Oh yes. You thought the Bush administration was fresh out of ideas? You thought that with Karl Rove leaving, the administration that brought us the war in Iraq and "Mission Accomplished" had no more tricks up its sleeve?
On Wednesday, speaking before a Veterans of Foreign Wars audience, President Bush did something he had previously avoided: He compared the Iraq war with the Vietnam War, agreeing that Vietnam does hold lessons for U.S. policy in Iraq.
Can't argue with that. For most Americans, the lessons of Vietnam were reasonably clear before we invaded Iraq and have been painfully reinforced by the ongoing disaster there:
Don't fight needless wars; don't go blundering around in countries where you don't know the language, history or culture; don't underestimate the power of nationalism, ethnicity and religion to bind together -- or tear apart -- people whose interests otherwise seem to diverge or converge; and, most of all, don't imagine that military force can solve fundamentally political problems.
But the president, who has his own very special set of history books, drew the public's attention to some entirely different lessons from Vietnam. To Bush, the "unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens."
Right! To Bush, the tragedy of the Vietnam War is that we didn't let it drag on for another decade or so.
Some might quibble with Bush's understanding of historical causation. Yes, many innocent civilians suffered in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam -- but it's more accurate to attribute their suffering to the prolongation of the war itself, rather than to the U.S. withdrawal as such.
It's hard to be precise (as is the case in Iraq today, no one kept careful count of Vietnamese civilian casualties, and all sides in the conflict had an incentive to fudge the true figures), but somewhere between 1 million and 4 million civilians died as the war needlessly dragged on, many killed by U.S. weapons. Millions more were displaced.
But those are details.
Bush went on to assert that "another price to our withdrawal from Vietnam" was the rise of "the enemy we face in today's struggle, those who came to our soil and killed thousands of citizens" on 9/11.
Yup -- it's so obvious! The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam caused the rise of Al Qaeda -- and, by extension, "our withdrawal from Vietnam" ultimately turned Iraq into "the central front" in "the war on terror."
Once you're in the right frame of mind -- the Right frame of mind, I should say -- the logic becomes blindingly clear:
Step 1: In 1975, the Vietnam War ended and young Osama bin Laden, age 18, saw that the mighty U.S. could be brought low and that an unhappy citizenry could push a democratically elected government to end an unpopular war.
Step 2: Hmm. This step is a little tougher. Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Then Bin Laden, bearing the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam constantly in mind, um . . . somehow tricked us into going to war in Iraq . . . where Al Qaeda had no presence prior to the U.S. invasion . . . because he knew we'd make a mess of things . . . and that Al Qaeda could move in while we were bogged down fighting insurgents . . . and bog us down even more?
Something like that.
And from there, we easily reach Step 3: We are stuck in a quagmire in Iraq, just as in Vietnam! Millions of civilians are paying the price for U.S. over-reaching -- just as in Vietnam! Our credibility is suffering -- just as in Vietnam! The American public has lost faith in the war -- just as in Vietnam! Bin Laden is happy to see us brought low -- just as in Vietnam! If we leave, more bad things may happen, and Bin Laden will also be happy -- just as in Vietnam!
Step 4. Therefore, as the president explained Wednesday, we must stay in Iraq forever, until every last terrorist or every last Iraqi civilian is dead, whichever comes first.
But Bush forgot to mention Step 5, which follows logically from Steps 1 to 4.
How can we show the innocent civilians of Southeast Asia that we haven't forgotten them and simultaneously send a message of resolve to the Iraqi people? How can we show Al Qaeda once and for all that the U.S. is not to be trifled with?
It's time for Step 5:
Because no matter what they say -- it's never too late to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Rosa Brooks is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and the author of numerous articles on international law, human rights, the law of war, and a book, "Can Might Make Rights? Building the Rule of Law After Military Interventions". She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 Los Angeles Times