By Rosemary Righter (THE TIMES, 24/08/07):
Why did he do it? Why conjure up unquiet ghosts? Why now? Vietnam is not only, as President Bush rather flatly put it, “a complex and painful subject” for Americans. The V-word is lodged in folk memory as an unwinnable war that America should never have fought, that wasted blood and treasure, and that, most woundingly, bitterly split the nation.
Vietnam, even today, is a powerful political toxin. Probably the only American politician who can talk about Vietnam without risk is the war hero John McCain. John Kerry tried the “veteran who wants out of Iraq” line in the 2004 presidential elections; the unwanted effect was to remind the nation of his career as an anti-Vietnam protester. As for Mr Bush, it made sense to keep quiet about a war in which he did not exactly rush to serve.
The White House response to the use by anti-war Democrats of the “Vietnam quagmire” analogy has been to point out how different — both in character and in strategic significance — these two conflicts are. Until now. Mr Bush’s quick potted history will be denounced as a distortion of history; there are as many opinions about “what went wrong” as there are toilers in the Vietnam history industry. He must know that to make lessons from Vietnam the core of his appeal for greater American patience in Iraq invites the retort that, as in Vietnam, “we should never have gone in”.
His judgment is that what matters more to Americans is “Where do we go from here?” And here he is right that the Vietnam endgame is relevant. Public opinion dictated the timing and manner of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and could play the same forcing role in Iraq. The consequences for South East Asia were appalling; the scars endure. The uncontroversial core of his message is that the consequences of a political panic over Iraq would be far graver.
Mr Bush’s case is that America’s gravest mistakes in Iraq are behind it, that the counter-insurgency strategy devised by General Petraeus is yielding results, but that the military have a question: “Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they’re gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground?” For elected leaders, read Democrats. In historical perspective, the Democrats do not come well out of the Vietnam debacle.
The Democrats’ obsession with forcing on the White House a congressional deadline for pulling out almost all America’s 160,000 troops from Iraq has the whiff of the Vietnam days. So does last month’s decision by Harry Reid, the Democrat leader in the Senate, to suspend the entire defence spending Bill — the first time this has happened for 45 years — when he realised he did not have the votes to attach a withdrawal deadline to it.
The poisoning of the political climate was North Vietnam’s most effective weapon. It is not yet al-Qaeda’s, but it could be. As Hanoi publicly admitted at the time, its 1968 Tet Offensive ended in costly defeat, but no one in America wanted to know. Its 1972 Easter offensive also failed; but by then most Americans believed the war was lost.
Yet even by 1972, and even though much of the US media was writing that America was the problem, not the solution, and that the Vietnamese should be left to fight it out, voters did not want to leave their ally in the South defenceless. Senator George McGovern campaigned that year on a platform of an immediate cessation of bombing and a complete withdrawal within 90 days of taking office. The result was one of the Democrats’ most spectacular defeats, and Richard Nixon’s reelection.
The strategy chosen to extract the US with the minimum of risk to its ally South Vietnam and the region was “Vietnamisation”. The US would withdraw its military, train up the Vietnamese and back Saigon with guaranteed and continuing military and economic support.
Those guarantees were written in to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords negotiated by Henry Kissinger under which North Vietnam pledged to withdraw from Laos and Cambodia and not to overthrow the Saigon Government. But Hanoi knew it could violate the accord with impunity, confident that the large postWatergate Democrat majority in Congress would never authorise renewed airstrikes. Not only that; the Democrats refused to authorise the promised US military aid, leaving the South Vietnamese all but defenceless against North Vietnam’s rapid Soviet-assisted military build-up, and its full-scale tank-led invasion in 1975.
Dr Kissinger recently observed that “one important similarity” between Vietnam and Iraq is that “the domestic debate became so bitter to preclude rational discussion of hard choices”. Six months ago, that point seemed to have arrived. To be a hawk was to court political death and social ostracism. “Hard choices” had gone out the window with the Hamilton-Baker Iraq Study Group’s sage advice to turn the problem over to the neighbours, Syria and Iran included. Mr Bush’s ratings were awful.
They still are. But with better news has come a wiser tone. Americans are heartened by early indications of progress on the ground. The New York Times was so astounded by polls showing rising support for the war that it ran them again to make sure. An antiwar strategy may not be the sure election winner that most Democrats assume. By asserting the right of Congress to set war policy, they have promised their left wing more than they can perform, appeared reluctant to support US troops in combat and stirred old doubts about whether Democrats can be trusted with the nation’s defence.
I do not think Mr Bush’s Vietnam parallel was aimed against the Democrats. Almost everything he says just now has a single aim, to buy time for the Petraeus “surge”. But if I were Barack Obama, I would be fretting a bit about collateral damage.