What Would Kerry Do

26 July 2004

What Would Kerry Do?

By Gwynne Dyer

The Democratic presidential convention in Boston is more an infomercial than a political contest, but a key piece of information is missing. A majority of the Americans who plan to vote for John Kerry in November assume that he will pull US troops out of Iraq quickly if he becomes president, and is only refusing to say so now to avoid being vilified by the Republican machine for failing to support American soldiers in action overseas. But it is possible that he actually means what he says – and what he says is that he would stay in Iraq indefinitely.

“Extremists appear to be gaining confidence and have vowed to drive our troops from the country,” Kerry said in the midst of the April uprising in Iraq. “We cannot and will not let that happen. It would be unthinkable for us to retreat in disarray and leave behind a society deep in strife and dominated by radicals.”

Two weeks later, Kerry declared: “If our commanders need more American troops, they should say so and they should get them….But more and more American soldiers cannot be the only solution….The coalition should organise an expanded international security force, preferably with NATO, but clearly under US command.”

And how was the US going to persuade those feckless Europeans to send their troops into the Iraqi meat-grinder? “For the Europeans, Iraq’s failure could endanger the security of their oil supplies, further radicalise their large Muslim populations, threaten destabilising refugee flows, and seed a huge new source of terrorism.” Even if the Europeans believed that they would be safer if American troops stayed in Iraq rather than going home (which most of them do not), didn’t Kerry realise how impudent his remarks were?

He was arguing that countries that had opposed the US invasion of Iraq precisely because it would unleash the dangers he listed, should now pull America’s chestnuts out of the fire because its invasion had indeed unleashed them. It was the same tone that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used to adopt when demanding that the NATO allies in Europe send troops to Vietnam, and it was just as likely to get a warm response.

“Our goal,” said Kerry, “should be an alliance commitment to deploy a major portion of the peacekeeping force that will be needed in Iraq for a long time to come.” Perhaps he was lying to his audience or perhaps he was lying to himself, but he certainly didn’t sound like a man laying the groundwork for an early pull-out. It’s a safe bet that he still won’t have made any commitment to bring the troops home when the convention ends.

Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich’s comment that there is “no prominent figure in American public life who finds fault with the notion of the United States remaining the world’s sole military superpower until the end of time” certainly applies to Kerry. He has consciously played up to the militaristic strand in American public discourse during the campaign. He probably wouldn’t have been foolish enough to invade Iraq, but that doesn’t mean he would easily leave. If he is the peace candidate, he is in deep cover.

So is the United States doomed to recapitulate the whole miserable Vietnam experience in Iraq? Probably not, although the parallels are alarming.

There are already more American troops in Iraq than there were in South Vietnam in 1964, just before Lyndon Johnson decided to “escalate” the commitment in a fruitless search for victory, and more Americans have already died in Iraq. The guerrillas and ‘terrorists’ in Iraq — a distinction without a difference; all guerrillas use terrorist methods — are less united than the Viet Cong were in South Vietnam, but they are managing to cooperate effectively against the occupiers and they have the sympathy of the whole Arab world.

The government the US has installed in Baghdad is probably less corrupt than the one President Kennedy put in place in Saigon after he overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1962, but it also has far less to work with, because Paul Bremer disbanded the entire Iraqi army and fired most senior government employees last year in his first decisions as pro-consul. Most importantly, neither a victorious President Bush nor an incoming President Kerry would have the option of following President Johnson’s example and flooding Iraq with troops.

By scraping the bottom of the barrel, either president could find around another 20,000 troops for Iraq, for a total of 160,000 American soldiers — but after that, they would have to bring back the draft, which would be political suicide. Besides, escalating the war in Vietnam didn’t solve the problem: even with 550,000 American soldiers, the US was unable to defeat the guerrillas in a country with a smaller population than Iraq’s.

What the United States was up against in both countries, behind the screen of ideological cant about Communism or Islamism, was nationalism. Once a majority of local nationalists decide that America’s motives for being in their country are not good — whether they are or not — then the game is hopeless.

That point had already passed in South Vietnam by 1964, although the US military involvement there lasted another nine years, and it has already passed in Iraq. But it won’t take nine further years for the US to pull out this time, no matter who wins next November or what he does next. It probably won’t take two.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9 and 10. (“There are…troops”)