WASHINGTON -- The first George Bush once said he thought the Gulf War would cure America of the Vietnam syndrome. He was wrong. There is no cure for the Vietnam syndrome. It will only go away when the baby-boom generation does, dying off like the Israelites in the desert, allowing a new generation, cleansed of the memories and the guilt, to look at the world clearly once again.
It was inevitable that Iraq would be compared to Vietnam. Indeed, the current comparisons are hardly new. During our astonishingly fast dash to Baghdad, taking the capital within 21 days, the chorus of naysayers was already calling Iraq a quagmire on Day 8! It was not Vietnam then. It is not Vietnam now.
First, rather than inherit a failed (French) imperialism, we liberated the country from a deeply reviled tyrant. Yes, pockets such as Fallujah, which prospered under the tyrant, do not like the fact that those days are over. And they are resisting. But they represent a fraction of a fraction (only a sixth of Iraqis are Sunni Arabs) of the population.
The Shiites, 65 percent of Iraq, are another story. They know we liberated them, but they are also eager to inherit the throne. They are not very enthusiastic about the draft constitution which would limit their power. They chafe at the occupation, but most, in particular their more revered religious leaders, know that if we were to leave, they would fall under the sway of either the Saddamites, foreign Sunni (al Qaeda) terrorists, or the runt Shiite usurper, Moqtada Sadr.
None of these are very appealing prospects, which is why the Shiite establishment has been negotiating on our behalf with the Sadr rebels. And why the members of the Iraqi Governing Council have been negotiating on our behalf with the holdouts in Fallujah.
This is good. We do have a crisis but we also have serious communal leaders working in parallel with us. And these leaders have far more legitimacy than Sadr's grandiloquent Mahdi army or the jihadists of Fallujah.
Iraq is Vietnam not on the ground, but in our heads. The troubles of the last few weeks were immediately interpreted as a national uprising, Iraq's Tet Offensive, and created a momentary panic. The panic overlooked two facts: First, Tet was infinitely larger and deadlier in effect and in scale. And second, Tet was a devastating military defeat for the Viet Cong. They never recovered. Unfortunately, neither did we, psychologically. Walter Cronkite, speaking for the establishment, declared the war lost. Once said, it was.
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.