The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Be careful what you wish for


August 23, 2007

Several days ago, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-MI) returned from a visit to Iraq and called for the ouster of Prime Minister Maliki, calling him “non-functional.”

On the one hand, Levin makes a critical point. The main problem in Iraq is political, not military, and the dysfunction of the Iraqi government is not really helping to solve the problem. Indeed, the Iraqi parliament is indicative of the sectarian and political conflict that continues to plague the country.

On the other hand, be careful what you wish for. In the on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again,
its not but it is comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, (this debate and policy reversal is so rich, it could and probably should be the subject of a separate post, but my syllabus isn’t done yet and classes start Monday. So maybe someone else will do it or it will just have to wait….) I wanted to bring up one historical lesson that seems somewhat relevant and foreboding in this instance.

In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground…

No, wait, wrong Vietnam parallel….

In 1963, a crack commando unit of the ARVN Army overthrew and subsequently murdered South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in a coup sanctioned by the US Government. The Kennedy Administration was frustrated with Diem’s government as they were not making sufficient progress in the fight against communism, autocratic, ineffective, and such. To make a long story short, what they failed to appreciate was that sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. The successive Vietnamese governments after Diem were no more effective in fighting the communists, while US participation in the coup gave the US a deeper responsibility and commitment to the successive Vietnamese governments. Indeed, many historians see the 1963 coup as the moment when Vietnam went from bad to disaster for the the US.

So, perhaps in this instance, the Bush administration’s backing of the Maliki government isn’t such a bad idea. Its a problematic government, to be sure, but Maliki is the devil we know, and we might want to be wary of engineering a transition to the devil we don’t know, especially when any alternative to Maliki seems no better at ‘solving’ Iraq’s current political crisis.

UPDATE I: It seems that Intel Dump has similar reservations.

UPDATE II: It seems that the Intel community has added some fuel to the anti-Maliki fire with the release of its latest NIE (.pdf of the NIE).

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.