Comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq have long been a staple of critics of the Bush administration. The Washington Post, for instance, recently adorned the wide expanse of the top half of the Sunday Outlook section with the famous photo of the last U.S. helicopter to leave the rooftop of the embassy in Saigon. Is that how the United States is going to leave Iraq? Ignominious and defeated? That is certainly the implication and maybe even the hope of too many here in Washington.
The differences with Vietnam are too many to enumerate. We do, for instance have a clearer mission than in Vietnam, an indigenous population that is far more friendly and nothing like the domestic opposition to the war and the troops themselves that helped undermine the effort in Vietnam. An important distinction is that succeeding Iraq may be even more important, as at least the Vietcong did not have the potential for committing terrorism on U.S. soil.
At any rate, there is, unfortunately, an emerging similarity between Vietnam and Iraq the willingness of politicians here to declare defeat and start the withdrawal of U.S. troops posthaste. The use of phrases like "phased redeployment" are the harbingers of self-inflicted defeat.
Enemies of the United States will take heart from several resolutions currently under consideration in the Senate, which may be voted on as early as today. Two of them oppose President Bush's proposal for a 20,000 troop strong "surge" of U.S. troops into Iraq, the cornerstone of Mr. Bush's newly unveiled plan for dealing with the sectarian violence in Baghdad and for securing the country's stability and democratic future.
Mr. Bush complained recently that critics of his plan are rushing to judgment without ever giving it a try. In fact, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden has charged that the White House is injecting more U.S. troops without any plan at all, which means he cannot have been watching any of Mr. Bush's recent speeches as detailed and specific as they have been.
A bipartisan resolution introduced by Sens. Biden and Chuck Hagel with 13 co-sponsors (including Sen. Hillary Clinton) expresses the entirely contradictory sentiment that "whereas maximizing chances of success in Iraq should be our goal, and the best chance of success requires a change in current strategy" at the same time it states that "it is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq." Given that the Iraqi government by its own admission is not able as yet to contain that violence without further help from the United States, this juxtaposition makes no sense.
Another resolution by Sens. John Warner and Ben Nelson with eight co-sponsors recognizes the president's authority as commander in chief to deploy U.S. armed forces, but at the same time "disagrees with the 'plan' to augment our forces by 21,500, and urges the president instead to consider all options and alternatives for achieving the strategic goals set forth below with reduced levels than proposed [sic]." Why the word "plan" is in quote marks is a mystery, unless it is to question that the administration has produced one, a stable of Democratic opposition to the war. Yet another resolution by Sen. Robert Byrd reaffirms the obvious point that according to the U.S. Constitution, only the Congress may declare war, obligating the president to seek its approval. Of course, this was exactly what Mr. Bush did before invading Iraq and received resounding support.
Only Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman have produced something helpful for the effort in Iraq in the form of a resolution that proposes to give Gen. Petraeus what he needs to do the job, including support for the troops already there and all the additional troops he believes he needs. The Senate of course unanimously confirmed Gen. Petraeus last week as commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, the very man whose plan for Iraq many of the Senators now criticize in an act of supreme self-contradiction.
Unfortunately, at stake in the struggle here in Washington is positioning for the next presidential election, both among Democrats and Republicans. It is the worst possible way to fashion U.S. foreign policy, and the shortsightedness it reflects could very seriously damage U.S. national interest and global leadership and the future of the Middle East. This grave responsibility is what senators ought to be contemplating as they cast their votes.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times