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Will Iraq Be the Next Vietnam?

Published in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Within three years – and maybe much sooner – American boots will be patrolling substantial chunks of the Islamic world. But not in the places you think. And large chunks of the Islamic world just might approve.

For months now, most fashionable rumors of war have involved Iraq: when the invasion might come; what forces will be required (200,000 minimum, according to unclassified estimates); whether we’re ready; and how good it will feel to finally take out that nasty, nasty man.

Emotionalism and the rantings of the Beltway’s “American Gaullists” (America without greatness isn’t America; let’s go pound somebody) aside, the rationale for invading Iraq founders on one simple question. What happens if we succeed?

Do we occupy an Arab nation indefinitely, or only until we’ve gone door-to-door, scavenging for nukes, nerve gas labs, and related paraphernalia? Do we set up a new prison somewhere to hold their scientists and engineers? How about a series of puppet regimes?

It might make some sense to use force to support anti-Saddam Iraqi movements toward the final stages of destabilization or civil war (or in a succession crisis after Saddam’s shadow no longer darkens the planet). But going in for the sake of going in seems a dubious proposition at best. Not to mention the fact that our troops are going to be needed elsewhere.

One likely spot is the West Bank. Some months ago, the Army released a study estimating that 20,000 American troops would be needed to establish an effective peace-enforcing presence and a state-of-the-art demilitarized zone between Israel and an independent Palestine.

As a Jew, a Zionist, and an American with no illusions about the politics or beneficence of an independent Palestine, I look forward to the night President Bush (or his successor) addresses the world thus: “Palestinian sovereignty on the West Bank and in Gaza is a matter of simple human justice. It is also the least bad solution for our friend Israel, whose military and society have been grievously damaged by too many years of trying to hang on to the Territories – an Israel that grows ever more dependent on nuclear first use in event of regional war. The world can no longer accept either the situation or the potential for escalation and disaster.

“Therefore, after much consultation and planning, the first American forces will arrive tomorrow morning. Please, nobody mess with them. Militarily, we’re very good at what we do. We learn very quickly. Technologically, we’re just full of surprises. I’m also pleased to report that Russia, Turkey, and China are contributing detachments. Please don’t mess with them either. They lack our technology, but they also lack our sense of humor. The European Union has promised to consider making the minimum effort necessary to maintaining their complaining rights, and will get back to us.”

Meanwhile, to the north . . . Russia and the other nations of central Asia, such as Georgia, Afghanistan and the other “-stans,” possess enormous natural resources, oil and gas especially. Development of these resources provides their best chance to escape from the Middle Ages.

But oil and gas companies have many other places to go. Return on investment would be modest for many years. And nobody will pour billions into these areas without adequate protection from Islamic radicals, local warlords, and other bad actors.

It seems that every day brings more news of another exploration or development deal either signed or under consideration, news of another consortium forming. Every other day brings news of the increasing American military presence in these areas.

Indeed, a distinctively Vietnam-type pattern is emerging. We dispatch advisers to train local forces or carry out special operations: Afghanistan and Georgia overtly, several other places more discreetly. Shortly, base construction will begin. These make excellent targets, requiring ground troops to protect the bases. Gradually, their mission will change from perimeter defense to aggressive patrolling, then to larger offensive operations.

But several fundamental differences distinguish this situation from Vietnam. The terrain is different; Islamic radicals have no superpower backing; Russia approves, and China has no love for Islamic revolutionaries. The mission is far more limited, and advanced sensors and other systems will make the protection task far easier.

Look for the ample use of advanced non-lethal weapons (also on the West Bank and in Gaza) as these become available. And perhaps it’s not unreasonable to expect that someday an American president will address the Islamic world thus:

“In the 21st century, you can prosper or you can hate. You can’t do both. If you choose to hate, don’t blame us when you fail to prosper. But if you wish to prosper, we’re ready to help. You’ve seen the results of our help in a half-dozen Islamic nations already.

“You decide.”

Philip Gold is senior fellow in national security affairs at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, and is author of “Against All Terrors: This People’s Next Defense.”