LATELY, the Iraq War has looked more and more like another Vietnam - not for us, but for al Qaeda.
CIA Director Michael Hayden says the terror group has suffered
"near-strategic defeat" in Iraq. It has been routed from Anbar, Diyala
and Baghdad provinces, and now is getting a beating in its last
stronghold of Mosul, in the north. It is reviled by the Iraqi populace,
and its downward trajectory began with indigenous uprisings at its
When the United States lost Vietnam, it lost
credibility and saw an emboldened Marxist-Leninist offensive around the
Third World. Al Qaeda is a global insurgency and not a nation-state -
and thus its circumstances are radically different from ours 40 years
ago - but it has suffered a similar reputational loss.
Iraq War had been a powerful recruiting tool for al Qaeda when it was
winning. No more. Osama bin Laden rendered what is called the
"bandwagon effect" in international relations - the tendency of states
to go along with the dominant power - in his homespun Arabic analogy of
people liking the strong horse over the weak horse. In Iraq, al Qaeda's
proverbial horse is a broken-down nag.
Our loss in Vietnam
forever shattered the domestic consensus in favor of the Cold War,
creating a crisis of national confidence known as the Vietnam Syndrome.
Al Qaeda's troubles in Iraq correspond with a similar unraveling of its
ideological cohesion. Reports in The New Yorker and The New Republic
recently have detailed an Islamist backlash against al Qaeda's
indiscriminate killing, partly attributable to its brutish campaign in
A group devoted to overthrowing secular Arab rulers and
fighting America has overwhelmingly identified itself with the mass
slaughter of Muslim innocents. Its methods might not have produced
revulsion in the broader Muslim world if they were succeeding. Instead,
in Iraq, it's been wanton murder in a losing cause.
did in Vietnam, al Qaeda in Iraq has run afoul of nationalism and local
culture, although in spectacular fashion. It has trampled on the
prerogatives of tribal sheiks and issued lunatic decrees, like its
banning of the local bread in Mosul - sammoun - because it did not exist at the time of the Prophet.
Like we did in Vietnam, it overrelied on favored tactics even after
they proved ineffective or counterproductive; with us, it was ever more
bombing runs in the North and search-and-destroy missions in the South,
while in al Qaeda's it has been mass-casualty suicide bombings.
Like we were in Vietnam, al Qaeda was sucked into a conflict not of its
choosing by the geopolitical assertion of its adversary.
America could have ignored North Vietnam's assault on the South as a
marginal loss on the strategic periphery of the Cold War. Since Iraq is
central to the Middle East and one of the three most important Arab
countries, al Qaeda could not tolerate our attempt to establish it as a
democratic ally in the war on terror. It would have been like the Cold
War-era America writing off a Communist takeover of West Germany.
If Vietnam was arguably a winnable war for the United States - once we
established a respectable South Vietnamese army backed by our air power
- Iraq was winnable for al Qaeda. In the chaos and civil war it stoked
in Iraq in 2006, it came close to collapsing our war effort, and has
exacted a stiff price for our intervention there.
remains dangerous, and - if we throw away the gains we've made with a
rapid withdrawal - could mount a comeback in Iraq. Regardless, it still
has its redoubt in Western Pakistan. Suffering a Vietnam needn't mean a
larger strategic defeat, as we ourselves learned. But the United States
had the enormous resources of the world's largest and freest economy
and the essential justness of its cause. Al Qaeda has neither, just the
animating hatreds that have been put on such stark, unflattering
display during its Vietnam.