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Throughout the war in Iraq, President Bush has firmly dismissed comparisons with Vietnam, and his aides were careful not to mention that still-raw conflict in defending his policies.
But the president abruptly shifted course this week in a speech in Kansas City, Mo., before a friendly Veterans of Foreign Wars audience. He was attacking what he saw as the historical amnesia of war critics who recall the withdrawal from Southeast Asia as having relatively few consequences — after all, Vietnam is a peaceful friend of the United States today — and that pulling out of Iraq might similarly end the fighting.
Said Bush, “One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid for by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps’ and ‘killing fields.’ ”
Wars, once having been started, have wholly unpredictable consequences and thus are not really comparable in productive ways. Still, the superficial comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq are compelling.
We felt threatened by a sinister transnational movement, communism then and radical Islam now. The aims of our involvement kept shifting. Originally we were in South Vietnam only as military advisers; in Iraq, in search of WMDs. The South Vietnamese government was unstable, fractious and corrupt.
Successive U.S. governments, bolstered by congressional delegations to the war zone, offered unrealistically optimistic assessments of the war’s progress, and domestic opponents were demonized as aiding and abetting the enemy.
Finally, the Johnson and Nixon administrations lacked all credibility on the war, and political and public support for continuing it collapsed. Even so, it took us about six years to slow-walk backward out of Vietnam. At the end, there was no viable alternative.
The president would have been better off sticking with his policy of dealing with the Iraq war on its own terms rather than by comparisons with Vietnam. The analogies do not serve him well.