Tet Again?

Happy New Year. Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Tet, short for Tet Nguyen Dan, is the Vietnamese new year. Based on a lunar calendar, Tet will begin on 7 February this year.

I’ve been thinking about the Tet Offensive because 1968 was an election year. The US was involved in a long foreign war and although there was no end in sight, the Pentagon and White House told Americans things were getting better.

Then Tet happened and the bottom dropped out. It was a military disaster for Communist forces in Vietnam; the Viet Cong was wiped out as an effective fighting force and the North Vietnamese Army was significantly weakened.

Tet was, however, a political victory. It convinced many in America that our military and political leaders were either out of touch with events in Vietnam or lying to us. It made clear to the public that the United States had no vital interest in “bringing democracy” to a small nation on the far side of the world, a nation that seemed hopelessly divided and one that had no interest in American-style democracy.

Forty years, on, Iraq is in kind of a “pre-Tet” mode. It was less violent in the last six months of 2007 than it was in the first six. That may be due in part to the surge of troops and new tactics from Gen. David Petraeus – and it may be in part to the unilateral cease-fire declared last autumn by Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shi’ite leader of the Madhi Army.

The Madhi Army, a private and powerful militia, was growing increasingly violent and self-controlled. Mr. al-Sadr is said to have called the cease-fire in part to reassert his own authority within the Madhi ranks.

Aside from whatever Mr. al-Sadr’s internal reasons, calling the cease-fire was smart politically. Pulling his troops off the streets – and the ensuing relative calm – demonstrated how much power Mr. al-Sadr has and sent a message to the Americans and the Iraqi government: It might be wiser to give me what I want rather than risk putting my guns back on the street.

Of course, what Mr. al-Sadr wants is for the Americans to go home. That leads to two option, both bad. On one hand, if the Americans continue their military presence (as is likely for at least the near future), then the Madhi Army may end its cease-fire in February or March, as predicted and Iraq in 2008 could look quite a bit like Vietnam in 1968.

Violence goes back up, US troop deaths spike back up, the home front funerals begin again in earnest, the military is further stretched, military families wonder if their loved one will ever come home, Iraq becomes more unstable and Americans again start asking – loudly – what good we’re doing in Iraq.

On the other hand, if the US presence disappeared, it’s likely the Madhi Army and other Shi’ite militias would exact their long-awaited revenge on Sunni Muslims across Iraq. Not a pretty sight.

What’s the answer? Phased withdrawal on a realistic timetable. Don’t leave precipitiously, but don’t make the kind of phony draw down promises George Bush makes and never keeps. At the same time, engage the UN to bring in a true peacekeeping force, allowing a transition to a full-fledged Iraqi government without a “reign of terror” period of sectarian killings.

Mr. Bush, Dick Cheney and their neocon cronies are looking for an excuse to inextricably enmesh the United States in Iraq – and its pool of oil – before their terms of office end in less than a year. Let’s not give it to them.

Moqtada al-Sadr is looking for an excuse to either restart Iraq’s urban war or eliminate his Sunni rivals. Let’s not give it to him, either.

We’ve in Iraq made so many of the same mistakes we made in Vietnam, but we haven’t made them all yet. Let’s try to avoid historical re-enactment.

© Mark Floegel, 2008

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