The United States seems to interpret the news these days through a prism of catch phrases borrowed from history. Once, the phrases of the Second World War–“Munich,” “appeasement” and so forth–were applied to the Vietnam War, with calamitous results. Now, the catch phrases of the Vietnam War are being pressed into service to describe the war on Iraq: “search and destroy,” “quagmire,” “winning hearts and minds,” “the Baghdad triangle.” Because I began my life as a journalist in the latter’s namesake–the “iron triangle,” a center of resistance near Saigon–I’m perhaps more likely than most to see any American war as “another Vietnam”; but for the same reason I recognize a need to hold the Vietnam-Iraq comparison up to scrutiny. The differences between the two conflicts are large and obvious. In Vietnam, America’s enemy had powerful rear-guard support–in the first place, uninvaded North Vietnam; in the second place, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, an acknowledged superpower. Today, the Iraqi resistance has no proven state support, and the United States is the world’s “sole superpower.” (The rear-area support that is likely to appear over time is international Islamic terrorism–a very significant force but hardly equal to China or the Soviet Union.) In Vietnam, the resistance forces had a half-century of continuous experience fighting colonial occupiers–first the French then the Japanese, then the French again and only last the Americans. Iraq, on the other hand, was an independent country when attacked by the United States. In Vietnam, national consciousness has roots that extend back hundreds of years. Iraq was cobbled together by the British in 1920. The Vietnamese resistance was Communist, but the Iraqi resistance is of unknown political complexion and seems to combine many elements. The Vietnam War was fought to stop the spread of Communism; the war on Iraq was allegedly fought to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

But the similarities are equally obvious, and becoming more so every day. As in Vietnam, conventional American forces in Iraq face guerrilla resistance. As in Vietnam, an end to the Iraq war–a successful “exit strategy,” to use the post-Vietnam catch phrase–depends on setting up a regime that can stand on its own and be acceptable to the United States. As in Vietnam, military forces have thus been given an essentially political task. As in Vietnam, political events will be more important than military ones. The politics in question are American and Iraqi. In America, the question is how long the public will endure a steady stream of casualties and expenditures. (Already, polls are showing a sharp drop in public support for the war.) In Iraq, the fundamental question is whether the Iraqi people will accept or reject a US-founded regime. The outcome of the war will depend above all on the wills of the two peoples and their interaction. The more Iraqis hate and resist the occupation, the more Americans are likely to grow tired and force an end to the war, as they did in Vietnam.

The outlook for success is doubtful, and the reasons go deep into history. They are ones that we Americans, of all people, should well understand. We have recently celebrated the Fourth of July, the day we announced our claim “to assume among the Powers of the Earth the separate and equal Station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Arguably, the modern principle of national self-determination was born at that moment. Since then, almost every nation in the world has pursued the same path, with the result that the great empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from the British to the Soviet, have been dispatched to history’s ash heap. The passion for independence from colonial rule, which Leonard Woolf called “the world revolt,” has proved universal and, what is more surprising, has been all but universally successful. Is Iraq destined to be an exception–a country that, having achieved its independence, now gives it up again to a foreign power?

Not all the differences between Vietnam and Iraq, moreover, are favorable to the United States. For one thing, the stated goal of the war–finding weapons of mass destruction–has melted away. The short war to save America from nuclear destruction has turned into a long war with no clear purpose. For another thing, whereas in Vietnam the United States intervened in support of an existing government, in Iraq it intervened to overthrow a government. True, the government in South Vietnam depended wholly on American money and military power for its survival and had almost no independent source of strength in its own society. Still, it did have the signal, underappreciated virtue of existing: It employed thousands of people, delivered the mail, picked up the garbage. In Iraq there is no such creature. It’s not for nothing that conquerors set up quisling regimes. The Administration that promised “regime change” delivered only regime smash. In a colossal omission, it forgot that Iraq would after all have to have some sort of government or other.

This is something new. The American combat forces, who had been told that the road home goes “through Baghdad” were hastily enlisted to fill the political deficit. They found themselves trying to repair electrical lines, govern towns, guard banks. But immediately Iraqis, who quickly proved not to be missing the self-determination gene, turned against them, and some began to attack them. A new American administrator, L. Paul Bremer, was brought in to impose a new, tough policy. In his words, “We dominate the scene and we will continue to impose our will on this country.” When this strategy, so drastically at odds with any idea of democracy or self-determination, appeared to backfire, Bremer reversed course and decided to appoint the “Governing Council” of Iraq that has just come into existence. Now he seeks to perform a miracle even more remarkable than any that was required in Vietnam–to create out of thin air a regime that will do America’s will without the presence of American forces. Today, people are asking how long the United States “will have to stay” until success is achieved, but this masks the more important question of whether the mission is possible at all. The real question may be how long the United States can bear to stay before failure is accepted. In Vietnam, it took more than a decade.