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Specter of Vietnam is Stalking Bush
Published on Wednesday, April 7, 2004 by the Toronto Star
Specter of Vietnam is Stalking Bush
by Tim Harper

WASHINGTON—With U.S. troops fighting pitched battles on two Iraqi fronts last night, a question dismissed by the White House as nave last summer has gained increasing currency this spring.

Is this George Bush's Vietnam?

The charge was made in a Monday speech by one of the country's most polarizing politicians, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, the 42-year veteran of Congress.

He struck a chord in this nation and the question was being put to the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, on network television yesterday while most Americans were still digesting the latest Iraqi battles over their morning coffee.

By nightfall, with the Pentagon confirming at least 12 Americans dead in a firefight in Ramadi — and raging battles in Falluja suggesting the toll will rise — the Vietnam comparisons were everywhere.

"Oh, gee, I don't even know where to start with that comparison," Bremer told NBC's Today Show. "I think it's completely inappropriate. There's really nothing in common with Vietnam."

Others find much in common.

In strict terms, Iraq is not Vietnam, but the perception is taking hold and that alone could turn into a nightmare during an election campaign for Bush.

The differences are stark — some 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam in a conflict that lasted more than a decade against a well-entrenched and organized opponent.

When numbers are tallied from yesterday's fighting, the toll in Iraq will look like this:

More than 620 Americans dead in a conflict that's only in its 13th month, with most deaths the result of insurgents' guerrilla-style tactics.

"I completely agree this is Bush's Vietnam," said Terry Anderson, an expert on the Vietnam era and a veteran of the war who is now a historian at Texas A&M University.

"Just like (former U.S. president) Lyndon Johnson, (President George W.) Bush has totally misjudged the culture in which they are fighting," Anderson said in an interview.

"Just like LBJ, we are trying to bring democracy to people who are not particularly interested in U.S.-style democracy and just like LBJ, we are rotating out battle-hardened people with new troops. And just like LBJ, Bush is not telling Americans they are going to be there for years."

One difference, Anderson says, is that public support for the war in Iraq has ebbed much more quickly. He says the American electorate began turning against the Vietnam war only two years into the conflict, souring on it forever following the infamous 1968 Tet Offensive.

"You had massive rallies against this war even before Bush went in," he says, "because the Vietnam experience jump-started opposition to this war."

Two polls released this week show support for Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq hovering between 40 and 45 per cent, with mounting calls in Washington for a reappraisal of the June 30 target for handover of political power to Iraqis.

Bush was being briefed on last night's fighting at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., and the White House released a brief statement of resolve in response to reports of the U.S. deaths.

Bush will meet with his most steadfast ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, here next Friday, when the deteriorating situation and the June 30 handover will be discussed.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday if military commanders seek more troops to try to stabilize a worsening situation, they will get the help, although he said the U.S. has an artificially high number — 135,000 — in the country now because of the troop rotation under way.

"You're starting to hear that `Q' word — quagmire," pollster John Zogby told the Reuters news agency yesterday. That word has become synonymous with the Vietnam war which drove Johnson from office.

"The public seems confused," Zogby said. "How do we get out? Do we send more troops? How do we cut casualties? It's all becoming a big problem for Bush."

Rumsfeld said troops are involved in "dangerous work ... we're going to have good days and bad days."

But last June, when the words `Vietnam' and `quagmire' were put to Rumsfeld at a Pentagon briefing, he was dismissive of the questioners, even rejecting a dictionary definition of quagmire read to him by a reporter.

Part of that reaction is what some believe is another analogy to the Vietnam era — disingenuous reports of progress and good news from political leaders.

"We have to tell the American people that we are in this for the long haul. We cannot say, as we did in Vietnam, that the light is at the end of the tunnel," Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said in an interview published yesterday in the Detroit Free Press.

Republicans railed against Kennedy, charging him with offering support to the enemy with Americans in peril and using American casualties for electoral advantage. But, as the most high-profile member of the Kerry team, Kennedy's words take on more weight with the distinct possibility he was speaking with tacit approval of the presumptive nominee.

Kerry would not make the Vietnam analogy yesterday, but said Bush had made a mistake in setting the arbitrary June 30 deadline for a political handoff in Iraq. (U.S. troops will remain, but there have been no official estimates of troop levels.)

"I have always said consistently that it is a mistake to set an arbitrary date and I hope that the date has nothing to do with the election here in the United States," Kerry said following a campaign stop in Cincinnati, Ohio. "I think they wanted to get the troops out and get the transfer out of the way as fast as possible... The test ought to be the stability of Iraq and not an arbitrary date."

Former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix also weighed in yesterday, telling a Danish newspaper the costs of the war in Iraq outweigh the benefits of removing Saddam Hussein.

"It's clearly the negative aspects that dominate," he Jyllands-Posten. "Bush declared war as a part of the U.S. war on terror, but instead of limiting the effects of terror, the war has laid the foundation for even more terror."

© Copyright 2004 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited


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