WASHINGTON - Not quite 38 years ago, enmeshed in a drawn-out war whose ultimate outcome was deeply in doubt, Lyndon B. Johnson met on Guam with the fractious generals who were contending for leadership of South Vietnam and told them: "My birthday is in late August. The greatest birthday present you could give me is a national election."
George W. Bush's birthday is in early July, but his broad goals for the Iraqi elections on Sunday are much the same as the Johnson administration's in 1967: to confer political legitimacy and credibility on a government that Iraqis themselves will be willing and able to fight to defend, and that American and world public opinion will agree to help nurture.
"I think one lesson is that there be a clear objective that everybody understands," Mr. Bush said in an interview with The New York Times this week, reflecting on the relevance of Vietnam today. "A free, democratic Iraq, an ally in the war on terror, with an Iraqi army, all parts of it - Iraqi forces, army, national guard, border guard, police force - able to defend itself. Secondly, that people understand the connection between that goal and our future."
We thought in those early days in Vietnam that we were winning.
We thought the skill and courage of our troops was enough. We thought that victory on the battlefield would lead to victory in war and peace and democracy for the people of Vietnam. In the name of a misguided cause, we continued in a war too long. We failed to comprehend the events around us. We did not understand that our very presence was creating new enemies and defeating the very goals we set out to achieve.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts
But the difficulties of achieving such objectives, then and now, have led a range of military experts, historians and politicians to consider the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq to warn of potential pitfalls ahead. Nearly two years after the American invasion of Iraq, such comparisons are no longer dismissed in mainstream political discourse as facile and flawed, but are instead bubbling to the top.
"We thought in those early days in Vietnam that we were winning," Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, one of this war's most vocal opponents, warned in a speech here on Thursday. "We thought the skill and courage of our troops was enough. We thought that victory on the battlefield would lead to victory in war and peace and democracy for the people of Vietnam. In the name of a misguided cause, we continued in a war too long. We failed to comprehend the events around us. We did not understand that our very presence was creating new enemies and defeating the very goals we set out to achieve."
Mr. Kennedy said that there would be "costs to staying and costs to leaving" Iraq, but that at least 12,000 American troops should leave immediately to signal the United States has a clear exit strategy. That is a version of the famous advice that Senator George Aiken, a Vermont Republican, gave Johnson: declare victory in Vietnam, then leave.
Prof. Jeffrey Record, a professor of strategy at the Air Force's Air War College in Alabama, said he seldom provoked controversy when he warned his audiences of military commanders about the potential parallels between Vietnam and Iraq.
"There was a time when if you mentioned Iraq and Vietnam in the same breath, you were automatically considered antiwar and very pessimistic about our prospects there," he said. "And of course those arguments were used in the beginning by people who opposed the war. But all the more reason to take a sound and hopefully unbiased look at what comparisons there are and are not."
He is quick to point out that finding similarities is far from saying the ending will be the same. "The issue of creating a legitimate government in Iraq, and the domestic political sustainability of our policy in Iraq, are the two major areas of interface with our experience in Vietnam, where we failed," Professor Record said. "That doesn't mean we're necessarily doomed to failure."
But, he added, "the challenge of Vietnamization" - the Nixon administration's policy, begun in 1969, of phasing out American forces and turning war responsibilities over to the South Vietnamese, "is akin to Iraqicization." In Vietnam, unlike in Iraq, the United States "already had in place a rather large South Vietnamese army and security force" on which it could rely, instead of having to create one from scratch.
Stanley Karnow, who covered the Vietnam War and diplomacy as a journalist and wrote the exhaustive "Vietnam: A History," said, "You've got to be very careful about drawing analogies." But, noting recent polls that show overwhelming public concern that Mr. Bush has no clear plan for getting out of Iraq and deep skepticism that elections there will reduce the violence, Mr. Karnow added: "You are beginning to see the public turning off on Iraq. The same was true in Vietnam."
Anthony Lake, who as a young Foreign Service officer was vice consul in Hue and went on to serve as national security adviser under Bill Clinton, now teaches a graduate course at Georgetown University on Vietnam. His students' final assignment this year is to assess the parallels and dissimilarities between Iraq and Vietnam. Perhaps the most troubling comparison, in his view, is the lack of an achievable political goal.
"In Iraq, at the beginning, there was simply an assumption that in terms of a political goal, there would be immaculate democracy and rose petals," Mr. Lake said. Now, he said, that the administration is "setting as a goal is enough training and enough combat support so that there will be enough stability that we can leave. The paradox is that as long as we're there, we're fueling the very insurgency, or the very conflict which we say has to end before we can depart."
Michael Rubin, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who recently returned from Iraq, published an op-ed piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Friday in which he noted that Arab television in Baghdad routinely showed archival footage of American diplomats fleeing Saigon, as if to suggest that whatever Mr. Bush may say about America's staying power, "it is weak."
It is easy enough to catalogue all the important differences - some of them obvious, others less so - between Vietnam and Iraq. For one thing, American involvement in Vietnam began with more public support and greater agreement among the military, the government, the media and academia that fighting communism in Southeast Asia was a worthy goal. Precisely because of the Vietnam experience, the current war in Iraq began in spite of considerable domestic doubt about its wisdom and necessity.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two wars is that for more than two years in Vietnam, the Johnson administration steadily escalated American involvement, while from the beginning, the Bush administration has been intent on limiting the number of American troops in Iraq. Only a handful of voices in Congress have called for increasing the troop presence, and there is virtually no public support for doing so.
On Friday, Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who served in Vietnam, recalled in a speech here how J. William Fulbright, then chairman of the foreign relations committee, was criticized almost 40 years ago for holding hearings on Vietnam while a president of his own party was in power. He said Fulbright explained that he had done so in hopes of building a true consensus in the long run even at the risk of dispelling a false one in the short run.
"Today, we must not be party to a false consensus in Iraq or any foreign policy issue," Mr. Hagel said, in urging an exit strategy that relies on increased training for Iraqi troops and stepped up diplomacy and burden-sharing. "Hopefully Iraq will someday be a democratic example in the Middle East. But Iraq could also become a failed state. We cannot let this happen."
There are, of course, a handful of people in central policy positions now who played important roles in the Vietnam era, and presumably the applicable lessons are not lost on them.
In 1973, John D. Negroponte, now Mr. Bush's ambassador to Baghdad, was Henry A. Kissinger's special assistant on Vietnam. Mr. Negroponte protested that the peace agreement that allowed North Vietnamese forces to remain in the South after the American withdrawal would leave the situation "basically unresolved," Mr. Karnow recounts in his book. But Mr. Kissinger was unmoved, asking: "What do you want us to do? Stay there forever?"
In Iraq this week, the top American commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., offered a similar view. "We cannot stay here forever in the numbers that we are here now; I firmly believe that," he told reporters. "The Iraqis have to take ownership of this."
While Mr. Bush has taken pains not to spell out any timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, American military commanders have said that after the elections on Sunday, their principal mission will become the training of Iraqi forces. The prevailing view among even conservatives who supported the war from the start is that such a handover must begin.
"It's rough in a place like Iraq, where you can always point to all the problems and weaknesses that the Iraqi security forces have," said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who strongly supported the Iraq invasion. "They're never going to be as good as the Marines or the 101st Airborne, so it's always going to be easy to say, 'We don't trust these guys.' But we're going to have to try."
He added: "What was disastrous in Vietnam is that we were suffering a lot of casualties with no obvious gain. We're not quite in that situation in Iraq, but you can certainly see a building sense of frustration about whether we're making progress."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005