Why Iraq Isn't Korea

  • Share
  • Read Later
CHOO YOUN-KONG / AFP / Getty Images

PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA: A North Korean soldier looks South

In the early days of the Iraq war, the analogy of choice for the Bush Administration was the post-World War II occupations of Japan and Germany. They had been bitter enemies of the United States; were both destroyed in a merciless world war; and eventually turned into peaceful, democratic allies of the first order. Anyone who said democracy couldn't come at the barrel of a gun was denying the obvious.

That talking point lasted until about the fall of 2003, a few months after the invasion, when it began to become clear — at least to those of us who were there reporting at the time — that a deadly insurgency was building, and that the United States was frittering away, mainly through ineptitude and a lack of manpower, whatever goodwill was there in the wake of Saddam Hussein's fall. (And there was a reservoir of goodwill at the beginning, even among the Sunni community in Baghdad, in the summer right after the invasion.)

As it became clear that victory was nowhere near, the reflexive, default position for critics everywhere was that Iraq had become Vietnam. As the insurgency intensified, and the incompetence of the occupation became dismayingly clear to all those paying attention, the Vietnam analogy (despite its flaws) took hold in the public mind and hasn't let go.

Now, in the midst of the Administration's surge strategy, comes the latest — and, alas, most preposterous — historical analogy: according to the New York Times, the Administration is now kicking around the idea of Iraq as Korea. White House spokesman Tony Snow made the comparison publicly last week as the Administration acknowledged that it was looking into keeping long-term bases in Iraq. The appeal of the comparison is obvious: the U.S. has had large numbers of troops in South Korea for more than half a century, without engaging in a major conflict once the Korean War ended.

As someone who has spent a lot of time over the years in South Korea, as well as some time in Iraq, let me try to explain why this analogy is so ludicrous.

The 38th parallel, which divides Korea roughly in half, was drawn up in 1945, at the Potsdam conference near the end of World War II. The Soviets would get the northern half of Korea (formerly occupied by Imperial Japan) and the U.S. the south. In 1953, after three years of bloody war, North Korea (and its principal ally, China) and the U.S., South Korea and others in a United Nations coalition agreed to a cease-fire. They drew a line in the sand — or rather, in this case, in the rugged terrain in the middle of the Korean peninsula — where the 38th parallel had been set down at Potsdam.

Ever since, in a military and diplomatic sense, Korea's Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has been simplicity itself: if one side crosses it, we're at war. If everyone stays onside, the cease-fire continues. With a few nerve-rattling exceptions — in 1968 the North boarded and seized an American patrol boat, the U.S.S. Pueblo, that Washington insisted was in international waters , and in 1976, North Korea attacked and killed two American soldiers while they were trimming a tree in the DMZ — that cease-fire has held to this day

Contrast this with Iraq, which is the opposite of simplicity itself. At minimum it's the combat equivalent of three-dimensional chess. The working assumption for the Korea analogy appears to be that al-Qaeda and its remaining Sunni allies would be the bad guys threatening the U.S. bases.

That's problem number one. If North Korea ever attacked a U.S. or South Korean base in the South, Pyongyang would be incinerated in response, and the reunification of the peninsula will have begun. Al-Qaeda, however, isn't a country; it's a global terrorist group. It had something of a return address in Afghanistan, but doesn't now. According to U.S. military intelligence, it has cells in more than 70 countries, and at this point there seems to be no lack of radicals from the Islamic world to take the place of al-Qaeda fighters who are killed in Iraq. If North Korea ever attacks the South, there would not be a million Chinese troops (or anyone else) streaming across the Yalu river in support, as there were during the Korean war. As a senior U.S. commander in Seoul put it me when I was there last month, the next war, if it ever came, "would be one and done."

But even the notion that al-Qaeda will be our sole security risk in maintaining bases in Iraq is, to put it mildly, wishful thinking. What of Moqtada al Sadr and his Shi'ite radicals, who insist on the U.S. leaving lock, stock and barrel? And what of Iran, which apparently continues to aid and abet both Shi'ite and Sunni insurgent groups with IEDS and other weapons?

Iraq is not Japan or Germany; nor is it Vietnam (though, as hard as it is for Bush's critics to swallow, the notion that a Saigon-like pullout from Iraq would embolden and empower al-Qaeda and its sympathizers worldwide is hardly idle.) It's not even Malaya, where the British fought insurgents from 1948 to 1960 — a struggle that informs, to a degree, the current U.S. counterinsurgency strategy now being implemented by General David Petraeus. And it is most certainly not Korea.

Iraq is brutally tough, maybe too far gone, but worth the last shot Bush and Petraeus are now giving it. The Administration should stifle the impulse to compare Iraq to conflicts past. Everyone has analogy fatigue at this point. Just let the general get on with it.