The other major difference between Vietnam and Iraq is the social terrain. In Vietnam, we confronted a decades-old, centralized nationalist (communist) movement. In Iraq, no such thing exists. Iraq is highly factionalized along lines of ethnicity and religion.
Until now, we have treated this as a problem. Our goal has been to build a united, pluralistic, democratic Iraq in which the factions negotiate their differences the way we do in the West.
It is a noble goal. It would be a great achievement for the Middle East. But it may be a bridge too far. That may happen in the future, when Iraq has had time to develop the habits of democracy and rebuild civil society, razed to the ground by Saddam.
But until then, expecting Iraqis to fight with us on behalf of a new abstract Iraq may be unrealistic. Some Iraqi police and militia did fight with us in the last few weeks. But many did not. That is not hard to understand. There is no de Gaulle. There is no organizing anti-Saddam resistance myth. There is as yet no legitimate Iraqi leadership to fight and die for.
What there is to fight and die for is tribe and faith. Which is why we should lower our ambitions and see Iraqi factionalization as a useful tool. Try to effect, within the agreed interim constitution, a transfer of power to the more responsible elements of the Shiite majority, the moderates who see Sadr as the Iranian agent and fascistic thug that he is.
This is no time for despair. We must put down the two rebellions -- Fallujah's and Sadr's -- to demonstrate our seriousness, then transfer power as quickly as we can to those who will inherit it anyway, the Shiite majority with its long history of religious quietism and wariness of Iran. And antagonism toward their former Sunni oppressors. If the Sunnis continue to resist and carry on a civil war, it will then be up to the Shiites to fight it, not for Americans to do it on their behalf.
Hardly the best of all possible worlds. But it is a world we could live with.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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