The recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, were designed to provide President Bush a different way of thinking about the war in Iraq and a means to exit Iraq in an orderly manner. In doing so, the Baker-Hamilton report is similar to the advice given to President Johnson in March 1968 by the so-called Wise Men who urged an end to escalation, negotiations and new approaches to the Vietnam War.
From all accounts, Bush has dismissed the Iraq Study Group's ideas. In part, this stems from his conviction that the only lesson of the Vietnam War to be learned is that the U.S. left too early. When asked whether parallels exist between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War, the president bluntly said no.
Yet, the Baker-Hamilton report's findings that the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating" echoes the Wise Men's advice to Johnson and makes clear there is much to be learned about the current problems the U.S. faces in Iraq and the Vietnam War.
The Tet Offensive is a good place to start. Tet was a nationwide attack against the cities of South Vietnam on Jan. 30, 1968, that caught U.S. officials by surprise. Prior to and immediately after Tet, the Johnson administration insisted it would stay the course in Vietnam, that the war was being won, progress was being made and that the enemy's only hope was the loss of will by Americans to see the war through to the end.
Contrary to the myths that surround Tet, public approval did not suddenly erode in the wake of the attacks due to the media's coverage of the battles. Support, similar to the war in Iraq, was high in 1965 and gradually declined over the next two years to where, prior to Tet, a plurality saw the war as a mistake.
If it was not a dramatic change in public opinion due to Tet that changed the course of the war, then what did lead to Johnson's decision to cap escalation, halt the bombing of the North and announce he would not seek re-election?
The carnage of the Tet Offensive, combined with declining public support, opened up political space for different and dissenting views to be heard. Also similar, officials turned to former policymakers -- the so-called Wise Men under Johnson and the current Iraq Study Group -- for fresh examinations of policy.
What came out of the post-Tet meetings was analysis from various parts of the government that disproved the optimistic claims of senior officials. No amount of escalation, the new Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford told Johnson, would bring about the defeat of the opposition forces.
The post-Tet discussions also highlighted other problems that have close parallels in Iraq today. In both wars, the difficulty of fighting indigenous forces has been a central problem. In neither Vietnam nor Iraq did U.S. officials know much about the history, culture and politics of the countries to which they chose to send forces. It was assumed that the United States would be welcomed, the fighting would be quick and the results would provide a model for other nations to follow.
Yet the reality of the wars were as different as they were unexpected. Most notable is the difficulty soldiers have in telling friend from foe. Moreover, enemy forces in Iraq control the pace of the fighting, initiating most encounters and cutting their losses when necessary, using a strategy similar to that used by the Vietnamese to increase the costs of the fighting on the United States.
Most important, despite written constitutions and elections, the Iraqi and South Vietnamese governments lack(ed) legitimacy, making nation building impossible.
The overall point of the Baker-Hamilton report is similar to that given to Lyndon Johnson by the Wise Men. Iraq is unwinnable. The Iraqi forces cannot drive the U.S. out of their country. But they do not have to -- it is once again a war of attrition where our enemy just has to survive and wait until support for the war drops so low that the U.S. is forced to leave.
Bush's rejection of the ISG's ideas stems from his unwillingness to accept that his policy has failed. If the current fighting, along with the congressional elections, does not bring about a true strategic reassessment and a policy distinction being made between the war in Iraq and the battle against terrorism, we might be in for a long, drawn out withdrawal, similar to the Nixon years in Vietnam, that just delays the inevitable.
David F. Schmitz is the Robert Allen Skotheim Chair of History at Whitman College.
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