Every time I hear President Bush railing against those who would “cut and run” in Iraq instead of pursuing “victory,” as he does almost daily, I think back to similar claims being made for the Vietnam debacle when I reported from Saigon in the mid-’60s. Back then, the U.S. troop presence was lower and casualties fewer than now in Iraq, but the carnage, on all sides, would escalate for the next decade, as we waited miserably for the corner to be turned.
Then, as now, calls for setting a timetable for an orderly withdrawal were rejected as emboldening our enemy to attack America. Instead of a dignified withdrawal, we plunged ever deeper into the quagmire, leaving 59,000 U.S. troops and 3.4 million Indochinese dead as tribute to our stupidity. Finally, there was nothing to do but “cut and run” in the most ignominious fashion. With our U.S. personnel being lifted by helicopter from roofs near our embassy, it seemed like a low point for U.S. influence, and there were dire predictions of communism’s global dominance—just as there is today for the “Islamo-fascist” bogeyman the president has seized upon.
Those predictions, however, proved dead wrong. Communism did not advance as a worldwide force after our defeat in Vietnam. On the contrary, a victorious communist-run Vietnam soon went to war with the China-backed communists of Cambodia—overthrowing Pol Pot’s evil Khmer Rouge—and with communist China itself, in a bloody border war.
Today communist Vietnam is still battling communist China—but now it is for shelf space in Wal-Mart and Costco. The United States, meanwhile, spending itself silly under the haplessly irresponsible President Bush, is now dependent on China both to carry its debt and contain communist North Korea’s nuclear threat.
So why accept the president’s shrill insistence that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster? Surely our departure would compel Iraq’s neighbors in Iran, Syria and Jordan to get serious about quelling the civil war that they have abetted and which, in the absence of the U.S. occupation, would threaten to breach Iraq’s borders. Why not assume, as turned out to be the case with Vietnam, that the Iraqis are best qualified to make their own history?
The astounding arrogance that underwrites Bush’s smug determination to keep killing and maiming tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people is no different than that of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Both knew the war was a failure but determined to “stay the course” for a decade out of a misguided belief in protecting an image of American infallibility that was paired with shameful political motives.
Now, as in Vietnam, our arrogance has created disaster in Iraq. Our soldiers continue to kill and die, at enormous cost to the U.S. taxpayers and in international influence and moral standing, but the cause is already lost, doomed by the ignorance, lies and bad faith that launched it.
Astonishingly, considering our history and the stakes, our leaders show not the slightest interest in understanding the fierce nationalism and deep religious divisions that have marked the Mideast since long before the United States existed as a nation. And thus we have repeated the decisive folly of Vietnam, where our “experts” ignored a thousand-year history of Chinese occupation in assuming that the fierce nationalist Ho Chi Minh was a puppet of masters in Red Beijing.
This time, we are led by a false warrior who insists on playing the simpleton, ignoring his prestigious education at Andover and Yale in favor of what he presumes are the prejudices of Middle America. Or is this giving Bush, the son of a president, too much credit? After all, we know from the various insider memoirs that Bush was unaware that Islam is roughly divided into two rival sects, Sunni and Shiite, while just last week he bizarrely announced that our Iraq policy had never been “stay the course”—as if he was unaware of the invention of video-recording equipment that had captured him saying just that countless times.
Whatever you call it, his approach is a sham and a disaster. It is long past time to let pragmatic realpolitik find a patchwork solution that the region and Iraqis can accept, peacefully. That is the expected advice from Bush family consigliere and troubleshooter James Baker and his Iraq Study Group, which is to report soon after the election. Truly frightening on this Day of the Dead, though, is that Bush probably won’t listen to reason, unless the voters first soundly repudiate him in next week’s election.
Robert Scheer is an American journalist who writes a nationally syndicated op-ed column for the San Francisco Chronicle from a left-wing perspective. He teaches communications as a professor at the University of Southern California and edits the online magazine Truthdig.
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