How Iraq has become another Vietnam

Another Vietnam? Defenders of President Bush’s Iraq war policy have long shrugged off such comparisons. But as the war heads toward the four-year mark and a newly empowered Democratic Congress takes aim at presidential spending for more troops, the comparisons are becoming more frequent.

Despite President Bush’s State of the Union appeal for Congress to give his new war strategy a chance, congressional Democrats joined by some Republicans are forging ahead with a resolution opposing Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq.

Congress has clear constitutional authority to declare war and set spending levels. Yet limiting troops or war spending has never been easy. In Vietnam, it took years.

Nine years after Congress in its Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized President Johnson to escalate the Vietnam War, Congress voted in 1973 to cut off remaining funds for combat operations in Southeast Asia. By then, President Nixon had already withdrawn most ground troops.

Nixon was responding as much to terms of the Paris peace accords signed with Hanoi on Jan. 27 as to mounting congressional pressure. In 1975, Congress voted to cut off further financial aid to South Vietnam, helping lead to a final push by North Vietnam and the evacuation of remaining Americans.

Both Johnson, a Democrat, and Nixon, a Republican, dealt with a Congress controlled by solid Democratic majorities.

Current anti-war legislation is headed for possible Senate action next week after the Foreign Relations Committee approved it on Wednesday. The resolution lacks teeth, but it would be a strong signal from the newly Democratic-run Congress of disapproval of Bush’s war strategy. Some lawmakers have proposed even stronger legislation that would actually seek to block funds.

While the 58,000 U.S. military deaths in Vietnam dwarf the just over 3,000 U.S. casualties so far in Iraq, the financial costs of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other military anti-terrorism activities are beginning to rival that spent on Vietnam.

Other similarities:

  • Both wars initially had majority support from Americans that evaporated as the war dragged on without clear-cut victories.
  • Successive escalation by Presidents Johnson and Nixon were billed as setting the stage for victory, to be followed by “Vietnamization” in which South Vietnamese forces would stand up as U.S. forces stood down. Sounds like Bush’s game plan for Iraq.
  • Before a recent admission of mistakes, Bush had been consistently upbeat. So were Johnson and Nixon administration figures, going back to Gen. William Westmoreland’s premature 1969 sighting of a “light at the end of the tunnel.”
  • Johnson called Vietnam War critics “nervous nellies.” Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney accused Democrats of wanting to “cut and run,” White House press secretary Tony Snow branded them “Defeatocrats.”
  • Just as Iraq is depicted as the central front in a global war against terrorism, Vietnam was portrayed as pivotal in a global war against communism.

“The way in which Iraq is similar to Vietnam is the profound effect this war is having on the military. We have the same problems winning a guerrilla war on the guerrilla’s home turf,” said Jon Alterman, director of Mideast programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The way they are dissimilar is this is a war that has been easy to ignore. It is a war with almost no public sacrifice. It feels like somebody else’s war, it feels remote in a way that Vietnam did not.”

Vietnam flashbacks are becoming a regular part of the war debate raging on Capitol Hill.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, evoked his own history as a Vietnam War veteran-turned protester as he dropped a 2008 presidential bid on Wednesday, saying he wanted to stay in the Senate to continue to oppose Bush’s war policy.

Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, another Vietnam vet, called Bush’s planned increase of 21,500 troops “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”

Some of the president’s congressional allies are talking about Vietnam too. “We were able to walk away from Vietnam. If we walk away from Iraq, we’ll be back, possibly in the context of a wider war in the world’s most volatile region,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam and a 2008 presidential hopeful.

The amount spent on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other anti-terror activities tops $500 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Another $100 billion request is going to Congress next month.

The total is fast approaching the cost of the Vietnam War, roughly an inflation-adjusted $614 billion in today’s dollars.

A bookkeeping maneuver helped Johnson cloak the true cost of the Vietnam War from Americans. He had the Social Security Trust Fund — then running a large surplus — added to the government’s regular budget. That turned a war-driven deficit into a small surplus in 1969.

“There was no doubt that Johnson used a gimmick to hide what would have been an even larger deficit under the old rules,” said Stanley Collender, a former congressional budget analyst and now managing director at Qorvis Communications, a business consulting firm.

“In this case, there are huge attempts to hide the costs of the Iraq war. The budgets the president submits every year don’t include the costs of the war. They’re only included after they are approved,” Collender said.

The Bush administration has submitted a series of emergency “supplemental” appropriations bills to pay for the war. The administration insists, however, that the $100 billion installment next month will be the last, and that from now on war costs will be included in the regular budget.

In the 1970s, Congress began putting limits on presidential war activities, rescinding the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, passing the War Powers Act, prohibiting combat operations in Cambodia and Laos, even capping the number of ground troops. But the war for the most part continued until the final cutoff of funds.

Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University who specializes in Congress, said when Congress finally did vote to restrict war funds for Vietnam, it was by slim — but nevertheless bipartisan — margins.

“The parties have so polarized over the past 30 years that Democrats are going to have a much tougher time corralling Republican support for a substantive effort to block the president’s plan, even given the president’s diminished public standing,” she said.

Part of the problem is that Congress itself, both with Vietnam and Iraq, initially voted to authorize military action. And once the money is in the pipeline, it’s hard to turn it off — especially without endangering troops in combat.

“Getting out of a war is still dicier than getting into one, as President George W. Bush can attest,” wrote Melvin R. Laird, Nixon’s secretary of defense.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press