Our pugnacious president visited Vietnam last week and found the lesson for Iraq: "We'll succeed unless we quit." In this reading of history, the United States was defeated in Vietnam because of a failure of will. If George W. Bush has his way, this won't happen again. U.S. troops are staying in Iraq.
In his rigidity, Bush sounds eerily like President Lyndon Johnson, who could not acknowledge until too late his Vietnam policy was in shambles. But in the aftermath of the midterm elections, the calls for "phased withdrawal" - coming out of Congress, the Pentagon and the leaky Iraq Study Group - evoke errors of the Nixon years.
By 1968, the Tet offensive persuaded most Americans the United States could not win the war. Although Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops had sustained enormous casualties, they displayed an uncanny ability to withdraw and rebuild. Meanwhile, the army of South Vietnam demonstrated neither advanced weapons nor years of American "advice" would motivate them to stand up.
In the face of these realities, U.S. officials might have opted to cut losses and bring the troops home. Despite an electoral mandate for peace in the 1968 election, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger embarked on a gradual withdrawal, which took four years and allowed them to continue the attack. While they tarried, another 20,000 Americans were killed and 100,000 wounded, three Asian nations were devastated and some 1 million to 2 million people perished. For all the ink spilled on the subject of Vietnam, our society has never come to terms with this latter phase of the war. How could we allow so many people to die?
There is no single answer. For any nation, defeat is bitter. There was a belligerent commander-in-chief, a national security adviser whose need for power trumped common sense, a covey of bureaucrats too timid to tell us what they knew, an overblown military incapable of renouncing war, a Congress afraid to cut funds, a distractible public easily tricked.
Nobody was held responsible for the needless killings. Indeed Kissinger, that blundering national security adviser, remains a "realist" icon, whose insights are avidly sought in our present crisis. With Nixon, this was a man who left our soldiers dying in rice paddies and fighting suicidal battles on fortified hills while he pursued a fantasy of North Vietnamese surrender.
How odd that in our political culture, an official willing to sacrifice lives for a doomed project is deemed more "realistic" than one who objects. George McGovern, former senator and presidential candidate, is rarely asked for advice.
In the recent elections, the voters expressed their intense opposition to the Iraq war. But we can discern how those hopes are being betrayed. From the Pentagon, we're hearing about a "surge" in troop numbers before reductions can occur, and critics who style themselves as "realists" speak of a "phased withdrawal." But, as happened in Vietnam, this can translate into a prolonged military presence in which a futile battle continues. During three years of occupation, the situation in Iraq has continued to roll downhill. If 140,000 U.S. troops have failed to defeat the insurgents, halt sectarian violence or create an Iraqi military able to restore security, what reason is there to suppose some smaller number will achieve these ends?
Senate Democrats are moving with a vague plan to pull back some unspecified cohort of U.S. troops in four to six months. Their rationale, as articulated by new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, is the looming departure of that first increment will jolt the Iraqi government into effectiveness. But evidence suggests the Iraqi government is paralyzed by factions and has no greater ability to implement an American agenda than Americans. And this approach does not address the ways U.S. activities have antagonized the populace, deepened divisions and damaged the economy.
Sensible people recognize it will take time to remove U.S. troops and put in place mechanisms that might minimize violence. One impediment is determination in Washington to impose ideas on a foreign nation. This month, voters delivered their verdict on a stubborn president who cannot acknowledge this war is lost. But we need to beware of "realists" who will keep other people's children dying for a middle ground that cannot be found.
Carolyn Eisenberg, a professor of U.S. diplomatic history at Hofstra University, is author of "Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-49."
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