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Friday, August 24, 2007

Back to Vietnam, Editorial, Boston Globe

Back to Vietnam

August 24, 2007

THE VIETNAM war is still such a divisive episode in US history that comparisons to Iraq are sure to be clouded by emotion. But President Bush tossed analogies around capriciously this week before the Veterans of Foreign Wars and added a few more from World War II and Korea. Since he broached the subject, it's reasonable to take the comparisons to places he might not want to go.

Here's one: It would have been better to surrender South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese communists in the early 1960s than to engage them in a struggle that cost 58,000 American and millions of Vietnamese lives before it ended in 1975 with the same result: victory for Hanoi and the suppression of non-communist opposition in the south. Would Bush agree that, similarly, it would have been preferable to allow Saddam Hussein, notwithstanding his evil regime, to remain in power than to engage in a more than four-year war that has torn Iraq apart and cost the lives of 3,700 Americans and many more Iraqis?

At least in Vietnam, there was a clearly defined enemy. The Nixon administration was able to negotiate an agreement with Hanoi in 1973 for an American withdrawal. Similarly, the United States knew the capital cities of the enemies in World War II and Korea. But what is the address of the enemy in Iraq, a nation fractured into sectarian fiefdoms and murderous gangs?

Despite the worry that defeat in Vietnam would have a domino effect, toppling non-communist regimes elsewhere, the damage was limited to Indochina. The communists who took over Cambodia in 1975 in the wake of the American defeat did prove to be genocidal sociopaths. Bush tried to use their example as a caution against a pullout from Iraq, but no one knows whether a bloodbath of this proportion will occur among the warring factions there.

"If we withdraw before the job is done, this enemy will follow us home," Bush said, setting up the ultimate domino. Analogies are of no help when predicting the fate of Iraq. Its location on the Sunni-Shi'ite fault line, huge oil reserves, and forced involvement in the US struggle against Islamic terrorism have no parallels to Vietnam of the 1960s.

The Iraq war is now nearly 4 1/2 years old. Bush didn't mention the war-weariness that afflicted Americans as the Korean war dragged on for three years and as World War II passed the 3 1/2-year mark. After 4 1/2 years of intense American involvement in Vietnam, Nixon began pulling out the troops.

"In Iraq, our moral obligations and our strategic interests are one," Bush said. The United States is not winning this war, and there is no strategy in place analogous to Nixon's to get the US troops out and devise a diplomatic solution involving neighboring nations. A weary people demand more of the president than war without end.

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