By Mark Moyar, an associate professor at the United States Marine Corps University, is the author of “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 21/11/06):
IRAQ’S prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, is now saying that he wants the United States to stand back and let him use Iraqi forces to restore order. Within six months, he asserts, the bloodletting will cease. The United States must give this proposal very serious consideration. Critics of America’s current Iraq policy, particularly among the Congressional Democrats, have tended to concentrate on international diplomatic remedies. Experience, however, suggest that only the Iraqis themselves can end the chaos and violence.
The United States faced a very similar crisis a half-century ago. In 1955, the pro-American government of Ngo Dinh Diem sought to disband militias that belonged to religious sects, analogous to the Shiite militias in Iraq today. A self-interested faction controlled the South Vietnamese police, much as self-interested Shiites dominate the Iraqi police. In Vietnam as in Iraq, the only strong force not beholden to the sects was the army, and the army’s leadership was not entirely loyal to the national government.
When the South Vietnamese sects defied the authority of the Saigon government in the spring of 1955, the American special ambassador, Gen. J. Lawton Collins, urged Diem to compromise with them. Efforts to suppress the sects by force, Collins warned, would alienate the Vietnamese people, unhinge the army and lead to disastrous civil warfare. This advice was based on the mistaken premise that political solutions suitable in the United States would likewise be suitable in any other country.
Diem rejected Collins’s advice, and with good reason. In South Vietnam, as in other historically authoritarian countries, if the government failed to maintain a monopoly on power, it would lose prestige among its supporters and enemies. Only a strong national government could prevent the sects and other factions from tearing the country apart. While Diem was able to gain the submission of some groups by persuasion, others remained defiant.
In April 1955, fighting broke out between the South Vietnamese National Army and one of the militias. Diem sought to capitalize on the fighting to destroy the militia, which caused Collins to advocate Diem’s removal. Other Americans predicted chaos and wanted to abandon South Vietnam altogether.
President Dwight Eisenhower, however, decided that Diem should be allowed to use the army against the militias. In Eisenhower’s view, a leader who had the smarts and the strength to prevail on his own — even if it meant he discarded American advice — would be a better and more powerful ally than one who survived by doing whatever the United States recommended.
Through political acumen and force of personality, Diem gained the full cooperation of the National Army and used it to subdue the sects. Simultaneously, he seized control of the police by replacing its leaders with nationalists loyal to him. In a culture that respected the strong man for vanquishing his enemies, Diem’s suppression of the militias gained him many new followers.
Diem went on to become a highly effective national war leader. When, in August 1963, he suppressed challenges to his authority from another religious group, he again experienced an upsurge in prestige. Some American officials and journalists, however, denounced him for what they mistakenly saw as counterproductive heavy-handedness, and the officials prodded South Vietnamese generals into overthrowing him.
The South Vietnamese government rapidly deteriorated after the coup, in which Diem was assassinated. The new leaders were inept and tolerated strident opposition groups in order to satisfy the Americans. Violence proliferated among religious groups, and Viet Cong subversion accelerated.
South Vietnam’s history recommends the pursuit of two objectives that American officials are now urging upon Prime Minister Maliki: subduing the Shiite militias and transferring control of the police from Shiite partisans to Iraqi nationalists.
In Iraq as in Vietnam, the leader best able to end the violence will be one who possesses a very keen understanding of the country’s politics and can judge them better than outsiders can. Mr. Maliki has shown that he does not share America’s views on how to deal with the militias and the police. Vietnam tells us that we should welcome his willingness to act on his own initiative, rather than being alarmed by it.
Just as Diem established himself because Eisenhower let him participate unhindered in a Darwinian struggle, we should give Mr. Maliki the chance to restore order as he sees fit, provided his government does not try to suppress the insurgency through wholesale violence against Sunni civilians, as some fear it will.
If we pull back our troops temporarily and let Mr. Maliki deal with Iraq’s problems using Iraqi forces, we will be able to determine more quickly whether he can save his country as Diem saved his in 1955. We will see whether he has the political skills to cut deals with local leaders, the support of enough security forces to suppress those who won’t cut deals, and the determination to prevent the obliteration of the Sunnis.
If he does not have these attributes, it is to be hoped that the Iraqi Parliament, the Council of Representatives, will exercise its constitutional right to remove the prime minister by a vote of no confidence. Perhaps there is a better prime minister out there. It is also possible that nationalists will try to stage a coup and install a more authoritarian, less sectarian government. We may decide to condone a coup if the situation becomes desperate enough. But we would be best advised to avoid orchestrating one as we did so disastrously in 1963.
The United States may ultimately find that no Iraqi leader can neutralize both the insurgents and the militias. The benefits of a self-sufficient Iraqi government are so great, however, that we must give Mr. Maliki the opportunity to try.