I was surprised that President Bush raised our history in Vietnam as a lesson applicable to America’s occupation of Iraq. For the next couple of days the print and television media will pick apart the President’s misrepresentations of history, and that should help reinforce the notion that this President cannot be trusted to tell the truth. I find it hard to believe the White House did not realize this would occur or that it would detract from the President’s intended message.
David Gergen put his finger on the greater blunder of drawing the Vietnam parallel: “If you learned so much from history, Mr. President, how did you get us involved in another quagmire?” Vietnam reminds Americans of the quagmire, a lost war and 58,000 dead Americans.
But I think I understand why they did this. By declaring it was a mistake for the US to withdraw combat forces from South Vietnam instead of leaving them to defeat the communists — the neocon’s favorite delusion — Bush is essentially arguing that it was a mistake for Henry Kissinger to negotiate a peace treaty with the North Vietnamese, and a mistake for Nixon to remove US combat forces from the South, with a “decent interval” between their removal following the agreement and the predicted North Vietnamese takeover of the South.
Whatever one thinks of the stunning cynicism and immorality of the Nixon/Kissinger strategy, the American people at least understood and I suspect strongly approved of an agreement that allowed America to extract itself from a terrible and bloody quagmire that had killed over 58,000 US troops and millions of Vietnamese. I’m not sure Americans cared what happened next; they just wanted out, and the agreement got them out, slowly, late, after too many deaths, but eventually out. Looking back, I doubt there are many Americans who think we should have followed the advice Bush is now offering; do they really believe we should have heeded the warnings of dire consequences of withdrawal from a country that had no real strategic interests for the US and is now a friendly trading partner?
I also think most Americans believe the Vietnam war was a huge mistake, one not worth the terrible costs in lives and treasure, just as they’ve come to believe the same thing about Iraq. But Bush is arguing that America should have continued to waste lives and treasure in Vietnam indefinitely, and he’s making that argument about Vietnam because he wants to make the same argument about Iraq. I think the White House has badly miscalculated on this; the America people have largely made up their minds.
So let the President make the argument — with a little framing help from Democrats — that we should remain bogged down in the Iraq quagmire, indefinitely, with no plan for leaving, ever. Let the voters think about that prospect in the context of the fact that whatever General Petraeus has accomplished in fighting whoever he now claims is the “enemy,” there hasn’t been the slightest progress towards political accommodation at the national level, so America will continue to break its army and lose 100 or so US soldiers every month forever, with no expectation the political situation will ever improve. And remind them our troops are no longer fighting for democracy, just as we gave up on democracy for the Vietnamese. The President cannot “win the war” with this approach, and he certainly can’t win over the American voters. It is a losing strategy in every way.
In dragging out the neocon’s favorite myth that a premature withdrawal from Vietnam is the source of our foreign policy failures, the President is revealing his and the neocon’s dirtiest secret: that they are nothing more than a bunch of delusional warmongers who keep invading non-threatening countries and are willing to kill other people’s children by the thousands merely to prove that they really are manly men, even though they all had “other priorities” that kept them from fighting when it was their turn.
While Congressional Republicans contemplate taking that platform into the 2008 elections, it would be helpful if the Democratic leadership would restrain themselves and not detract from the President’s self-destructive message. I don’t see how it’s helpful for Senator Clinton, or her stalking horse, Carl Levin, to reinforce the absurd notion that conditions in Iraq would significantly improve in ways that would facilitate a US withdrawal from the Iraq quagmire if only Nouri al-Maliki were replaced. The Democrats should instead argue that Bush wants to leave US troops fighting in a quagmire forever, and it doesn’t matter who the Iraqis pick as the Prime Minister because the central government is, by design, constitutionally too weak to function effectively in a country that is radically split between sectarian and other groups and their respective militias.
Putting pressure on al Maliki to be replaced won’t make the problem of withdrawing US forces any easier for the next President to solve. The central government hunkered down in the Green Zone is increasingly irrelevant, with provinces and major cities becoming their own regional bastions for tribal warlords and contending militias. A new prime minister is not likely to change this, so Democrats should stop asking for something that helps neither Iraq nor the next US President but which would give the Democrats ownership of a strategy that doesn’t help.
There is a final, compelling reason for Democrats to stop focusing on al Maliki. The reason the US occupation of Iraq is proving impossible to end is not because al Maliki is a weak or ineffective Prime Minister but because George Bush and Dick Cheney have created a disastrous, warmongering Administration that has a stranglehold on the entire military and national security structure and cowed enough Democrats into allowing Bush/Cheney to do as they please. If the Democrats want to rid America of dangerous and incompetent executives whose decisions are keeping us bogged down in the Iraq quagmire while endangering US security and the safety of US forces, they should focus on cleaning out the White House, because that’s the source of all the problems we’re having.
Update: Another perspective worth reading from JayAckroyd at TPM.