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
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.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times