Iraq, Vietnam and McGovernism
The media and the political left have taken umbrage at President Bush's choice of a Vietnam analogy to illustrate the dangers of withdrawal from Iraq. Then, as now, he said Wednesday at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, "people argued the real problem was America's presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end... 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.' "
This has set off a firestorm. "Historians Question Bush's Reading of Lessons of Vietnam War for Iraq," read yesterday's New York Times' "news analysis." The president's logic "should persuade few," opined the Los Angeles Times. Both newspapers downplayed the Korea and Japan analogies which Mr. Bush also delivered at the convention. This is more than a little convenient. The president spent much more speech time on Korea and Japan than on Vietnam. Both Korea and Japan stand as rebukes to people who once argued for the purported incompatibility democracy and freedom among peoples who lacked a history thereof. Today we hear it about Middle Eastern peoples instead of Asian ones. Mr. Bush's point is that each was proven wrong in time and that he expects the same to be true in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry are each quoted in the Washington Post lambasting the president's analogy, while leftist writers pin the rise of the Khmer Rouge and other Southeast Asian horrors on U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the course of making their own Vietnam-Iraq comparisons.
The power of analogizing a war still vociferously debated is what jars people here, so by all means, let us have this debate. Mr. Bush's premise is that Vietnam was, in fact, a winnable war and a war which was worth fighting, but one which was undercut by an irresponsible Congress against a weakened president, the legacy of McGovernite Democrats. Another premise is that the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, the brutality of Vietnam's Communists against vanquished U.S. allies and against civilians and the millions of resulting refugees could each have been lessened or avoided if the United States had somehow been able to sustain its will to fight. Similarly, the analogy goes, Iraq is a war worth fighting and winning. We stand at risk of a shortsighted Congress cutting the effort short.
These words from Mr. Bush, in short, constitute a statement of belief in the power of American arms and ingenuity in the face of a totalitarian insurgent force, a rebuke of a defeatist Congress then and now, as well as a defense of the hawkish anti-Communism which the president rightly considers an antecedent to the current antiterrorism campaign. No wonder it so grates on the political left. Their opposing view of Vietnam and of Iraq crashes head-on into Mr. Bush's formulation. Vietnam was an unwinnable war from the start, by the political left's telling, one which the United States should not have fought, and one without which there would have been no Vietnamese refugee crisis (or Cambodian genocide or Laotian Communist dictatorship).
This is, in short, hawks versus McGovernites all over again, the forces of American perseverance against the forces of defeatism. Congress will soon need to decide which path to take, and the Vietnam analogy truly does reach the heart of the matter.