Max Boot: President Bush's analogy to Iraq is not inaccurate, just incomplete





[Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "War Made New: Weapons, Warriors and the Making of the Modern World" (Gotham Books).]

Ever since the mid-1970s, critics of American military involvement have warned that any decision to deploy armed forces abroad--in Lebanon and El Salvador in the 1980s, in Kuwait, Somalia, and Kosovo in the 1990s, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan--would result in "another Vietnam." Conversely, supporters of those interventions have adamantly resisted any Vietnam comparisons.

President George W. Bush boldly abandoned that template with his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Wednesday. In a skillful bit of political jujitsu, he cited Vietnam not as evidence that the Iraq War is unwinnable, but to argue that the costs of giving up the fight would be catastrophic--just as they were in Southeast Asia.

This has met with predictable and angry denunciations from antiwar advocates who argue that the consequences of defeat in Vietnam weren't so grave. After all, isn't Vietnam today an emerging economic power that is cultivating friendly ties with the U.S.?

True, but that's 30 years after the fact. In the short-term, the costs of defeat were indeed heavy. More than a million people perished in the killing fields of Cambodia, while in Vietnam, those who worked with American forces were consigned, as Mr. Bush noted, to prison camps "where tens of thousands perished." Many more fled as "boat people," he continued, "many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea."

That assessment actually understates the terrible repercussions from the American defeat, whose ripples spread around the world. In the late 1970s, America's enemies seized power in countries from Mozambique to Iran to Nicaragua. American hostages were seized aboard the SS Mayaguez (off Cambodia) and in Tehran. The Red Army invaded Afghanistan. It is impossible to prove the connection with the Vietnam War, but there is little doubt that the enfeeblement of a superpower encouraged our enemies to undertake acts of aggression that they might otherwise have shied away from. Indeed, as Mr. Bush noted, jihadists still gain hope from what Ayman al Zawahiri accurately describes as "the aftermath of the collapse of the American power in Vietnam and how they ran and left their agents."

The problem with Mr. Bush's Vietnam analogy is not that it is inaccurate, but that it is incomplete. As he noted, "The tragedy of Vietnam is too large to be contained in one speech." If he chooses to return to the subject in future speeches, there are some other parallels he could invoke:
• The danger of prematurely dumping allied leaders. A chorus of voices in Washington, led by Sens. Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton, is calling on Iraqis to replace Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Even Mr. Bush and his ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, have expressed disappointment with Mr. Maliki. They have been careful, however, to refrain from any calls for his ouster. That's wise, because we know from our experience in Vietnam the dangers of switching allied leaders in wartime.

In the early 1960s, American officials were frustrated with Ngo Dinh Diem, and in 1963 the Kennedy administration sanctioned a coup against him, in the hope of installing more effective leadership in Saigon. The result was the opposite: a succession of weak leaders who spent most of their time plotting to stay in power. In retrospect it's obvious that, for all his faults, we should have stuck with Diem....

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Barry DeCicco - 8/29/2007

Apparently it's now OK to compare Iraq to Vietnam. So, in that spirit:

Q: What's the biggest difference between Iraq and Vietnam?

A: George had an exit plan for Vietnam.


Ronald Dale Karr - 8/27/2007

Let me get this straight. If we had slogged on in Vietnam and were still fighting there, the Shah would have retained his throne and the Soviets would have stayed out of Afghanistan.

Right.

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