Rich Lowry

Lately, the Iraq War has looked more and more like another Vietnam -- not for us, but for al-Qaida.

CIA Director Michael Hayden says the terror group has suffered "near-strategic defeat" in Iraq. It has been routed from Anbar, Diyala and Baghdad provinces, and now is getting a beating in its last stronghold of Mosul, in the north. It is reviled by the Iraqi populace, and its downward trajectory began with indigenous uprisings at its expense.

When the United States lost Vietnam, it lost credibility and saw an emboldened Marxist-Leninist offensive around the Third World. Al-Qaida is a global insurgency and not a nation-state -- and thus its circumstances are radically different from ours 40 years ago -- but it has suffered a similar reputational loss.

The Iraq War had been a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qaida when it was winning. No more. Osama bin Laden rendered what is called the "bandwagon effect" in international relations -- the tendency of states to go along with the dominant power -- in his homespun Arabic analogy of people liking the strong horse over the weak horse. In Iraq, al-Qaida's proverbial horse is a broken-down nag.

Our loss in Vietnam forever shattered the domestic consensus in favor of the Cold War, creating a crisis of national confidence known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Al-Qaida's troubles in Iraq correspond with a similar unraveling of its ideological cohesion. Reports in The New Yorker and The New Republic recently have detailed an Islamist backlash against al-Qaida's indiscriminate killing, partly attributable to its brutish campaign in Iraq.

A group devoted to overthrowing secular Arab rulers and fighting America has overwhelmingly identified itself with the mass slaughter of Muslim innocents. Its methods might not have produced revulsion in the broader Muslim world if they were succeeding. Instead, in Iraq, it's been wanton murder in a losing cause.

Like we did in Vietnam, al-Qaida in Iraq has run afoul of nationalism and local culture, although in spectacular fashion. It has trampled on the prerogatives of tribal sheiks and issued lunatic decrees, like its banning of the local bread in Mosul -- sammoun -- because it did not exist at the time of the Prophet.

Like we did in Vietnam, it overrelied on favored tactics even after they proved ineffective or counterproductive; with us, it was ever more bombing runs in the North and search-and-destroy missions in the South, while in al-Qaida's it has been mass-casualty suicide bombings.

Like we were in Vietnam, al-Qaida was sucked into a conflict not of its choosing by the geopolitical assertion of its adversary.

Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
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