Bush draws wrong lessons from Vietnam

The sad—and frightening—thing is that Americans generally have such a poor sense of history that many will get taken in by Bush's warped Vietnam analogies, delivered to applause at a National Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Kansas City Aug. 22. The Washington Post offers some quotes:

"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.'"

Before the official revisionism became dogma in the Reagan era, it was generally recognized that the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia was the fruit of the savage US bombardment of the country. That set the stage for the siezure of power by blood-thirsty and primitivist forces—much as the Soviet devastation of Afghanistan a decade later paved the way for the Taliban. And contrary to Bush's conflation, Vietnam saw no such cataclysm following the US withdrawal, despite the overwhelming devastation of its land by aerial bombardment, napalm and defoliants—which is a credit to the humanity of the Vietnamese leadership. Whatever authoritarian excesses they displayed in the '70s, they have, if anything, ultimately proved too conciliatory. After all, there has been no regime change there, yet Nike is happily operating sweatshops in Vietnam today.

More from Bush:

"If we were to abandon the Iraqi people, the terrorists would be emboldened... Unlike in Vietnam, if we withdraw before the job is done, this enemy will follow us home. As long as I am commander-in-chief, we will fight to win."

This ubiquitous "follow us home" line is startlingly deluded. Does anyone really believe it? Every day that the US remains in Iraq, committing atrocities and brutalizing the populace, hatred of America grows, and a terrorist attack on US territory becomes more likely. Thinking we can avoid it by remaining in Iraq is like trying to sober up by drinking martinis. The federal intelligence bureaucracy itself has acknowledged this reality.

Fortunately, there are mainstream voices of dissent to Bush's bogus propaganda. Writes the LA Times in an editorial entitled "The misleading Vietnam analogy":

It's true that millions of Iraqi civilians have already paid a terrible price and may suffer even more as fighting may well worsen after a U.S. withdrawal -- whenever that occurs. But it seems equally clear that the civil war cannot be suppressed indefinitely unless the U.S. plans to occupy the country for decades. Killing fields? Iraq's already got them: A dozen or two corpses are found dumped in the streets each morning, and bombs go off daily. Boat people? Two million Iraqis have already fled the country, and perhaps 50,000 more leave each month. Could it get worse? Absolutely. But can we stop it?

Even John Negroponte has acknowledged that the situation in Iraq is already worse than it was for the US in Vietnam in the '60s. Henry Kissinger has said he has "a very uneasy feeling" that "the tragedy of Vietnam" is repeating itself in Iraq.

Unfortunately, Bush is given a convenient propaganda boost by the ever-reliable Osama bin Laden. Dubya quoted a line from a post-9-11 interview in which Osama said that "the American people had risen against their government's war in Vietnam. And they must do the same today."

Yeah well, what of it? Just because Osama said it doesn't mean it isn't true. All powerful propaganda must exploit an element of truth. As we have noted repeatedly: However criminal al-Qaeda's tactics and however totalitarian its ideology, the grievances it draws on are legitimate—a reality we ignore to our own peril.

The anti-war movement is also beloved of the Vietnam analogy, of course, and should avoid similar errors. The fundamental dynamic of the Vietnam conflict was a national liberation struggle. The fundamental dynamic of the Iraq conflict is sectarian civil war. There were elements of ethnic conflict in Vietnam as well—for instance, the warfare between the tribal Montagnards and the ethnic Vietnamese. Similarly, there are obvious elements of national liberation struggle in Iraq today. But it no longer defines the conflict. As we recently wrote:

If we are to advocate a US withdrawal, we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that it could initially lead to an increase in violence, as sectarian factions perceive that the political order is up for grabs. The US has played a divide-and-rule card... As the perceived protector of the Shi'ites and Kurds, the US presence antagonizes the Sunni Arabs, and the cycle of vengeance has now taken on a life of its own. The painful paradox may be that a post-withdrawal conflagration is now inevitable, but the longer the US remains in Iraq the worse it will be.

If we think we stand any chance of really pressuring the US to withdraw, we had better inoculate ourselves now against charges of betraying the Iraqis to a sectarian maelstrom. Bush got us into this mess through his apparent utopian assumption that his invasion would bring democracy and stability on short order. Let's not replicate his error.

See our last posts on Iraq, Vietnam and Bush's historical revisionism.