In his press conference on April 13, President Bush argued that comparing the quagmire in Iraq with Vietnam would only be a disservice to our troops.
However, if one reviews the list of mistakes that former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara claims we made in prosecuting the war in Vietnam, it is clear that Bush, his advisors and the American people can learn a great deal about how we got ourselves into the current situation in Iraq and how we can get out of it.
In his book "Retrospect," McNamara argues that he and his colleagues in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations made 11 mistakes in their handling of Vietnam.
The first, and presumably the most egregious, was to exaggerate the dangers our adversaries posed to us, something the Bush administration did in Iraq by exaggerating intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and its ties to Al Qaeda.
Bush's comments about how we are fighting the enemy in Baghdad so we will not have to fight it in Boston (or Brooklyn) are eerily reminiscent of President Johnson's comments about how we were fighting communists in Saigon so we would not have to fight them in San Francisco.
McNamara's next four mistakes concern our misjudgments about the political forces, nationalism and the history and culture of Vietnam as well as our ability to shape every nation in our own image.
It is now clear that our lack of knowledge about Iraq, coupled with the belief that America could shape Iraq in its own image, led the Bush administration to assume that we would be greeted as liberators, and that the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds would agree to set up a federal republic modeled after our own.
Another three of McNamara's criteria focus on the use of military power. He warns that high-technology military equipment is insufficient to win the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.
He also says Congress and the American people should be drawn into a full, frank debate on the pros and cons of large-scale military involvement, and that military action should be carried out only in conjunction with the real support of the international community.
Casting these lessons aside, the Bush administration failed to heed the advice of military professionals that our overwhelming conventional military power would not be enough to translate a military victory into a stable peace without the deployment of a large number of ground troops for a long time.
The administration failed to let Congress and the American people have a full, frank debate about the reasons for going to war or how long it would take or how much it would cost. Finally, though 30 nations lent their political support to the cause, the only significant practical support has come from the British; more than 90% of the casualties and the cost has been and will be continued to be borne by the United States.
Two of McNamara's mistakes concern the failure to explain to Americans when and why unanticipated events forced us off course and to make it clear to the people that in international affairs we may have to live in an imperfect, untidy world.
The Bush administration has still not explained why it was mistaken about the primary reasons for going to war. Even in the face of recent setbacks, it has yet to acknowledge that creating a stable Iraq will be a long, difficult and costly endeavor and cannot be accomplished by an artificial deadline like June 30. The president has not recognized that we may have to live with an Iraq that is not a Jeffersonian democracy.
The final mistake that we made in Vietnam was to not organize the executive branch to deal with the complex range of political and military issues that situation presented. If anything, the organizational failures are worse in Iraq. The State Department began planning for the Iraqi reconstruction about 18 months before the invasion, but when the Pentagon was unexpectedly given responsibility for reconstruction, its first viceroy, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, was not even allowed to consult with the State Department. Moreover, the invading troops were not given any guidance about what to do when the regime fell and even a year after the fall of Baghdad it remains unclear who is in charge of reconstruction and stabilization.
Not learning from our mistakes in Vietnam would be the real disservice to our troops and the country. In fact, learning from those mistakes might be the best, if not the only, way to understand how we got into the current mess in Iraq and how we might get out of it.
Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times