Thursday, August 23, 2007

Grasping at Historical Straws

President Bush's address to the VFW yesterday was a typical [for him] exercise in shamelessness. His comparison of the noble Iraq war to previous U.S. wars was historically and conceptually flawed, to put it mildly.

The American withdrawal from Vietnam is widely remembered as an ignominious end to a misguided war — but one with few negative repercussions for the United States and its allies.

Now, in urging Americans to stay the course in Iraq, President Bush is challenging that historical memory.

In reminding Americans that the pullout in 1975 was followed by years of bloody upheaval in Southeast Asia, Mr. Bush argued in a speech on Wednesday that Vietnam's lessons provide a reason for persevering in Iraq, rather than for leaving any time soon. Mr. Bush in essence accused his war critics of amnesia over the exodus of Vietnamese "boat people" refugees and the mass killings in Cambodia that upended the lives of millions of people. ...

President Bush is right on the factual record, according to historians. But many of them also quarreled with his drawing analogies from the causes of that turmoil to predict what might happen in Iraq should the United States withdraw.

"It is undoubtedly true that America’s failure in Vietnam led to catastrophic consequences in the region, especially in Cambodia," said David C. Hendrickson, a specialist on the history of American foreign policy at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

"But there are a couple of further points that need weighing," he added. "One is that the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power in the absence of the war in Vietnam — this dark force arose out of the circumstances of the war, was in a deep sense created by the war. The same thing has happened in the Middle East today. Foreign occupation of Iraq has created far more terrorists than it has deterred." ...

[T]he American drawdown from Vietnam was hardly abrupt, and it lasted much longer than many people remember. The withdrawal actually began in 1968, after the Tet offensive, which was a military defeat for the Communist guerrillas and their North Vietnamese sponsors. But it also illustrated the vulnerability of the United States and its South Vietnamese allies.

Although American commanders asked for several hundred thousand reinforcements after Tet, President Johnson turned them down. President Nixon began a process of "Vietnamization" in which responsibility for security was gradually handed to local military and police forces — similar to Mr. Bush's long-term strategy for Iraq today.

American air power was used to help sustain South Vietnam's struggling government, but by the time of the famous photograph of Americans being lifted off a roof in Saigon in 1975, few American combat forces were left in Vietnam. "It was not a precipitous withdrawal, it was a very deliberate disengagement," said Andrew J. Bacevich, a platoon leader in Vietnam who is now a professor of international relations at Boston University.

Vietnam today is a unified and stable nation whose Communist government poses little threat to its neighbors and is developing healthy ties with the United States. Mr. Bush visited Vietnam last November; a return visit to the White House this summer by Nguyen Minh Triet was the first visit by a Vietnamese head of state since the war.

There is one Vietnam analogy that unfortunately does apply. U.S. frustration over Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's failures surely rivals the disdain President Kennedy had for the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem. We can only hope the Maliki-Diem analogy proves false, because Diem was ousted in a CIA-approved military coup, then executed. Perhaps Maliki is better compared with the last South Vietnamese leader, Nguyen Van Thieu? The hated Thieu never managed to make "Vietnamization" work -- and the U.S. refused to keep 500,000 troops in South Vietnam for another decade or three to help him.

The real lesson of Vietnam is that its civil war was a nationalist struggle that toppled no communist "dominoes" across Asia. Bush's rhetoric implying an Al Qaeda "domino effect" in the Middle East has the same false ring.

President Bush also tried to make a misleading analogy yesterday between the Iraq war and the Korean conflict. A rebuttal:

Eisenhower ran on a promise that he would go to Korea personally with the purpose of ending what had become an extremely unpopular war.

Eisenhower did just that, traveling to Korea before he was even sworn in as president. By the following summer, with his support and encouragement, a rough peace was achieved. Unfortunately, more than half a century later, the U.S. continues to spend billions of dollars annually to maintain a massive military presence in the region.

Bush did not criticize Eisenhower in his speech to the VFW, presumably because he is no more familiar with the 34th president than he is with I.F. Stone. But if he does actually develop an interest in the period of history he referenced today, the current president might be intrigued by two of his predecessor's statements from the era.

"When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war. ... War settles nothing," explained the old military man.

Eisenhower rejected the argument that keeping up the fight in Korea was necessary to protecting America, and he counseled that a permanent commitment to fighting abroad would ... cost America dearly.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed," Eisenhower declared in the spring of 1953, as he was dialing down the Korea conflict. "This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. [...] This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."


Post a Comment

<< Home