Thursday, June 15, 2006

Former Brown history chair: Iraq war 'a great folly'

Carroll (Iowa) native Charles E. Neu, a longtime history professor at Brown University and student of the Vietnam War, says sweeping analogies with that conflict and U.S. involvement in Iraq are mainly emotional, not rooted in fact.Still, Neu said, if current American political leaders would have absorbed lessons from the history of wars, they may have been more cautious about committing troops to Iraq.“I think they (the Bush administration) are quite ignorant of the history of the Vietnam War,” Neu said. “There are a lot of things people in power in Washington could have done had they had a better sense of their own national history, especially the Vietnam history.”In a recent interview at the Daily Times Herald offices, Neu, author and editor of two books on Vietnam, including a comprehensive history, “America’s Lost War,” said the U.S. mission in Iraq is counter-productive and actually ginning up more terrorism.“It’s a great folly, arrogant, impulsive,” he said. “One of the great puzzles for future historians will be to try and figure out what in God’s name were the people leading the American government thinking they were doing.”Neu said there is no historical equivalent for what he believes is the U.S. mistake in Iraq and poor leadership on the part of the administration.“These people have a level of incompetence and arrogance that it’s hard to think of any precedent for,” he said. “Vietnam in my judgment was a mistake, but it was a fairly understandable mistake.”He noted that Vietnam occurred at the height of the Cold War, and in a larger context, with some reasonable geopolitical reasons for getting involved. Witness the communist Chinese assistance for North Vietnam, he said.“It’s very hard to imagine any group of leaders who came up through the American political system who would not probably have taken us into Vietnam,” Neu said.But that doesn’t mean it was the right decision, he said.“I would argue Vietnam was an unwinnable war,” Neu said. “My guess is, and it’s only a hunch, is that Iraq is an unwinnable war as well so there are some similarities in that sense.”He said the context of the wars are different — most notably the nature of the insurgency.“In Vietnam we were fighting a well-organized insurgency,” Neu said, adding that the enemy was cohesive with an up-and-down command structure.“We have nothing like that in Iraq,” he said. “The insurgency is composed of various groups and factions.”Does he believe the United States would be at war in Iraq if Al Gore were president?“We would not be in Iraq,” Neu said. “I feel absolutely certain of that.”He thinks a Gore administration would have realized that Saddam Hussein was not related to 9/11 and fought a covert war against terrorism on many fronts.“I assume they would have continued the policy of containment with Saddam Hussein,” Neu said.Neu acknowledged that most Americans on 9/12/01 would have expected more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil by now. Does the fact that none have occurred mean terror has been exaggerated for political purposes or is President George W. Bush right that “fighting them over there” has kept them from coming here?“When we dig deep into the history of this Iraq operations we’re going to find, first of all, that there were geopolitical motives, that is that American leaders were very worried about oil,” Neu said.Saudia Arabia is a shaky ally at best so the United States needed another base with big oil, Neu said.“All this talk of democracy is window dressing,” Neu said. “It’s not as if they don’t kind of mean it. But what they really want is a client regime with the trappings of democracy that will have some indigenous elements but will basically do what we want it to do.”Neu said it’s clear the Bush team wants to control oil interests and have long-term bases — already under construction — in Iraq.Additionally, Neu thinks domestic politics played a major role in the administration’s decision to invade so “that they could rally around the flag” to obscure the absence of an agenda at home.Does Neu think the administration would really put young men and women at risk for a bump at the polls?“That’s a very good question,” he said. “Would they do that at the end of the day? Is it possible? Yes, I’m afraid it is possible, and I’m sorry to say that.”Neu is disturbed that members of Congress and the Bush administration don’t have significant numbers of their own sons and daughters in uniform.“They have made damn sure by and large that their own sons and daughters are not part of that volunteer force,” Neu said. “I can’t see them urging their own sons and daughters to step up and be a part of this cause.”For that reason, Neu said, he supports a national draft, so the military is peopled with a wider cross section and human beings aren’t treated like so many plastic troop markers on a Risk game board.And back to the question on al-Qaida, why the terrorist group hasn’t attacked New York or another American city since 9/11.“No one has really a clue,” Neu said. “Everyone asks this question. You would think al-Qaida would want to strike again. You would think they would have the capacity to do so. We certainly know that many of our homeland defenses are not very strong.”In the end, though, Neu just doesn’t see how the war in Iraq would prevent terrorists from striking here.“What we’ve done there is give them an opportunity to get at us they would not otherwise have,” Neu said.

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