Misreading History: Bush, Korea and Endless War in Iraq
Once again, President Bush confirmed he is no reader of the history books. Just days after a scathing report from the Senate Intelligence Committee detailed how the Bush administration ignored the CIA's dire warnings of sectarian strife and civil war in post-Saddam Iraq, the White House pointed to South Korea as a model for the American military presence in Iraq.
The prospect of a multi-generational commitment of U.S. forces to support the government in Baghdad not only raised the specter of an American war without end in Iraq. The deliberate resort to dangerously false historical analogies showed a Bush administration unwilling - or unable - to understand the nature of the conflict in faces there.
Hoping to sidestep the increasing comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, the White House offered Americans the happy vision of a peaceful, prosperous and democratic South Korea as the future of the U.S. project in Baghdad. On Wednesday, press secretary Tony Snow described an "over the horizon support role" for the United States:
"The Korean model is one in which the United States provides a security presence, but you've had the development of a successful democracy in South Korea over a period of years, and, therefore, the United States is there as a force of stability."
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed the White House line, claiming he envisioned a "mutual agreement" with the government in Baghdad whereby the American military "is present for a protracted period of time, but in ways that are protective of the sovereignty of the host government." Lt. General Raymond Odierno, who heads up daily U.S. operations in Iraq, crowed "I think it's a great idea." And Gates, seeking to avoid the comparison to the dismal American experience in Vietnam, said the U.S. should not leave Baghdad as it did Saigon, "lock, stock and barrel."
Sadly, the American involvement in South Korea then and now in no way resembles today's quagmire in Iraq.
In 1950, the United States with a UN mandate dispatched troops to South Korea to repel an invasion by the North. (Pyongyang's assault followed shortly after remarks by then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson omitting the South from the U.S. "defense perimeter" where Washington would commit troops to prevent a communist takeover.) The American forces that ejected the North Koreans and later a 1,000,000 million man Chinese army fought the enemy to a draw at the 38th parallel. Far from delivering "regime change," the U.S. propped up the Rhee government in Seoul without triggering a Cold War nuclear confrontation with Pyongyang's masters in China and the USSR.
The American presence in South Korea then and now is about an external threat. The 1953 truce ended the fighting, but not the war. The U.S. forces in the South, numbering roughly 37,000, serve one role and one role only. They are there as a deterrent to the regime in Pyongyang, a trip-wire signaling massive American retaliation in the event of an invasion by North Korea. Since 1953, the American presence in South Korea has had nothing to do with supporting stabilization, promoting democracy, squelching sectarian violence or hopelessly trying to referee a civil war, as it does in Iraq. The "Korean Model," like the "Berlin Model" of the same era, was all about protecting an ethnically homogenous ally of the United States deter invasion from its Soviet-backed adversaries.
Of course, preposterous references to South Korea are far from the first bogus historical parallels from a Bush administration trying to portray its Iraq adventure as a "good fight." With his mantra of "No More Munichs, No More Yaltas," President Bush time and again has tried to paint a picture of the Iraq conflict as a worthy successor to the American effort in World War II and the Cold War. Seamlessly linking his optional conflict in Iraq with the war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Bush hopes to portray his opponents as modern-day equivalents to the failed appeasers of Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR.
In this quixotic attempt at historical revisionism, George W. Bush has been far from subtle. On December 7, 2005, Bush used the 64th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan to both recall the Greatest Generation and cynically establish the non-existent link between Al Qaeda and Iraq:
"The strike on Pearl Harbor was the start of a long war for America -- a massive struggle against those who attacked us, and those who shared their destructive ambitions...On September the 11th, 2001, our nation awoke to another sudden attack. In the space of just 102 minutes, more Americans were killed than we lost at Pearl Harbor. Like generations before us, we accepted new responsibilities, and we confronted new dangers with firm resolve. Like generations before us, we're taking the fight to those who attacked us -- and those who share their murderous vision for future attacks. Like generations before us, we've faced setbacks on the path to victory -- yet we will fight this war without wavering. And like the generations before us, we will prevail."
The year before, President Bush similarly marked the 60th anniversary of Allied victory in Europe with a jaw-dropping speech in Riga, Latvia. There, he shockingly equated FDR's Yalta Pact with Stalin with Chamberlain's "peace in our time" in Munich, claiming that "for much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of another empire. V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression." In a vitriolic articulation of his mythical Bush Doctrine, the President signaled his commitment to a different course in Iraq:
"We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability. We have learned our lesson; no one's liberty is expendable. In the long run, our security and true stability depend on the freedom of others. And so, with confidence and resolve, we will stand for freedom across the broader Middle East."
President Bush, of course, was neither correct nor serious in his historical analogies. Unlike the case in World War II and the Cold War, President Bush in Iraq is not engaged in winning an existential conflict in which the future of the American people and their way of life is at stake. We know this from history. In those "good" wars, American society was fully mobilized and willingly accepted conscription, massive war-time tax increases, and scarcity, rationing and privation at home. Abroad, the United States boldly pursued complex international diplomacy to build a network of alliances spanning the globe. This time around, President Bush isn't asking Americans to fight, pay for, or sacrifice for his war in Iraq. In the face of exploding civil war among the sectarian communities of Iraq, America's volunteer military has to go it alone.
As Newsweek's Jonathan Alter points out, Iraq is neither Vietnam nor Korea. Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council of Foreign Relations, aptly described the tragi-comic failure of the Bush administration to find a happier historical analog for Iraq:
"It's not that Iraq isn't vital. It's just that Korea bears no resemblance to Iraq. There's no strategy that can create victory."
As with so much that passes for strategy in the Bush White House, wishing does not make it so.