War Stories

Iraq Is Korea?

Bush’s latest appalling historical analogy.

It’s no news that George W. Bush and his handlers don’t know much about history, but their latest stab at pretending otherwise is among their most ludicrous.

At a press conference on Wednesday, White House spokesman Tony Snow said that President Bush thinks Iraq will develop along the lines of “a Korean model,” and defined that to mean a situation in which the United States “provides a security presence,” and serves as a “force of stability,” for “a long time.”

Let’s set aside for a moment whether the comparison is valid—much more on that to come—and ask why on earth Bush would make it. Huge numbers of U.S. troops have been in South Korea for 57 years. Do Bush and Snow really mean to suggest that U.S. troops will still be stationed in Iraq in the year 2060 and beyond?

Now back to the merits—or rather demerits—of the analogy. In 1950, the United States beat back North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, became embroiled in a Chinese-assisted guerrilla war, fought the Communists to a stalemate, and, in 1953, after suffering 54,000 combat deaths, negotiated a truce (but not a formal peace). Ever since, American troops—at present, 37,000 of them, stationed at 95 installations across the Korean peninsula—have remained on guard at the world’s most heavily armed border.

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, overthrew its regime (which posed a hypothetical threat), and, in the four years since, has kept about 150,000 troops in the country to kill terrorists (who weren’t in Iraq before the war), to train the Iraqi army (which the Bush administration, for still-mysterious reasons, dismantled at the occupation’s outset), and to keep a “low-grade” sectarian civil war (which erupted amid a vacuum of authority) from boiling over.

In the half-century-plus since the Korean armistice of 1953, just 90 U.S. soldiers have been killed in isolated border clashes in Korea. In the mere four years since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, more than 3,000 American servicemen and women have been killed, and the number rises every day.

To sum up, we intervened in South Korea as a response to an invasion and as part of a broad strategy to contain Communist aggression. We intervened in Iraq as the instigator of an invasion and as part of a broad strategy to expand unilateral American power. We remained in South Korea to protect a solid (if, for many years, authoritarian) government from another border incursion. We are remaining in Iraq to bolster a flimsy government and stave off a violent social implosion.

In other words, in no meaningful way are these two wars, or these two countries, remotely similar. In no way does one experience, or set of lessons, shed light on the other. In Iraq, no border divides friend from foe; no clear concept defines who is friend and foe. To say that Iraq might follow “a Korean model”—if the word model means anything—is absurd.

At times during Wednesday’s press conference, Snow seemed to recognize this absurdity. Take these passages from the transcript:

Q: So you’re not suggesting that U.S. troops would be there for over 50 years in a—Snow: No, no, I’m not. I don’t know. It is an unanswerable question, but I’m not making that suggestion.Q: You’re not suggesting that there’s a parallel between the Korean model today and the Iraqi model today, in terms of U.S. force posture?Snow: No, what I’m saying is you get to a point in the future where you want it to be a purely support role. But no, of course, we’re in active combat …Q: [W]hen you talk about this Korean model, would that kick in whether things are going poorly after the surge or going well after the surge? I mean, do you have to maintain a stability of some sort?Snow: … I’m not going to get into any of the details of those sorts of things.

Once, when Snow tried to elaborate on the concept, he only dug himself deeper:

Here is—what the president means by [the Korean model] is that, at some point, you want to get to a situation in which the Iraqis have the capability to go ahead and handle the fundamental matters of security. You have the United States there in … an “over-the-horizon” support role, so that if you need the ability to react quickly to major challenges or crises, you can be there, but the Iraqis are conducting the lion’s share of the business—as we have in South Korea.

But, ever since the 1953 armistice, U.S. troops have been on the front lines in South Korea, not “over the horizon.” Only next year will they begin to shift into a “support” role and redeploy south of Seoul.

There is one way that the two wars are similar: The Korean War in the early 1950s, like the Iraq War today, was deeply unpopular among the American people. (Dwight Eisenhower won the 1952 presidential election partly because he promised to “go to Korea” and end the war—a pledge that he made good on.) Now, whether due to hindsight or forgetfulness, the Korean War doesn’t seem so bad. By likening that war to the present war, Bush and Snow are trying to convince us that, in the future, the Iraq war won’t seem so bad either.

This is the implicit message of all the historical analogies Bush & Co. have palmed off in recent years—that, bad as things might seem, they’re no worse than similar events seemed in the past.

When the insurgency first gained force in Iraq, Bush and his top advisers claimed similar guerrilla groups tried to disrupt the Allied occupation of Germany after World War II (though, in fact, this claim was mythical).

When the insurgency dragged on, Bush drew comparisons with the Philippines, which is now a thriving democracy (though he didn’t point out that the counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines was unacceptably brutal by today’s standards and that it took 40 years longer to establish democracy).

When Iraq’s constitutional convention was mired in conflict, Bush and his top Cabinet members noted that our own forefathers took eight years to get from the ramshackle Articles of Confederation to the Constitution we now cherish (ignoring the vast social, cultural, and political differences between federalist America and contemporary Iraq).

And time and time again, Bush has likened himself to Harry Truman, whose entire Cold War policy—not just his war in Korea—was unpopular in its day (though Bush has created nothing like the international agencies and alliances—NATO, the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods agreement, and so forth—that formed Truman’s postwar order).

To President Bush, history is not a complex record of the past, to be studied intensively for lessons. It’s a grab bag of myths and half-truths, to be dredged for political effect—a device that provides rhetorical cover, and allows evasion of responsibility, in the face of gross and obvious failure.