August 31, 2007

August 31, 2007 | Commentary on Political Thought

Bush's Vietnam analogy

The world of bloggers and opinion writers is agog over President Bush's use of the Vietnam analogy in his speech last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. After years of resisting the comparison with Vietnam, Mr. Bush has now reached for the dreaded V-word. His critics are horrified, of course, even though they have been flinging the comparison around for years.

All this commotion comes despite the fact that, in some ways, comparisons with Vietnam have been blindingly obvious for some time, particularly since the 2006 elections that brought Democrats to power on Capitol Hill and turned up the pressure for the United States to de-camp from Iraq.

The fact is that there are two Vietnam analogies. The first is the Iraq-as-Vietnam-like quagmire, which has been repeated ad infinitum by the war's critics, from hapless Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who harped incessantly on the lessons of Vietnam, to today's Democratic leadership in Congress and most, if not all, of that party's current field of 2008 presidential candidates. According to this analogy, the United States runs the danger of sinking into a morass, costing tens of thousands of American lives, over decades of hopeless and pointless foreign entanglement.

Then there is Mr. Bush's Vietnam analogy. It draws upon another part of the Vietnam experience, and he was entirely right to bring it up at this point, effectively turning the tables on his critics.

Ever since this spring and summer's heated battle over the defense appropriations bill, in which Democrats sought to micromanage the war and tie the president's hands through extreme short-term funding of the war, the comparison with the last phase of the Vietnam War has been fairly self-evident and very depressing.

The comparison with 1975 inevitably presents itself. That's when the Democratic Congress cut off funding for assistance to U.S. allies in South Vietnam and Cambodia, and brought about a defeat that North Vietnam was incapable of inflicting militarily. This was the Vietnam analogy Mr. Bush was finally reaching for on Aug. 22, even though over the years he has resisted entering this rhetorical minefield.

"One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam," he said "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." He listed the tragedies flowing from the ignominious withdrawal of the United States, the Cambodian genocide, the flight of South Vietnamese trying to escape Communist oppression, the millions of lives lost because the United States lost the nerve and the political will to fight - though it certainly did not lose the military power to win and was in fact winning.

Mr. Bush made a valid and extremely important point. The implication of the comparison is clear. If we leave Iraq and indeed the Middle East in a rush to get out, we will be leaving behind a bloody legacy of civil war in Iraq and potentially wider regional upheaval with a tremendous cost in human lives.

"It is great for sound bites but it is completely misleading," Jeffrey Record, professor of strategy at the Air Force War College in Montgomery, Ala., told the New York Times, in rebuttal to Mr. Bush's speech. "Reasoning by historical analogy is inherently dangerous. It is especially dangerous in the hands of policy-makers whose command of history is weak and who are pushing specific policy agendas." Mr. Record may have a point as history never quite repeats itself, but what is sauce for the goose is certainly also sauce for the gander when it comes to analogizing.

We will hear a great deal more about the situation in Iraq very soon. A slew of new status reports will be delivered in September, not only the surge report from Gen. David Petraeus, but also assessments from the Government Accountability Office, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Independent Commission on Iraq and the Special Inspector General for Iraq. All of them follow this month's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from August, which, as a result of the surge policy in Iraq, was markedly more positive in tone than the NIE delivered just eight months ago.

Perhaps now that the president has demonstrated that he can play the historical analogy game as well as any Democrat, a truce can be called. We should not lose sight of the fact that success or failure in Iraq depends on a range of highly specific factors which unfortunately have a way of getting lost in the vapors of Washington political debate.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Political Thought

First appeared in the Washington Times