IMAGINE the following speech explaining to the American people why we are in Iraq: "Why are we in Iraq?
"We are there because we have a promise to keep. Since 2003 we offered support to the people of Iraq.
We have helped to build, and we have helped to defend. Thus, over the past year, we have made a national
pledge to help Iraq defend its independence.
"And I intend to keep that promise.
"To dishonor that pledge, to abandon this small and brave nation to its enemies, and to the terror that
must follow, would be an unforgivable wrong.
"We are also there to strengthen world order . . .
"There are those who wonder why we have a responsibility there. Well, we have it there for the same reason
that we have a responsibility for the defense of Europe. World War II was fought in both Europe and Asia,
and when it ended we found ourselves with continued responsibility for the defense of freedom. . . . "
This speech sounds familiar, and not just because we hear many of the same sentiments from our leaders today.
Change the name of the country and the date, and you'll have a speech given by President Lyndon Johnson at
Johns Hopkins University in May 1965. The country in question then was Vietnam, and by the time of the
commitment of US ground forces in March of that year, the war to save South Vietnam's independence was
already lost. Furthermore, it had never been a war that could be won by military means alone. Although
many in the Johnson administration recognized this at the time, then as now, the weight of institutional
inertia restricted nonmilitary support to mere rhetoric.
President George Bush was wrong to commit US armed forces to the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.
Even had he been justified in doing so -- had Iraq possessed operational weapons of mass destruction -- the
lack of planning to manage post-Hussein Iraq, to balance military and nonmilitary approaches to reconstructing
Iraq, would have doomed our efforts there to failure. This is why we, along with more than 650 fellow academics
and former foreign policy practitioners of all partisan stripes have signed an open letter of protest to the
American people. (It is available online at
President Bush can no more succeed with our current approach in Iraq than LBJ did in Vietnam. This is true even
though Bush is not hindered by a superpower rival or an ambitious plan to eliminate domestic poverty.
President Johnson recognized the hopelessness of our position in Vietnam well before the failed Tet offensive
of 1968 and well before March of that year, when he declared he would not stand for reelection. Then as now,
the United States tried to train and equip a domestic armed force capable of providing security. But, with
little international support, the insurgents were able to portray South Vietnam's military as lackeys of
US imperial interests.
Then as now, the United States tried to use its unmatched technology to support combat missions to surround
and destroy insurgent strongholds, only to find their foes slip away, sometimes across international borders
to safe areas in neighboring states. Then as now, in spite of their best efforts, US forces continually injured
and killed noncombatants, thereby expanding the pool of supporters, informers, and future recruits for the insurgents.
In the end, the war in Vietnam became exactly what the North Vietnamese propaganda machine had always (at first wrongly)
claimed it to be: an antisocial war. It became a war that pitted the US military against the people of another country.
Whatever the justice of the original mission, the character of the war changed, and it became an unjust war.
President Johnson, to his credit, refused to preside over the continuance of that war.
It fell instead to President Nixon to manage "peace with honor": declaring a US victory and then abandoning South Vietnam
to its own compromised resources. This is now the Bush administration's best course in Iraq. The only other remaining policy
option is to expand military service, and if history is any guide, providing security in Iraq will require an army of at
least a million soldiers. Unfortunately, due to the more widespread and intensified threat we now face, a future Bush
administration may attempt to do both.
In the meantime, Al Qaeda remains dangerous, North Korea has nuclear weapons, and Iran is bent on acquiring them.
And until we rethink our policy, American men and women, along with the Iraqi citizens whose freedom Bush so doggedly
claims to defend, will continue to die in a war we never needed to fight.
Ivan Arreguin-Toft is a fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a lecturer at
Wellesley College. Monica Duffy Toft is an associate professor of public Policy at the Belfer Center and assistant director
of Harvard's John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies.