In the Bush administration’s latest attempt to put a prettier face on its war in Iraq, U.S. officials are making increasing reference to a “Korea model.” In this pipe dream, the situation in Iraq would be stabilized in the same way that the Korean War was resolved. Just as U.S. military bases and tens of thousands of U.S. troops remained in Korea after the fighting ended in 1953 — more than 25,000 will remain there even after the currently proceeding reductions — so U.S. bases and tens of thousands of troops would remain in Iraq indefinitely, conducting a “security mission.”
Although reference to the Korean War’s outcome as a model for Iraq represents a novel element in the administration’s propaganda, this gambit, like many others before it, simply clothes the established plan in a new rhetorical garment. The maintenance of large, permanent U.S. bases and hefty troop contingents in Iraq has struck many observers as part of the plan all along, notwithstanding repeated official denials. Construction of the gargantuan U.S. “embassy” in Baghdad also suggests strongly that the U.S. government expects to continue its domination of Iraq’s affairs for a very long time.
Introduction of a new analogy in the administration’s attempts to justify the continued U.S. engagement in Iraq does raise the question, though: why Korea? On its face, the comparison makes little sense. As Fred Kaplan has aptly observed, “in no meaningful way are these two wars, or these two countries, remotely similar. In no way does one experience, or set of lessons, shed light on the other.”
Moreover, the United States suffered a less-than-glorious outcome in the bloody, three-year clash of arms in Korea. The fighting ended in a stalemate, and no peace treaty was signed, only an armistice enforced by a tense, permanent stand-off of heavily-armed forces facing each another across the Demilitarized Zone near the 38th parallel, where the North Korean invasion began in 1950. Why would anyone want to replicate the essential features of that costly and pointless engagement’s outcome?
Kaplan’s answer seems insightful as far as it goes. “Now,” he remarks, “whether due to hindsight or forgetfulness, the Korean War doesn’t seem so bad. By likening that war to the present war, [George W.] Bush and [Whitehouse press secretary Tony] Snow are trying to convince us that, in the future, the Iraq war won’t seem so bad either.”
An important point Kaplan does not emphasize, however, pertains to a particular feature of the Korean War’s outcome. Although the great majority of Americans by 1952 had come to oppose the Korean War and to loathe President Harry S Truman, they learned to live with the war’s consequences, in particular, with the permanent deployment of large U.S. military forces in and around South Korea. Now, national leaders hope that although the great majority of Americans have come to oppose the war in Iraq and to loathe President Bush, they will learn to live with the war’s consequences, in particular, with the permanent deployment of large U.S. military forces in and around Iraq.
The American people, for the most part, want to bring the troops home. The government, however, wants to keep many of the troops in Iraq forever. To resolve this political conflict between the people and their leaders, government officials seek to draw a parallel between it and a previous, similar, political conflict that was resolved by the public’s acquiescence in the government’s plan. The president and his spokesmen in effect are telling us: you got used to bearing the costs of keeping a permanent U.S. force in Korea; you can just as well get used to bearing the costs of keeping a permanent U.S. force in Iraq.
Even if this political stratagem succeeded on this side of the water, however, events in Iraq itself would almost certainly reveal its bankruptcy as a working model for a permanent U.S. occupation. After 1953, relatively few South Koreans were striving to kick out the U.S. military, and nobody was attacking G.I. Joe with rifles, roadside bombs, and mortars. South Korean politics, though turbulent, did not have to accommodate implacable tribal, ethnic, and religious hatreds joined with a widespread eagerness to resort to political violence. One could imagine that South Korea might someday become a workable liberal democratic country, and in time it did so. Only those of us inclined to disregard reality, however, can imagine Iraq becoming such a country any time soon. Perhaps the greatest of all the neocon fantasies was the idea that Iraq could make this transformation — and easily, at that. Iraq may break into more politically homogeneous fragments (Kurdish Iraq is already semi-autonomous). If it does not break apart, in all likelihood it can remain a viable political entity only under the sort of authoritarian regimes it endured throughout its history as an independent state prior to the U.S. invasion. Even this unfortunate outcome, however, would constitute an improvement over the bloody Hobbesian chaos that has prevailed during the U.S. occupation.
The U.S. government cannot impose a better result at gunpoint, as the events of the past four years have clearly shown. Moreover, as long as its forces remain in Iraq in more than token numbers, many Iraqis will continue to mount attacks on them, seeking to drive them out of the country completely. The United States will never be able to achieve “victory” in Iraq in the same way that it “won” World War II. When President Bush declares that in Iraq “we’ll succeed unless we quit,” he is either defining success in a bizarre fashion or whistling past the graveyard or, perhaps most likely, failing to appreciate the realities on the ground — after all, the president is anything but an intellectual giant and, worse, he is sublimely content with his own ignorance. Of course, he may simply be stalling, dishing out any half-plausible twaddle his handlers contrive, until the day he leaves office and the next president is saddled with cleaning up the mess Bush and company have made.
Whereas at this point no one can realistically imagine any real U.S. success in Iraq, apart from the great financial success being enjoyed by Halliburton, Blackwater, and the rest of the vast legion of contractors and mercenaries, one can easily imagine a Vietnam model for the ultimate resolution of the U.S. invasion and occupation. The image comes readily to mind of the last U.S. helicopter lifting off the roof of a building in the super-fortress embassy complex, while exuberant crowds of insurgents celebrate in the streets of Baghdad by firing their AK-47s into the air.
Exactly when the U.S. forces will leave Iraq, whether in an orderly withdrawal or in an ignominious getaway, depends most fundamentally, however, not on events in Iraq, but on events in the United States. All politics is local; all foreign policy is domestic politics. The ill-fated U.S. occupation of Iraq will not end until a sufficient number of Americans stand up and declare that they will no longer tolerate its continuation and that they will use the material, intellectual, and moral resources at their disposal to punish any American politician who acts to keep U.S. forces in Iraq. Then, and only then, will this nightmare end, as the previous nightmare in Vietnam finally ended when the great majority emphatically said “no more.”
Until that day, however, the politicians will stay the wretched course, regardless of public opinion, because doing so brings political and material benefits to themselves, their cronies, and the coalition of special-interest groups that brought them into office and rewards them for their actions there. The war in Iraq only appears to be a conflict between American soldiers and Iraqi resistance fighters; at its foundation, it is a conflict between the rulers and the ruled here in the United States.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.