Experts say that US President George W. Bush may be misrepresenting history when he drew a parallel between the bloody wars Americans fought in East Asia to the current US "war on terror" to back his case for maintaining US troops in Iraq.
The US leader on Wednesday likened the "terrorists" who wage war in Iraq to the communist forces in Korea and Vietnam and imperial Japanese army, and warned that a hasty Iraq withdrawal would trigger a bloodbath like the one in Southeast Asia after the US defeat and retreat from Vietnam.
Bush spoke ahead of a key September assessment of military strategy, and amid mounting calls from a war-weary public to pull US troops out of Iraq. More than 3,700 US troops have died in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Bush especially argued that the rapid US pullout from Vietnam in 1973 was to blame for millions of deaths in that country and the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge communist regime in neighboring Cambodia.
A similar catastrophe may befall the Middle East if the 162,000 US troops pull out from the war in Iraq, he warned.
"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush told a group of cheering American war veterans in Kansas City, Missouri.
"Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields.'"
More than half a million US troops fought for South Vietnam against the communist North during the peak of the war, which left more than 58,000 of them dead before Washington's humiliating pullout.
"My understanding of the history of the Vietnam war and the lessons of that differs rather dramatically from Mr Bush's," Robert Hathaway, an Asian expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told AFP.
Hathaway said that despite the eight-year US military involvement and its heavy casualties in Vietnam, Washington was still unable to create popular support in the south for a government that was widely considered to be corrupt and unpopular.
South Vietnam collapsed in 1975 not because American forces had withdrawn, but because the South Vietnamese and their army simply did not care enough about their government to fight in its defense, he said. The North Vietnamese simply walked almost unopposed into Saigon.
"So one of the lessons, at least for me, is the American tragedy in Vietnam is that military force by an outside power -- a power that many people in Vietnam viewed as an occupying force -- was not sufficient to create the political conditions for genuinely popular government in South Vietnam nor the political will to fight for that government," Hathaway said.
"Another lesson of Vietnam is that combination of great power and good intentions is not necessarily sufficient for America to impose its will on others," he added.
Retired US Brigadier General John Johns, an expert on counter-insurgency who served in Vietnam, said Bush was "cherry-picking" history to support his case for staying the course in Iraq.
"What I learned in Vietnam is that US forces could not conduct a counterinsurgency operation. The longer we stay there, the worse it's going to get," he said.
Steven Simon of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, echoed the comments.
Bush "emphasized the violence in the wake of American withdrawal from Vietnam. But this happened because the United States left too late, not too early," he said.
"It was the expansion of the war that opened the door to Pol Pot and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. The longer you stay the worse it gets," he said.
About 1.7 million Cambodians died during the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge's reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.
Historian Robert Dallek, who had compared the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, accused Bush of twisting history.
"We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn't work our will," he told the Los Angeles Times.
"What is Bush suggesting? That we didn't fight hard enough, stay long enough? That's nonsense. It's a distortion," he continued.
"We've been in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II," he said. The disaster in Iraq "is the consequence of going in, not getting out," he added.
Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse