WASHINGTON -- The defense secretary who served under President Richard M. Nixon during the Vietnam War is warning that the United States is repeating in Iraq some of the mistakes that led to public disillusionment and ultimate defeat in Vietnam, including the impression that there is no clear goal for victory or a detailed, well-described plan to bring US troops home.
Melvin R. Laird, who led the Defense Department in the final years of the Vietnam War, writes in the next edition of Foreign Affairs magazine that most Americans want to see a clearly defined exit strategy and will not tolerate an open-ended military commitment in Iraq -- something that he said would make the fledgling Iraqi government even more dependent on US forces and hinder its independence.
In the article, which breaks more than three decades of silence about his tenure during Vietnam, the 83-year-old Laird compares on-the-job lessons he learned from the US experience in Southeast Asia with the ongoing US presence in Iraq and calls on President Bush to begin a phased withdrawal of some troops on a one-for-one plan: When one newly trained Iraqi soldier is ready to fight, one US soldier heads home. Bush, Laird writes, must also hold top administration officials accountable for abuses of detainees in American custody to restore US prestige in the region.
''The war in Iraq is not 'another Vietnam.' But it could become one if we continue to use Vietnam as a sound bite while ignoring its true lessons," writes Laird, a former nine-term Republican congressman from Wisconsin who served as Nixon's secretary of defense from 1969 to 1973. ''The United States should not let too many more weeks pass before it shows its confidence in the training of the Iraqi armed forces by withdrawing a few thousand US troops from the country. We owe it to the restive people back home to let them know there is an exit strategy, and, more important, we owe it to the Iraqi people."
He adds, ''Our presence is what feeds the insurgency, and our gradual withdrawal would feed the confidence and the ability of average Iraqis to stand up to the insurgency."
Nixon recruited Laird from Congress to help find a way to end the war, which had dragged on for nearly a decade and claimed tens of thousands of US casualties. The jungle war still raged throughout his four-year tenure, but Laird managed the withdrawal of hundreds of thousands of US troops from Southeast Asia. He is also widely credited for initiating the transition from a conscript military to a professional, all-volunteer force and retooling the Army, which had been devastated by Vietnam combat deaths and widespread drug abuse.
Writing in the November issue of Foreign Affairs, a national journal about foreign policy published by the Council on Foreign Affairs, Laird argues that in Vietnam the United States failed to pressure its allies in South Vietnam to take on a greater role in battling the communists in the North: ''It was wrong to Americanize the war [in Vietnam] from the beginning, and by that point the patience of the American people had run out. The Iraq war should have been focused on Iraqization even before the first shot was fired."
Political comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam have been largely avoided because of the obvious political, geographical, and historical differences -- and the fear of reopening old wounds. Vietnam fueled social division and upheaval in the United States, stirring emotions that are still raw more than a generation later; last year, when Senator Edward M. Kennedy called Iraq ''George Bush's Vietnam," outraged critics accused the Massachusetts Democrat of using the bitter war for his own political gain.
But as the bloody battle with Iraqi insurgents stretches into its third year while public support plummets and American and Iraqi casualties continue to climb, military specialists and historians are increasingly noting the similarities between the wars. Laird writes that the Vietnam analogy is being used to define Iraq as an unwinnable war but that the United States could have met its goals in Southeast Asia -- and can meet them in Iraq -- with the right plan.
In his view, the Vietnam War and the deployment of US troops to Iraq were both based on faulty assumptions; in Vietnam, the United States misinterpreted the motives of Communist leader Ho Chi Minh and underestimated the Viet Cong, while the Iraq war began with the belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. ''Both the Vietnam War and the Iraq war were launched based on intelligence failures and possibly outright deception," Laird writes.
The similarities continue, according to the article: As in Vietnam, US troops were sent to war in Iraq with little depth of understanding about the history, culture, and ethnic divides of the nation in which they were fighting. In Vietnam, troops were fighting a guerrilla war where it's nearly impossible to tell friend from foe, much like in Iraq. Like the Viet Cong, Iraqi insurgents have infiltrated the government and security forces, and the president is losing credibility with the people over the war, much like Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson, his predecessor.
Indeed, public relations failures are the target of some of Laird's bluntest criticism of Bush.
''His West Texas cowboy approach -- shoot first and answer questions later or do the job first and let the results speak for themselves -- is not working," he writes. ''When troops are dying, the commander in chief cannot be coy, vague, or secretive. We learned that in Vietnam, too."
Laird, who says he kept silent until now ''because I never believed the old guard should meddle in the business of new administrations," believes America has no choice but to succeed in Iraq.
''Our troops are not fighting there only to preserve the right of Iraqis to vote," he wrote. ''They are fighting to preserve modern culture, Western democracy, the global economy, and all else that is threatened by the spread of barbarism in the name of religion."
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