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The Vietnam Folly Calls Out to Us as War Fever Burns
Published on Tuesday, August 27, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times
The Vietnam Folly Calls Out to Us as War Fever Burns
by Stanley Kutler

For more than 30 years, we have debated the meaning, lessons and significance of the Vietnam War. The chords of memory still resonate: the arrogance of power; the world's policeman; the dangers of nation-building.

Can those lessons help in understanding our current situation? Or will they be relegated to an ash can of history by a Bush administration bent on erasing such issues from public consciousness or awareness?

Tom DeLay, the president's leader in the House of Representatives, recently remarked that if George W. Bush had been president in the 1960s, we would have won in Vietnam. Learn nothing; forget everything.

The lessons of the past are problematic, sometimes distorted for partisan gain, but they can provide sober enlightenment. They will not go away, however the president might wish. He should remember the Vietnam War's painful, clear lessons on the limits of our power, limits to our ability to impose our will on others, and the hazards of unilateralism and lack of support in the international community. He should remember his father's determination to build a grand coalition for the Persian Gulf War.

Bush II is considering the necessity of an invasion of Iraq and the toppling of its regime. Where is the debate? Absent any real dissent, we have a lethal combination of inertia, intimidation and political impotence, all combining to cast an illusion of overwhelming consensus.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has embraced that consensus with his customary fervor. Biden apparently believes that he fulfills the constitutional function of advise and consent by merely being the cheerleader for the administration's rising chorus demanding war with Iraq. When and how are the only questions in his repertoire.

In this march toward war, Bush is antagonizing potential allies such as Iran. The Bushes have a problem--or a grudge--with Iraq, to be sure, but why publicly humiliate and then outrage the other sometime-antagonists when all the available evidence indicates that they have been moving toward a rapprochement with the rest of the world, including the United States? Or does the president curiously interpret his election as a mandate to repudiate all of Bill Clinton's initiatives, such as the progress made in the last year of Clinton's administration in reducing differences and tensions between Washington and Tehran?

Some months ago, President Bush, for yet unfathomable reasons, lumped Iran with Iraq and North Korea as an axis of evil. Since Sept. 11, the administration has feasted on World War II analogies and metaphors to advance its causes. But analogies have built-in limitations. Iraq, Iran and North Korea are not Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan--not even close. Two of the countries barely can feed themselves; the third is racked by intense internal turmoil.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's government recently delivered 16 Al Qaeda suspects to the Saudi government. In remarks in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, Khatami hinted at Iran's still- secret role in ending Taliban rule. Finally, he specifically pointed to the Clinton administration's negotiations and efforts to reduce tensions between the U.S. and Iran and resume normal relations--a far cry from the White House dubbing the Iranians as members of an axis of evil. Why would the Bush administration cavalierly undercut Khatami, who, with a large part of his nation, has struggled to end the unbridled power of the mullahs?

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was indifferent to Khatami's visit to Kabul and Iran's concern for its borderlands. Moreover, he contemptuously and flippantly dismissed the Iranian transfer of Al Qaeda suspects, saying "they, for whatever reason, have turned over some people to other countries. But they've not turned any to us."

The president's "wanted dead or alive" dictum simply does not have the carpet of jurisdiction he and Rumsfeld would like, but Bush might remember that Iran's enmity toward Iraq long antedates and outweighs ours. We could use this to our advantage.

The history lessons from Vietnam and other successes and failures in foreign policy are relevant to the moment. Where is the debate?

History is worth remembering; after all, it is our ideas and memories that we are supposed to be defending.

Stanley I. Kutler is the author of "The Wars of Watergate" (W.W. Norton, 1992).

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times


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