November 18, 2003 | Wall Street Journal

Is Iraq Like Vietnam?

Whether Iraq will be the next Vietnam may be very interesting, especially to those still basking in the I-told-you-so glow of Saigon's fall. But taking into account that this is 2003, here's the more illuminating question: Is Vietnam the next Iraq?

The answer, sadly for the people of Vietnam, is: Fat chance. For all Iraq's many troubles, the Vietnamese should be so lucky as to have the opportunities now before the Iraqis. Vietnam is one place where the great American superpower is entirely unlikely to come clamoring for a rematch in the cause of freedom. For most of the Western world, Vietnam lives on not as a real country inhabited today by 80 million real people, but simply as a sort of eternal shorthand for lost causes, a TV talk show sound bite: “Pick-yer-debacle: The next Vietnam?”

But with all these instant counterinsurgency experts so hot to hold up Vietnam as the yardstick for Iraq, it seems worth a look at what's actually happening today in Vietnam itself–not the Vietnam of Apocalypse Then, but the Vietnam of tyranny now. It offers some badly needed perspective on Iraq.

Consider the case of a Vietnamese physician, 61-year-old Nguyen Dan Que, who as you read these words is sitting incommunicado in the Municipal Prison of District One, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where the authorities permit no access to either family members or humanitarian agencies. His “crime” has been to ask, again and again, for democracy in Vietnam.

When Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, Dr. Que (he uses his first name, pronounced “kway,” though his surname is Nguyen) had the option of leaving the country along with his three brothers and his sister. One of his brothers, Nguyen Quan, now living in Virginia, recounts their parting, on the shore of the Saigon River, where all but Dr. Que boarded a boat to escape. Dr. Que chose to stay. He felt his skills as a doctor and his passion as a patriot might be needed right there in Vietnam. Two years later, having criticized the appalling hospital conditions under the communist regime, he was packed off by the authorities to spend 10 years in a labor camp.

Released in 1988, Dr. Que began calling for democratic change. He was arrested again and in 1991 sentenced to 20 years in prison. Released early, in 1998, but kept under constant official surveillance and harassment, Dr. Que again began his calls for freedom in Vietnam, including an e-mail communiqué he sent out on March 13 of this year: “It is the people's economic self-reliance in a market economy and freedom of information that will bury the detested dictatorial regime.” Four days later, as the American-led coalition in another part of the world prepared to oust Saddam Hussein, Dr. Nguyen–who had no such support–was arrested in Vietnam. He has been in prison since.

Dr. Nguyen's story is just one small sample of the astounding misery played out in Vietnam since the U.S. talked itself into defeat and left. The fall of Saigon in 1975 was followed by brutal moves to collectivize the south. Hundreds of thousands were forcibly relocated, tens of thousands sent to labor camps. Terror and hunger produced an exodus in which ultimately more than 1.5 million people fled Vietnam–many by boat, braving pirates and sharks in the South China Sea.

Even after Hanoi's communist regime began its doi moi economic reforms in the late 1980s, even after the U.S. lifted the trade embargo in 1994 and normalized relations in 1995, Vietnam remained a political sinkhole. The ruling Communist Party tightly restricts freedom of religion and speech, permits no rival parties or groups, and throws its critics, like Dr. Que, in prison. Out of 192 countries surveyed earlier this year by New York-based Freedom House, Vietnam ranked among the 16 most repressive regimes.

Compare this with today's Iraq, where, despite the complaints, there has been no stampede for the exits. People are now free to speak as they please, worship as they choose, print independent newspapers, read them, and raise their voices in the debate over the framing of a new constitution.

Ah, but along with their new freedoms, Iraqis are suffering violence, insecurity, and terrorist attacks. True, and horrible. But before defaulting to Iraq-the-next-Vietnam, compare the toll today with what it was under the workaday “stability” of Saddam. Even setting aside Saddam's wars against Iran and Kuwait, which killed hundreds of thousands, even taking separately the gassing of the Kurds, which killed thousands, even dismissing any terrorist attacks abroad that Saddam may yet prove to have been party to, even if all we blame on Saddam are those 300,000 Iraqis estimated to have been buried in some 260 mass graves, Iraq with Saddam removed from power is still ahead of the game.

For Saddam to have presided over the slaughter of 300,000 during the course of his rule meant killing, on average, about 34 human beings per day, or more than one an hour, every hour, around the clock, for 24 years. To put that in perspective, note that the terrorist bombing in August of the United Nations compound in Baghdad–an atrocity that killed 22 people–would have qualified in the ledgers of Saddam's regime as a below-average day of murder. Add to this the Iraqis traumatized by state-sanctioned rape, mutilated by torturers, and terrorized for decades into the kind of self-betrayal and submission that sickens the soul.

Getting over that just might need more than eight months. And perhaps the mission of equipping a newly liberated people to defend their own freedoms is not solely a matter of facts and arithmetic. But to whatever extent we are now engaged in a war of passions and ideas, we'd get further on all fronts not by brooding over Iraq-as-the-next-Vietnam, but by looking for ways to telegraph to a Dr. Que, and his countrymen, that we still hope for the day when Vietnam will at last enjoy the freedoms now in reach in Iraq.

Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears in the Opinion Journal and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.