Comes the question, raised by Sen. Chuck Hagel: Is Iraq "another Vietnam"? By that I assume he means a brutal, costly and pointless war that tears America -- and the presidency of a Texan who loves his ranch -- to pieces. The answer to the Hagelian question: Iraq is Vietnam, but only sort of, and more so over there than over here. Let's review.
Jack Valenti, a Washington wise man who began his career literally at Lyndon B. Johnson’s side as he became president, told me the other day that he sees plenty of disturbing parallels to Vietnam now. Chief among them: the nature of the enemy and the battlefield.
As in 'Nam, he said, it's often impossible to know precisely who the enemy is, let alone where he is. Friends by day are enemies at night. Clear frontlines are erased; the war is all around, all the time. The local forces trained by the U.S. are weak and unreliable, and the enemy is fearless, with little regard for his own life, let alone that of his foe.
On a trip to Vietnam once, I saw the Cu Chi Tunnels west of Saigon. Vietcong lived below ground for years, emerging at night to attack the French, and the Americans. No amount of bombing could reach them. To see those tunnels was to know that there was only one way we could have "won" the war -- by leveling the country. I get the sense from the soldiers I know who have been in Iraq, or who are there now, that they view the situation in the same way, at least in the Sunni Triangle. Instead of teenage Vietcong, there are teenage suicide bombers, and we’d have to level the place to “save” it.
Cold-blooded as the enemy was in Vietnam, he had no designs on global domination, and had no interest in bringing the war in Southeast Asia to American shores. Ho Chi Minh wanted to conquer South Vietnam, not the Southern tip of Manhattan. It's hard to know for sure what Saddam Hussein had in mind while he was still in power, but there is no doubt about Osama Bin Laden. We saw the results in the nightmare of 9/11.
Experts I’ve talked to say that OBL, in the most generous interpretation, wants to restore the Arab Caliphate in the Muslim world, and then to give the West a chance to accept Islam willingly -- or face the annihilation due all infidels. The president's critics excoriate him for conflating Saddam and Osama; they point to the 9/11 Commission's finding that there was no "operational" connection between the two. But many voters see deadly brothers in arms – one who attacked the American homeland, the other who was offering blood money to suicide bombers, to radical Islamists who dream of attacking us, too. All of which gave Bush enormous room to maneuver politically.
An exit strategy you can't use
Another similarity, says Valenti: the enemy controls the pace. Nixon wanted to get the Vietcong and North Vietnamese to a negotiating table, but that was up to the enemy, not him. For years, the United States couldn’t escape the quagmire because the enemy wouldn't sit down to talk. There is some risk of the same thing happening in Iraq, at least with the Sunnis. If they refuse to embrace a constitutional deal, we can't begin to think of leaving. They can wreak too much havoc in country. And if they do sign, will they honor the deal? Not if they think they can keep us bogged down there. The risk is the Vietnam paradox: the worse it gets, the harder it is to leave.
President George W. Bush's job approval numbers have sunk to the seemingly cataclysmic levels that fellow Texan LBJ faced in the spring of 1968. The war in Iraq clearly is the reason.
As in LBJ's day, the battlefield is producing bloody, unsettling TV images that sow grave doubts in American minds. Majorities of voters now tell polltakers that the original justifications for the war were flimsy at best, that it is being managed badly and that it has not made us safer. Indeed, depending on the poll you read, voters think it has put us in deeper peril.
But Bush is not quite LBJ Redux, not yet. Like Bush, Johnson's party controlled the Congress. But, unlike Bush, LBJ faced vicious criticism from his erstwhile allies there. There are rumblings below the surface, but civil strife hasn't yet broken out within the Republican Party. That could change when members of Congress return from summer recess and compare notes about what they heard from voters. But, for now, polls still show strong GOP grassroots support for the president and staying the course in Iraq.
You wonder why Bush is going to Utah, Idaho and Greater San Diego? They are comfort zones, places with deep pools of Republicanism. Bush's record-low "job approval" numbers don't, in themselves, mean catastrophe. Hagel does not an LBJ make.
And the seemingly permanent divisions in our political culture shield the president In the old days -- the Vietnam days -- the idea of a country bitterly divided in wartime was shocking. Foreign policy disputes, or so the theory from World War II went, “stopped at the water’s edge.” No more. As long as Iraq is framed as just another conflict between Red and Blue, this Texan is safely out of the other Texan’s political territory.
We think of America as bitterly split, and it’s true that the political world has become the World Wrestling Federation on CSPAN. But those clashes are tame compared with what the country was facing in the late 1960s, riven as it was by assassinations, race riots, and profound demographic and social change: the civil rights movement, the Baby Boom announcing itself, the stirrings of a crusade for social equality for women. We have our disputes -- immigration is an issue waiting to explode -- but in the background of the war in Iraq there isn't the sense of a nation coming apart at the seams. There was in the late 60s and early 70s.
In that earlier time, the campuses, especially elite ones, became hotbeds of anti-war protest. That hasn’t happened this time around, at least not so far, for the obvious reason that there is no draft. But that’s not the only reason. The formative public experience for most kids in college now was 9/11. They came of age seeing the Twin Towers collapse; they saw the videos of Bin Laden laughing over dinner with his conspirators. Kerry won in 2004 among young people, but I have a sense that not all students are immediately dismissive of Bush’s theory of preemptive attack. Should we “Get Out Now,” as Cindy Sheehan suggests? Let's see what happens in college towns this fall.
Have you visited the Vietnam memorial in DC? If so you know the scale of sacrifice made in what most Americans (and historians) have come to conclude was a tragically pointless war. More than 58,000 men and women died; at that war’s height, half a million troops were “in country.” Any soldier’s death in combat merits our solemn respect and admiration, and war is war, no matter how big or small. And it’s true that this war is all the more vivid here at home because it’s being conducted in video-streamed real time.
In a digital age, there is no distance in time or space between the car bomb and the TV news. And it is also true that a disproportionate burden is being placed on National Guard and Reserve units, many of which are facing an unprecedented THIRD tour of duty. Bush faces political danger there, among the families of those men and women, who never expected – nor should they have expected – to make the sacrifices they are now making. Most tend to be Bush supporters by inclination. If he loses them, he is losing part of his core constituency. But, overall, there’s no comparison between the deployment and casualty numbers in Vietnam and Iraq.
The alternative strategy
In Vietnam, the threat posed by our departure was always difficult for Americans to grasp, even though they had been schooled in Red Scare thinking for a generation. According to the "domino theory," a Vietnam in Communist hands would inevitably lead to Communist domination of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim -- all the way, presumably, to the Embarcadero.
If you knew the history and the local politics you knew this was a fiction: the Vietnamese hated and feared the Chinese, and the Russians weren't going to be able to control the region. Americans never really bought the "domino theory. LBJ's (and later Richard Nixon's) political enemies had no trouble eventually offering a rather simple alternative strategy: get out, or, as Sen. George McGovern put it, "Come Home America."
But what is the alternative now, in Iraq? Few Democrats, let alone Republicans, are willing to agree at this point with Sen. Russ Feingold, who has called for a short, specific timetable for American withdrawal. Few experts I know think that leaving tomorrow would make the country less of a breeding ground for Islamic extremist terror. Just the opposite.
If they don't like the Iraq war -- if, as a majority of Americans now say, going there was a mistake -- what is the Democrats' alternative theory for fighting and winning the war against terrorism? More troops in Iraq to settle the situation? More troops elsewhere? Reinstitute the draft? How about a crash program of energy conservation here? Real pressure on the Saudi regime? Distancing America from Israel? Push secular Turkey into Europe? Turn the problem over to the UN or the International Criminal Court?
At least Bush has a global theory, however mendacious the sales job was and however poor the management.
The Democrats need a comprehensive alternative theory. It has to be patriotic, militarily tough and internationalist all at the same time. Until they can say what their alternative strategy is, the war in Iraq isn't Vietnam -- at least not here on the home front.