No matter how much the White House dreads it, the Bush administration can’t seem to escape the analogy of Iraq as another Vietnam.
The latest echo of that other unpopular war four decades past came from Vice President Dick Cheney, who said Wednesday during a visit to Japan that the United States wants to finish its mission in Iraq and have its troops “return with honor.”
Cheney’s words underscored a recent shift in President Bush’s stated justification for staying in Iraq — not so much for the once-vaunted goal of military victory but to avert a nightmare scenario they say would be unleashed should the United States leave.
Bush’s increasing emphasis on the threat to U.S. credibility from any retreat from Iraq evokes to some extent the face-saving arguments put forth by the Johnson and Nixon administrations during the Vietnam war. Nixon, in particular, repeatedly pledged to achieve “peace with honor.”
Democrats now controlling Congress are deeply skeptical, insisting that Bush’s decision last month to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq masks a failed policy that has proved incapable of preventing a slide into sectarian civil war.
The Vietnam comparison is never far away, as evidenced in an exchange between Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Sunday.
Reid: “This war is a serious situation. It involves the worst foreign policy mistake in the history of this country ... We need to find a way to dig out of it.”
Blitzer: “So maybe I misheard you, but you are saying this is the worst foreign policy blunder in American history?”
Reid: “That’s what I said.
Blitzer: “Worse than Vietnam?
The administration contends there are few parallels. Today’s war in Iraq is fought by an all-volunteer army, the U.S. body count is much lower and there is nothing like the anti-war protests that caught fire in the 1960s.
But more and more Americans see Iraq as the kind of quagmire that Vietnam became for an earlier generation.
And Britain’s announcement Wednesday it would withdraw almost a quarter of its troops in coming months will only add to Americans’ sense of going it alone in Iraq, as they felt in Vietnam when few Western allies joined it.
The Iraq war has pushed Bush’s approval ratings into the low 30-percent range, comparable to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon during the Vietnam war, and polls show a majority of the U.S. public thinks it was a mistake to go into Iraq in the first place.
Compounding Bush’s troubles, the new Democratic-led Congress now confronting him over his Iraq policy appears to be taking a page from their Vietnam-era predecessors.
After the House last week rebuked Bush for his troop buildup, Democratic lawmakers threatened to seek restrictions on future funding in Iraq and to rescind congressional approval that helped lay the groundwork for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Such a challenge is not without precedent. Amid mass protest during the Vietnam War, Congress rescinded the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that Johnson used to justify escalation in Southeast Asia. As Nixon scaled back forces, Congress in 1973 cut off funding for “offensive” operations in Vietnam.
It is Cheney, a White House aide under Nixon, who argued within the administration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks that the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal had wrongly eroded the president’s powers and who used the “war on terrorism” to strengthen them.
He has been a leading voice pressing a new emphasis on the possible consequences of any Iraq withdrawal, a blow to U.S. prestige and other repercussions that critics have called a revival of the old “domino theory.”
But instead of Asia falling to communism, the administration warns Iraq could become the first Arab state to fall to Islamic terrorism, giving al-Qaida a base from which to attack U.S. allies and interests.
“We know that if we leave Iraq before the mission is completed, the enemy is going to come after us,” Cheney said on Wednesday. “We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and we want to return with honor.”