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The Vietnamization of Iraq: Bush playing up the parallels

Published August 25, 2007 1:49 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When President Bush addressed an audience of American Legion veterans in Salt Lake City a year ago, he compared the nation's "noble" 21st-century fight against terrorism to battles of the past century, making repeated references to World War II, the Cold War and the Korean conflict.

Conspicuous by its absence in Bush's 5,200-word speech - particularly as more Americans were coming to see the current conflict in Iraq as similar to a war fought, and lost, three decades earlier - was any mention of Vietnam.

The more forgiving of Bush's political observers that day said the president ignored Vietnam because it had no relevance or relation to the current conflict. More-critical analysts said it was an omission for political purposes: It would have been foolish for Bush to invoke the spirit of a lost war as he was attempting to galvanize support for a battle still in the balance.

But just a year later, before a similarly deferential audience - this group the Veterans of Foreign Wars, convened for their national convention in Kansas City, Mo. - Bush made Vietnam a central theme in his fight to press onward in the bloody and expensive battle for Iraq.

"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,'" Bush told the VFW crowd in Missouri.

What changes in Iraq - and the United States - over the past year have prompted Bush's new willingness to address this still-gaping national wound? Once again, the president's understanding of history might have more to do with politics than relevance.

Polling data shows Americans are no more opposed to the Iraq war now than they were when Bush stood before his Salt Lake audience. Then and now, Americans opposed the war by a 2-to-1 margin, according to CNN/Opinion Research Corporation polling.

But at the time Bush spoke in Salt Lake City, Americans were evenly split on whether U.S. forces should withdraw from Iraq, "even if that means civil order is not restored there," according to ABC News/Washington Post polling. One year and more than 1,000 flag-draped caskets later, most Americans say they're ready to withdraw - "cut and run," in the words of war supporters - regardless of the consequences to Iraq, according to the polls.

With those statistics marking Bush's current position on the political playing field, invoking Vietnam "is the Hail Mary pass of all Hail Mary passes," said John Zogby, one of the nation's leading pollsters. "Basically he's only going after Republicans and conservatives that he's lost along the way - because that's the only group that believes we didn't lose Vietnam, that if we had gone in there with full force and kept our commitment, we could have won."

Zogby said it's a risky strategy - particularly as it will encourage debate about other ways in which Iraq is similar to Vietnam - like the absence of clearly defined goals and the prevalence of political and military leaders who long painted an overly rosy picture of the progress of American troops on the battlefields.

At the same time, Zogby said, Bush's decision to end his vow of silence on Vietnam puts war critics - who long have had free rein to compare the latest American quagmire to the most famous American quagmire - on the defensive, forcing them to contend with an ugly postwar lexicon in any future comparisons.

"Bush seems to have acknowledged that the comparison is inevitable, and now he is trying to influence how that analogy will be seen," agreed Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "This could be a smart strategy. If he can get the country to talk about withdrawal with his vocabulary, he can get them talking about it in a different way."

That strategy may have been prompted by another significant change for Bush: the loss of a supportive Congress. After November's Democratic takeover of the House and Senate - and with even stalwart Republican members of Congress abandoning the president on issues from Iraq to immigration - Bush has far less legislative influence now than he did a year ago.

"I would be surprised if he were under the delusion that he could accomplish too much over the next year and a half," Jowers said.

Meanwhile, defense experts say, the U.S. military will not be able to sustain the current number of troops (at its highest mark since the invasion) in Iraq. And that makes some form of withdrawal inevitable.

With no hope of achieving a broad domestic legacy and a future that almost certainly includes some sort of pullback of troops from Iraq, Jowers said Bush's Vietnam speech was a first strike at crafting a narrative that lays responsibility for retreat at the feet of an unsupportive Congress and U.S. citizenship - much as some conservatives have done with Vietnam.

In doing so, Bush appears to be taking cues from something else he didn't have to contend with when he was last in Utah: a group of hopeful successors all working to appeal to the Republican Party's base in anticipation of next year's primaries.

The frontrunner of that group, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Relations that "America must remember one of the lessons of the Vietnam War . . .

"Then, as now, we fought a war with the wrong strategy for several years. And then, as now, we corrected course and began to show real progress. . . . But America then withdrew its support, allowing the communist North to conquer the South. The consequences were dire. . . . The consequences of abandoning Iraq would be worse."

Even without prompting from would-be successors, Jowers said, "President Bush obviously knows that Iraq is the key to how he will be seen 50 years from now. And I think you will continue to see him taking bold steps and more chances because everything in his historical place hinges on Iraq."

Brookings Institution defense expert Michael O'Hanlon said he doesn't think Bush is under any illusions that he can avoid historical responsibility for a series of Iraq debacles.

"It's never going to rebound to his net advantage," O'Hanlon said.

Although he's been critical of Bush's Iraq strategies in the past, O'Hanlon doesn't think the president's intention in invoking Vietnam was simply political - or historical.

"I don't think he's gearing up for a debate on who lost Iraq," O'Hanlon said.

Why? Because Bush still appears to believe he can win in Iraq.

Bringing up the consequences of America's retreat from South Vietnam may buy Bush time toward that goal, but it surely doesn't guarantee it, O'Hanlon said.

"The battlefield is looking better," said O'Hanlon, who surprised many when he returned from a trip to Iraq with the conclusion that U.S. troops needed more time to see if recent strategies will continue to work to quell violence. "But obviously, there is a long way to go. There has been a fair amount of momentum in military terms, but how you interpret that and how you sustain the efforts in terms of failing political progress is obviously debatable."

But at least for now, Bush has ensured that debate will be propelled forward with a new topic of argument: Vietnam.





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