The Vietnam Lesson

Ken AshfordIraqLeave a Comment

The White House is mounting a new PR ploy to bolster support for Bush’s Iraq war policy. Speaking to various veterans’ groups today and tomorrow, the new PR ploy will draw comparisons between the wars in Iraq and Vietnam.

It’s a bit odd, seeing as how in the past Bush has argued against the comparison on numerous occassions, saying it’s "a different situation" and there’s no parallel.  Nevertheless…

As he awaits a crucial progress report on Iraq, President Bush will try to put a twist on comparisons of the war to Vietnam by invoking the historical lessons of that conflict to argue against pulling out.

On Wednesday in Kansas City, Missouri, Bush will tell members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that “then, as now, people argued that the real problem was America’s presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end,” according to speech excerpts released Tuesday by the White House.

Well, I don’t think people really argued that.  I think anyone familiar with that era, either by living through it or from history books, knows that the argument was that America’s presence exaccerbated the problem.  Which is entirely different from saying that "if we would just withdraw, the killing would end".  So this "argument" is a fictional strawman.

In any event, at the time, supporters of the Vietnam War offered this argument: "if we leave Vietnam, Southeast Asia will fall to Communism".  Well, we left Vietnam, and the Asian “domino theory” turned out to be wrong. As Josh Marshall explained:

Going 40 years on, it is not too much to say that virtually none of the predicted negative repercussions of our departure from Vietnam ever came to pass. Asia didn’t go Communist. Our Asian allies didn’t abandon us. Rather, the Vietnamese began to fall out with her Communist allies…. If anything, the clearest lesson of Vietnam would seem to be that there can be a vast hue and cry about the catastrophic effects of disengagement from a failed policy and it can turn out that none of them are true.

But what is even more ridiculous about the newest Iraq-Vietnam PR ploy is the "lesson" that Vietnam supposedly taught us:

The president will also make the argument that withdrawing from Vietnam emboldened today’s terrorists by compromising U.S. credibility, citing a quote from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that the American people would rise against the Iraq war the same way they rose against the war in Vietnam, according to the excerpts.

“Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price to American credibility, but the terrorists see things differently,” Bush will say.

I can never never never never understand why our foreign policy hinges on naysaying the perception that terrorists may or may not have.  Seriously, it’s like a teenager rebelling against whatever their parents say for the sake of rebellion. "Osama thinks X; therefore we must do Y".  What kind of policy is that?  If Osama told us to not jump off a bridge, would we jump?

So apparently, we must stay in Iraq forever wasting money and lives and destroying our position in the world because if we don’t we’ll have proved Osama bin Laden right. Apparently we have permanently ceded our foreign policy to the whim of Osama bin Laden’s taunts.

But that aside, does anyone really believe Osama thinks this?  Several U.S. administrations pursued a failed strategy in Vietnam, we withdrew U.S. troops, and bin Laden, several decades later, said, “A ha! Now we can attack with impunity”?  I don’t think so.  He would have attacked us anyway.

Finally, the president will also apparently argue that proponents of withdrawal from Vietnam are indirectly responsible for tragic massacres in Southeast Asia:

“Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps’ and ‘killing fields.’ ”

Josh Marshall addresses this factually-challenged meme as well:.

The story of the ‘boat people’ is unquestionably tragic. And there’s little doubt that there are many Iraqis who will pay either with their lives or nationality for aiding us in various ways during our occupation of the country. But to govern our policy on this basis is simply to buy into a classic sunk cost fallacy. A far better — and really quite necessary — policy would be to give asylum to a lot of these people rather than continuing to get more of them into the same position in advance of our inevitable departure.

More concretely though, didn’t the killing fields happen in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge rather than Vietnam? So doesn’t that complicate the analogy a bit? And didn’t that genocide actually come to an end when the Communist Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime? The Vietnamese Communists may have been no great shakes. But can we get through one of these boneheaded historical analogies while keeping at least some of the facts intact?

Note to Bush: the lesson of Vietnam is that we should not commit U.S. troops to a war that is without clearly-defined goals, recognizeable metrics for when "victory" has occurred, and a clear exit strategy once that victory is achieved.  Moreover, to simply throw more soldiers and money on to a sinking ship, and getting ourselves entranched in a quagmire — that it what destroys America’s credibility.  Perhaps if you were not avoiding service and SOBER during that period in time, you might have learned a thing or two.

Those who have not learned from the past are condemned to repeat it….

UPDATE:  Keith Olbermann weighs in —

“We’ll succeed,” the president concluded, “unless we quit.”

If that’s the lesson about Iraq that Mr. Bush sees in Vietnam, then he needs a tutor.

Or we need somebody else making the decisions about Iraq.

Mr. Bush, there are a dozen central, essential lessons to be derived from our nightmare in Vietnam, but “we’ll succeed unless we quit,” is not one of them.

The primary one — which should be as obvious to you as the latest opinion poll showing that only 31 percent of this country agrees with your tragic Iraq policy — is that if you try to pursue a war for which the nation has lost its stomach, you and it are finished. Ask Lyndon Johnson.

The second most important lesson of Vietnam, Mr. Bush: If you don’t have a stable local government to work with, you can keep sending in Americans until hell freezes over and it will not matter. Ask Vietnamese Presidents Diem or Thieu.

The third vital lesson of Vietnam, Mr. Bush: Don’t pretend it’s something it’s not. For decades we were warned that if we didn’t stop “communist aggression” in Vietnam, communist agitators would infiltrate and devour the small nations of the world, and make their insidious way, stealthily, to our doorstep.

The war machine of 1968 had this “domino theory.”

Your war machine of 2006 has this nonsense about Iraq as “the central front in the war on terror.”

The fourth pivotal lesson of Vietnam, Mr. Bush: If the same idiots who told Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to stay there for the sake of “peace With honor” are now telling you to stay in Iraq, they’re probably just as wrong now, as they were then … Dr. Kissinger.

And the fifth crucial lesson of Vietnam, Mr. Bush — which somebody should’ve told you about long before you plunged this country into Iraq — is that if you lie your country into a war, your war, your presidency will be consigned to the scrap heap of history.


Finally, in Vietnam, we learned the lesson. We stopped endlessly squandering lives and treasure and the focus of a nation on an impossible and irrelevant dream, but you are still doing exactly that, tonight, in Iraq.

And these lessons from Vietnam, Mr. Bush, these priceless, transparent lessons, writ large as if across the very sky, are still a mystery to you.

“We’ll succeed unless we quit.”

No, sir.

We will succeed against terrorism, for our country’s needs, toward binding up the nation’s wounds when you quit, quit the monumental lie that is our presence in Iraq.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Bush From Years Past himself weighs in:

That damned Google. It keeps track of everything:

Prior the Iraq war, George W. Bush claimed that he had learned some powerful lessons from the Vietnam war. Among those lessons were the fact that U.S. must be "slow to engage troops." "We can never again ask the military to fight a political war," Bush said, adding that "the cause must be just":

A generation shaped by Vietnam must remember the lessons of Vietnam: When America uses force in the world, the cause must be just, the goal must be clear and the victory must be overwhelming. [Bush address to RNC convention, 8/4/00]

The Republican presidential front-runner also says he learned "the lesson of Vietnam." "Our nation should be slow to engage troops. But when we do so, we must do so with ferocity. We must not go into a conflict unless we go in committed to win. We can never again ask the military to fight a political war," Bush wrote. [AP, 11/15/99, reporting on Bush’s biography A Charge To Keep]

RELATED:  The media is falling over itself to talk about the "good news" coming from Iraq.  Even Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seem to want to climb aboard and rejoice in the "good news".

And it certainly is "good" that are troops are engaging in, and winning, certain battles against insurgents and militia.  And while I hate to rain on everyone’s parade, I think it is important to stress two things:

(1)  We’ve seen this whack-a-mole phenomenon too many times, and we shouldn’t be fooled by it.  Sure — In the north:

About 16,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops began a new operation north of Baghdad targeting insurgents who have fled a crackdown in the restive city of Baqouba, the military said Tuesday.

But meanwhilein the south:

The Shiite-on-Shiite struggle for Iraq’s economically important south has taken a violent turn.

So winning battles is great, but if we will be continuing to fight those battles over and over again, then overall, we’re not really "winning".

(2) Successful military battles don’t reflect an overall successful policy, especially when the political prong of the overall policy is an abject failure:

Our vaunted military has won every battle against insurgents and militias—from the march up to the “thunder runs” that took Baghdad; the assaults on Fallujah to the battles for Sadr City. And yet we still find ourselves stuck in the sands of Mesopotamia. In a New York Times op-ed published Monday, Brookings Institution scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack argue that “[w]e are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms.” They go on to describe the myriad ways the surge is succeeding on the security front.

But in emphasizing this aspect of current operations, they downplay the more critical questions relating to political progress and the ability of Iraq’s national government to actually govern. Security is not an end in itself. It is just one component, albeit an important one, of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Unless it is paired with a successful political strategy that consolidates military gains and translates increased security into support from the Iraqi people, these security improvements will, over time, be irrelevant.

To his credit, John Edwards has got this right, as shown by his latest criticism of Hillary:

"Senator Hillary Clinton’s view that the president’s Iraq policy is ‘working’ is another instance of a Washington politician trying to have it both ways. You cannot be for the President’s strategy in Iraq but against the war. The American people deserve straight talk and real answers on Iraq, not double-speak, triangulation, or political positioning.

"Our military’s hard-won progress in Al-Anbar province should not distract us from the fact that pouring more military resources into Iraq is no substitute for the comprehensive national political solution that will ultimately resolve the situation in Iraq. President Bush’s failed strategy has led to increased terrorism in Iraq, as we saw with the bombing of the Iraqi Parliament months ago in the Green Zone and the recent horrendous bombings in northwest Iraq that killed over 250 people. And despite the surge, the Al-Maliki government is disintegrating before our eyes. Even worse, President Bush’s mistakes in Iraq have only helped make terrorism worse in the world. As the National Intelligence Estimate recently found, Al Qaeda is as strong now as it was before 9/11.

"As Senator Clinton has observed, words have consequences – and she was right. Suggesting that the surge is working completely misrepresents the facts about Iraq. By cherry-picking one instance to validate a failed Bush strategy, it risks undermining the effort in the Congress to end this war.

"The only answer to the conflict in Iraq is a political solution involving all Iraqi and regional parties. Senator Edwards hopes that Senator Clinton will reconsider her ill-advised statement and reaffirm her dedication to using Congress’ constitutional funding power to end this war and help achieve the political solution that would establish stability in Iraq and bring our brave soldiers home to the heroes’ welcome they deserve. Senator Edwards has called for an immediate reduction of 40,000 to 50,000 troops to stop the surge and get all regional parties to begin to find a political solution, for a diplomatic offensive with all regional parties, and for all combat troops to be withdrawn within the next year. With these steps, we can finally put Iraq on the path to stability."

Game, set (but not match) to Edwards.

UPDATE:  Biden weighs in:

President Bush today attempted to draw an analogy to Vietnam, but in fact it’s the President’s policies that are pushing us toward another Saigon moment — with helicopters fleeing the roof of our embassy — which he says he wants to avoid.

The President also continues to play the American people for fools — conflating the terrorists of 9/11 with Al Qaeda in Iraq today. Al Qaeda in Iraq didn’t exist before we invaded — it is a Bush fulfilling prophecy.