- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

President George W. Bush is making a careful and comprehensive reassessment of Iraq policy. He is right to take his time. The situation there, to quote from the Iraq Study Group (ISG), is “grave and deteriorating.”

To many, we have run out of good options. Worse, we may have run out of bad ones too. So what might the president consider?

Broaden the problem. Think back to 1968 after the Tet offensive made its indelible mark. Suppose a Vietnam Study Group had been convened to examine options. With hindsight, what might that group have advised? Those findings might prove surprisingly relevant today.

First was that given the self-imposed American limitations on using force (no invasion of the north; no use nor threat of nuclear weapons; and no bombing of the dikes to produce enough catastrophic flooding to compel Hanoi’s capitulation), the solution to Vietnam lay somewhere between Moscow and Beijing. In other words, negotiations and diplomacy beyond Southeast Asia were the best or only practical ways to find solutions for ending the Vietnam war.

Second, as a tactic, “search and destroy” missions were an abomination. Search and destroy did not work. It promiscuously and unnecessarily killed and wounded too many on our side, including innocent civilians. To make this point, in those days we could cynically joke that identifying a Viet Cong was easy. Any dead Vietnamese qualified.

Third, it was clear that with huge dissent at home against the war, the days of the draft were numbered. The nation would have to move to another means of raising an army. Hence, the impetus for an all-volunteer, professional military was sparked.

Reactions to those conclusions then would have been far harsher than the reaction to the ISG has been today. Negotiating with the Soviets was a non-starter after Leonid Brezhnev had brutally repressed Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring with Red Army tanks, a return to the worst excesses of Stalin or Khrushchev. Talking with Red China was an even worse sin. Thrown into turmoil by Chairman Mao with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Red China seemed straight out of Orwell’s “1984.” And the Taiwan lobby would have gone berserk at the prospect of any talks with the Mainland.

With the restraints on escalation so clear, the American military was grappling with an alternative to “search and destroy.” One of its recommendations was the persistent need for yet another last increment of troops to bring victory. A second was finding the elusive light at the end of the tunnel.

Finally, an all-volunteer force smacked of “Seven Days in May.” The Constitution calls for raising an army, not, as with the navy, maintaining one. A professional force was anti-American and an open invitation to militarism.

In retrospect, we smartly negotiated with both the Soviet Union and Red China. The former brought more than arms control agreements and a measure of detente. When combined with triangular diplomacy that balanced Moscow with Beijing, ultimately the Soviet Union would implode. We lost Vietnam but won the most important struggle twenty some years later.

The day Vietnam commander William Westmoreland was relieved by his deputy, the now revered Creighton Abrams, “search and destroy” was terminated. Abrams had a better idea: using U.S. and Vietnamese forces to protect the population and not to conduct a ceaseless and useless hunting down of the enemy. And Abrams’ tactics, along with Vietnamization, worked. But it worked too late. U.S. patience had been exhausted.

Finally, the all-volunteer force — the first time in its history that this nation accepted a large standing professional military — has proven a complete success despite the storm of initial criticisms.

What is to be gained from the historical excursion? First, make the Iraq problem bigger. Regional and global solutions are essential. The fears then about Moscow and Beijing echo today over talking with Damascus and Tehran. While any global approach may not bring peace to Iraq, it can, as happened nearly forty years ago, do wonders for the larger crisis of dealing with radical extremism and containing the dual revolutions in the Islamic and Arabic worlds.

Redressing the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not keep Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ite from killing each other, at least immediately. However, such an approach will prevent the some half-billion Sunnis and Shi’ite in the region from taking up that cause. And such a response will surely limit the damage from what is happening in Iraq.

Similarly, new tactics are needed in Iraq. Somewhere among all of our generals and admirals, there must be a few good ideas worthy of a Creighton Abrams.

Finally, the all-volunteer force is not dead yet. However, it is almost on life-support. As the president decides on the future course, he would be well advised to consider this brief historical excursion.

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