development?

The same thing was true of Cambodia's guerrillas: sporadic combat broke out between the Cambodian and Vietnamese communists as early as September 1970Kiernan, Ben: How Pol Pot Came to Power, p. 321 (Verso, London, 1985)

, and by 1974 both political and military cooperation between the two groups had completely disintegrated.Kiernan, op. cit., pp. 388-389

And just as this did not bring victory to the Khmer Republic, the current infighting in Iraq will not suddenly bring victory to the Americans.

Surely there must be some method of quantifying our "success" in Iraq. Hmmm... let's see... what did we use in Indochina, back in the day? Ah, yes... body counts.

In Afghanistan, Gen. Tommy Franks insisted that "we don't do body counts."

That was true in Iraq, as well... at the beginning. But by 2005, the Washington Post noted that "As the carnage grew in Baghdad, U.S. officials produced charts showing the number of suspects killed or detained in offensives in the west." And, as in Indochina, it was sometimes difficult to reconcile the body counts with previous estimates of the insurgents' strength. As the Post article pointed out:

"Lynch, the military spokesman, cited killings and detentions of 1,534 insurgents in the region. The fact that the number of insurgents killed or captured in the northern city of Tall Afar was roughly equal to advance estimates of their strength, he said, was proof that insurgents weren't simply escaping to fight another day — and that U.S. forces were doing more than razing infrastructure. 'Zarqawi is on the ropes,' Lynch told reporters."

Considering the official claims that the insurgents were perpetually "on the ropes" or "in the last throes,"

what prevented the quick victory and quick withdrawal predicted by the Administration? Writing on the fourth anniversary of the invasion, Lt. Col. Rick Francona cited flawed planning: "The two main reasons were the insistence by some in the U.S. government that we try to create a representative government in Iraq, while at the same time disbanding the Iraq army, the primary security organization in the country. Those two factors forced the United States to begin an occupation to secure the country — an occupation its forces were unprepared to conduct."

In Cambodia, the Vietnamese attempted to co-opt surviving Khmer Rouge and integrate them into the new army; they also chose to eschew democracy. Both of these actions were morally questionable. Strategically, however, they worked to Vietnam's advantage. In spite of this, however, Cambodia suffered another two decades of war after the Khmer Rouge had been routed from Phnom Penh. Resolving the conflict and restoring a semblance of normalcy required the largest peacekeeping mission ever untaken by the United Nations... and this was in a country with far less territory and a far smaller population than Iraq. Moreover, in Cambodia, the Phnom Penh government was able to consistently maintain control of the military, the police, and the majority of the territory. And in the end, the elections — the centerpiece of the UN program — were completely and utterly ignored. Phnom Penh's strongman, Hun Sen, lost the elections outright. No matter: he threatened continued civil war, and was subsequently rewarded with the title of "co-Prime Minister." He held that title until the Khmer Rouge, who had withdrawn from the peace process, self-destructed; and once they were gone, he overthrew the winner of the election, Norodom Ranariddh, in a coup.

The lesson? If you unleash a civil war, destroy all of a nation's institutions and infrastructure, and introduce an unwelcome foreign army, you can expect to spend decades repairing the damage.

It is easy to find pundits who invoke Pol Pot, and yet have no understanding of how the Khmer Rouge came to power. Yet Mr. Shawcross is decidedly not one of these pundits. He does indeed know Cambodia. In spite of this, we now find him engaging in an exercise that can only be described as pandering to the Right.

We have, he tells us, rid the world of the "Pol Pot of the Middle East." Saddam Hussein was a monster, but he was not Pol Pot. Even setting aside the scale of their atrocities, Shawcross' "Saddam was Pol Pot" metaphor falls apart immediately: after all, if Saddam was Pol Pot, Shawcross is effectively saying that now that we have removed Pol Pot, we have to remain in Iraq to prevent a massacre like those committed by... Pol Pot.

Since Saddam is gone, Shawcross is ready with a new boogeyman. He stokes our outrage with a choice quote from the buffoonish thug, Musab al-Zarqawi: "The shedding of Muslim blood is allowed in order to disrupt the greater evil of disrupting jihad." What Shawcross fails to acknowledge is that there was no jihad in Iraq until we got there. And then, there's also the fact that al-Zarqawi wasn't Iraqi, and we could have just as easily fought him in Afghanistan.

Oh, and there's also the fact that, like Saddam, al-Zarqawi is already dead.

Yes, al-Zarqawi, like Saddam, was a vile monster; and like Saddam, he hated the West and everything it embodies. But if we intend to combat jihad by killing everyone who doesn't like us, we can look forward to a long, long war.

What if we had not invaded? "So long as the vile Saddam family regime remained in power," Shawcross writes, "there was no hope of progress in the region." He is probably correct with respect to Iraq — but the idea that somehow there could be no improvement in any country in the entire Middle East is dubious. As it stands, the primary beneficiary of the Iraq War is Iran: we destroyed their worst enemy, and handed control of Iraq to the Shiites. This is not progress.

Still, there is a point to be raised in Shawcross' defense. Saddam was, indeed, a monster. How bad must a tyrant be, before common decency demands that he be overthrown? Are we to say that 200,000 murders is acceptable, but 2,000,000 is over the line?

Ultimately, perhaps it is a simple matter of costs and benefits: Do the positive effects of our actions outweigh the negative effects?

Proponents of war have an edge in rhetorical battles: it is easy to write a moving call-to-arms. It is more difficult to write a moving plea for patience: Patience? Patience? How patient should we be while Saddam slaughters his people and plots for our destruction?

The rational answer is: as patient as we have to be.

Rationality seems to be missing from Shawcross' emotional appeal; and governed by passion rather than reason, he seems to believe that his opponents, too, are motivated by blind emotion. "[F]or too many pundits," Shawcross writes, "hatred (and it really is that) of Bush and Blair dominates perceptions."

Hatred, dominating our perceptions: It is as if Shawcross believes this is all about some petty personal grievance. Perhaps Tony Blair once pelted our car with eggs back in high school, and maybe George Bush yanked down our trousers in the 7th grade lunch room.

Shawcross' insinuation — that those who disagree with the policy in Iraq are motivated by vile, hateful impulses — reflects a belief deeply held by many on the Right.

In Indochina, the Right could, with justification, argue that the Left's ideology rendered them blind to the abuses and atrocities committed by the Communists. (Shawcross himself deserves credit for not succumbing to this blindness.) Communism had wide appeal to leftist intellectuals. The same cannot be said of radical Islam: except for Ann Coulter, does anyone truly believe that leftists are in favor of a society based on Sharia law?

Leftists, centrists, realists... we are all mired in the mess that the Neocons have created. The Right's tactic of berating those who disagree with the paths chosen by Bush and Blair is like blaming Newton for that damned pesky gravity.

"Of course huge mistakes have been made," Shawcross admits. "We should lament and criticise them but not dismiss the underlying effort." In other words: yes, it is a horrible mess, but still, it was a good idea just the same.

The Right needs to understand: we have no reason to trust your judgment. You finally realize that "huge mistakes have been made," although you don't seem ready to admit that you are the ones who made them.

If you want us to trust your judgment, show us where you went wrong. Explain the mistake in your calculations: tell us why we didn't wind up with the result that you assured us we would get. Our fear, you see, is that you still don't know where you went wrong. We believe that you are going to keep making the same mistakes.

Bush's "surge" strategy is nothing but more of the same. Shawcross, however, thinks that we should all jump on the bandwagon: "Rather than abusing him we should all be hoping that it is not too little too late."

Blind hope and blind faith: this is all we are offered.

Mr. Shawcross, I hope that it isn't too little, too late. But blind hope is a lousy substitute for sensible policy. Does a surge stand any realistic chance of making a difference? Do we believe our enemies to be idiots? They are brutal, despicable thugs... but are they fools? A temporary surge in troop strength can be rendered irrelevant if the enemy adopts a strategy that can be summarized in a mere five words: Lay low for a while.

The harsh truth is this: If you expect to win militarily, be prepared to commit many more troops. If you'd like an estimate of how many it will take, I would suggest you solicit the opinion of Gen. Eric Shinseki.

We have a limited window in which to address past mistakes. Take a few steps down the wrong path, and you can still reverse your course and arrive at your intended destination;  but if you proceed down the wrong path for four years, burning bridges behind you as you go, you are going to find it rather more difficult to correct your missteps.

Success in Iraq — if it can still be salvaged — will require both skillful diplomacy, and a broad coalition. Neither of those things is possible as long as the Neocons continue to disparage the motives and the intelligence of those who tried to warn them that invasions, regime change, and nation building are not cakewalks.

For practical purposes, America is operating alone in Iraq. And unfortunately, America is ill-suited to bring democracy to a deeply divided and hostile foreign land. Mr. Shawcross' chosen sage, Lee Kuan Yew, put it this way:

"In the long run democracy can prevail, but the process will not be easy. Given the US constitutional framework of mid-term elections every 2 years and Presidential elections every 4 years, it is not realistic to expect any American administration to stay long enough in Iraq for democracy to take root."

"A free and fair election is not the best first step to nurture a democracy in a country that has no history or tradition of self government. Without adequate preparations elections will allow a people to vent their frustrations against the corruption and inadequacies of the incumbents and vote in the opposition. That led to Hamas gaining power in Palestine."

"A better start would be to educate their young, especially their women, and give them equal job opportunities. Next, build civic institutions, implement the rule of law, strengthen the independence of their courts, and build up the civic society institutions necessary for democracy. Only then will a free election lead to a more democratic society. For Iraq to go from dictatorship to democracy via two elections in three years is to expect too much. It is an effort for the long haul, well beyond the four year American electoral cycle."Speech by Lee Kuan Yew at the Southern Methodist University, 10/2006, online at,5692,

The idea that democracy would suddenly flower throughout the Middle East was wishful thinking. It does not work that way: madness may be contagious, but sanity isn't. Madness spreads quickly, fueled by wild emotion, jingoism, and demagoguery. Sanity spreads slowly, bit by bit, thought by thought, idea by idea.

Caught up in the fervor of patriotism, few questioned whether or not the country would embrace the sacrifices war demands. As the war dragged on, Donald Rumsfeld was widely criticized for brushing off criticisms that the military was unprepared: "As you know, you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want."

Criticisms aside, however, Rumsfeld had it almost right. It's not that you go to war with the Army you have: it's that you choose to go to war, or not go to war, on the basis of what you do or do not have. If you do not have what you need to ensure victory, or if the proposed campaign is "devoid of a plausible, coherent, and realistic object" (to use Kennan's description of the conflict in Vietnam)

, war is the wrong choice.

And yet, here we are: bogged down in an unpopular war, listening to official pronouncements that seem distressingly familiar. "The American people," Gen. George W. Casey announced in October 2006, "... should also know that the men and women of the Armed Forces here have never lost a battle in over three years of war; that is a fact unprecedented in military history."

Unprecedented? Hardly. One week before the fall of Saigon, an American colonel was speaking with his North Vietnamese counterpart during negotiations in Hanoi: "You know, you never beat us on the battlefield," the American said.

"He pondered that remark for a moment," Col. Harry Summers would later write, "and then replied, 'That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'""Interview with General Frederick C. Weyand About the American Troops Who Fought in the Vietnam War," online at

Historic amnesia: Amnesia about our theories, amnesia about our methods, amnesia about our aims. Don't dismiss the underlying efforts, Shawcross insists, because after all, we had the best of intentions.

That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.

Shortly after Sideshow was published, one of Henry Kissinger's aides responded petulantly to Shawcross' insistence that the United States bore a measure of responsibility for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge: "By no stretch of moral logic can the crimes of mass murder be ascribed to those who struggled to prevent their coming into power."Shawcross, Sideshow, p. 432

That response summarizes perfectly the shortsightedness that created the disaster in Indochina, and which is now creating a new disaster in Iraq.

It was not your motives that created this disaster. It was your policies.

Mr. Shawcross tells us: Remember 1975.

He does not ask us to remember the painful prelude to 1975. He does not ask us to remember the secret bombing, or the invasion, or the coup, or the war that spanned three decades. Just 1975.

Thirty-two years ago, when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, they proclaimed that a new era had dawned. It was, they declared, "Year Zero." History was starting over again: Memories were to be discarded. What came before was unimportant.

Sadly, it would appear that Mr. Shawcross believes this, too.

-- April 11, 2007


Other articles on Iraq and the Bush administration:
Many Misgivings (March 2003)
My Exasperated Unendorsement for President (May 2004)
Saigon Lesson Plan (October 2005)
Residual Talking Points (November 2005)
Jagged Rocks (June 2006)