There aren't many parallels between the war in Vietnam and the attempted suicide of Iraq, but the ghost of George Aiken hovers over Baghdad.
George Aiken, the late Republican senator from Vermont, is most famously remembered for his wry suggestion that the way to extract the United States from quagmire in Vietnam was to declare victory and get out.
His suggestion was borne of the frustration now bedeviling everyone in, around and about Iraq, the grim realization that not every problem has a neat and easy solution and a reminder that patience is not necessarily an American virtue.
Frustration is pushing everybody the Americans, the Arabs and most of all the Iraqis to consider a dramatic "course correction" over the next few months. Nobody wants to call it "the Aiken strategy," but the Sunnis and the Shi'ites could get on with their violent rituals of national suicide in the name of the religion of peace.
The inevitable "task force" investigating what to do with Iraq, led by James Baker, the former secretary of state, is leaking like an infant, and some of the suggestions are weirder than others: a partition of Iraq into three regions defined by ethnic or religious demographics, withdrawal of U.S. troops to be dispatched to nearby friendly places where they could theoretically be called back to deal with appropriate "emergencies." It's difficult to imagine an emergency dire enough to get them back once they're out, which is of course the point of the strategy.
The weirdest suggestion of all is that the U.S.-trained Iraqi army would overthrow the new government in Iraq put in place by the coalition of the willing, and replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with a strongman, perhaps someone like Saddam Hussein, only not yet a monster. He would restore "order" while the United States and Britain content themselves with viewing with alarm for a "decent" interval, after which Washington and London would recognize the new government.
Comparing Iraq to Vietnam betrays an ignorance of history. As brutal as the Communists were in Vietnam, there was an ideological purpose to their brutality. The war in Vietnam was a war for "the hearts and minds," as the cliché went, in pursuit of a Marxist order. In Iraq, the insurgents (to use a term they don't deserve) don't care about hearts and minds, about taking territory or establishing a new Jerusalem. They're interested not in hearts and minds, but body parts, to be strewn across the neighborhood in an endless festival of Sunni blood and Shi'ite gore.
"Iraq takes today's 'cult of the suicide bomber' a stage further," says Brendan O'Neill, a British pundit in Spiked, an Internet magazine. "We could say that Iraq is the world's first Suicide State, responding to war and occupation not by mobilizing the masses in opposition or organizing resistance armies, but rather by destroying itself, by committing suicide in front of the world's cameras."
Mercy and morality might not have constrained the North Vietnamese from blowing up 26 children taking sweets from an American soldier, or 38 women and children lining up for rations of kerosene, or blowing up 74 worshippers in a mosque, but the men of Hanoi knew that to do those things would make it difficult to persuade the masses to follow the Marxist path to national salvation.
Unlike in Vietnam, there's an absence of politics in Iraq, no concern for national salvation, no Ho Chi Minh to rally the countryside, no alternative government in waiting, no attempt to take and hold territory. It's killing to prove that only Sunni spilling of Shi'ite blood can appease Allah, that only Shi'ite dismembering of Sunni children can make Allah happy. The only purpose of the mayhem seems to be getting on television with guns blazing, bombs exploding, bodies flying.
Once upon a time the West could look at mayhem in the Muslim world with more bemusement than horror, but now we can't. The world has grown too small. This is the dilemma of George W. Bush, and it will be the dilemma of whoever follows him. The Democrats don't want to cut and run so much as to run and hide. But there are no hiding places left. Once out of Iraq, where is there to go?