| Reliving history
During my years in the Indian foreign service, I was posted to Hanoi (1968-69) around the time the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey, lost to the Republican, Richard Nixon, almost entirely because the Americans saw that Lyndon Johnson had conned them into their losing war on Vietnam. Later, I spent two years in Baghdad (1976-78) around the time the Americans began cozying up to Saddam Hussein preliminary to making Saddam’s Iraq their proxy for their war on Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran.
The parallels between Iraq today and Vietnam from the Thirties to the Sixties are striking — usually chastening and sometimes amusing. Through the Thirties, French intelligence single-mindedly hunted down Ho Chi Minh, pronouncing him dead on an average of twice a year, even covering their embarrassment at his elusiveness by claiming that Ho was in fact dead and the Ho spotted since was a double! Sounds familiar'
In the Forties, concerned only with ending the Japanese occupation of Indo-China, and less mindful of whose help they took to do so, the Americans intervened with the Kuomintang to secure the release of Ho Chi Minh, who had been arrested a year earlier. Ho went on to establish a warm friendship with Colonel Paul Helliwell, the station chief running the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency); so warm was their friendship that American forces were present doing full honours as Ho Chi Minh raised the flag of free Vietnam in Hanoi on September 2, 1945. Alarmed at this US backing to the establishment of a communist regime in his country, Emperor Bao Dai fled Hanoi. OSS assistance to the Viet Minh foreshadowed the CIA organizing, training and supplying Osama bin Laden’s men and looking the other way as the taliban established itself as the government of the ravaged land. Equally, OSS assistance to Ho Chi Minh foreshadowed the massive military backing extended by the US to Iraq to invade Iran after Jimmy Carter’s Keystone Kops botched the rescue of US hostages. America needs no enemies. It creates them itself.
Standing up to the threats and blandishments of the French, Ho Chi Minh made it clear that he had not returned to Hanoi to help the French re-establish their empire. So, the French in 1947 launched Operation Lea to capture Ho and his principal associates. The Viet Minh leadership got as clean away as the 52 playing card enemies whom Paul Bremer and his team are frantically hunting down in Iraq.
The root of the problem for the French in Vietnam in the late Forties-early Fifties lay in what a French army officer wrote at the time: “The High Command has substituted for the hard facts of the real situation the pre-conceived ideas it had about the enemy.” So has the American conquest of Iraq left the US administration “substituting pre-conceived ideas about the enemy” over the “hard facts” of the Iraqi resistance.
This is well-illustrated by a comparison between the post-war conclave of anti-Baathists convened by the Americans in Iraq and the “National Congress” called in Saigon on October 12, 1953 by Emperor Bao Dai when it seemed certain the French would not be able to hold out much longer and a pre-emptive political initiative was imperative to stop a Ho Chi Minh take-over. “It became”, wrote Bernard Fall, the French-born US academic expert on Vietnam who attended the conference, “a monumental free-for-all in which nationalists of all hues and shades concentrated on settling long-standing scores and outbidding each other in extreme demands.”
Quite. The same fate awaits the rag-tag bobtail Iraqi governing council of incompatibles, established now in Baghdad by American fiat with no mandate whatsoever from the Iraqi people, but as the White House way of covering up growing American anger at the deception played on them by George Bush and his cohorts in the name of Saddam Hussein’s never-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction.
Article 7 of the Final Declaration of July 21, 1954, which sealed the Geneva Accords on Indo-China, was unambiguous: “the general elections shall be held in July 1956, under the supervision of an international commission”. India was the chairman of that commission. Jean Lacouture, who was a member of the French delegation to Geneva wrote: “The final declaration of the Geneva conference foresaw, of course, that general elections would permit the re-unification of Vietnam two years later. And no one doubted at the time that this would be to the benefit of the North”. Richard A. Falks, Milbank Professor of international law at Princeton University, adds: “Had elections been held, it is generally agreed that reunification under Ho Chi Minh would have resulted.” For that very reason the Americans connived with Ngo Dinh Diem to sabotage those elections. The rest, as they say, is history. In exactly the same way, the Americans in Iraq are scheduling elections and then cancelling them when they find the outcome is not likely to be to their liking. Hence the entirely nominated Iraqi governing council, as representative of contemporary Iraqi opinion as the native members of the viceroy’s council were during the freedom movement representative of Indian pubic opinion!
Eisenhower had ridden to the White House in 1952 denouncing the Democrats as a “war party” for having dragged America into the Korean quagmire. But with Dien Bien Phu just weeks away, he announced at his press conference on April 7, 1954 that “the loss of Indo-China will cause the fall of southeast Asia like a set of dominoes”. Thus started the slide into the Vietnamese quagmire.
Fascinating were the voices which spoke up against Eisenhower’s implicit promise of solid military backing to the upcoming Ngo Dinh Diem regime. One US senator, a certain John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in the senate debate on April 6, 1954, put the blame for all that had gone wrong in Indo-China not on the Viet Minh but on the French — for having made “unreasonable demands” on Ho Chi Minh “ever since 1946”. And another US senator, one Lyndon B. Johnson, thundered that he was against “sending American GIs into the mud and muck of Indo-China on a blood-letting spree to perpetuate colonialism and white man’s exploitation in Asia.” He went on to send 55,000 GIs to their bloody end in the Vietnamese quagmire.
Now the same Americans who bombed and strafed their way into Baghdad with scarcely a life lost (and who cares about dead Iraqis anyway') are finding the body bags coming home. With only 26 US soldiers dead since May 1, US public opinion support for the occupation of Iraq has already dipped from a high of three-quarters at the height of a painless invasion to just over half now that the chickens are coming to roost. At this rate of erosion, son Bush post Gulf War-II is all set to go the way of his father post Gulf War-I to certain electoral defeat. George W. Bush realizes that it is only Asians of colour substituting lily-white American GIs that can assure him a second term as president. It would be sensible for India to deny him this option.