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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Iraq and Vietnam

One of the most frequent and controversial lines of argument about the Iraq mess has been the idea that it represents a repetition of the U.S. experience in Vietnam. The parallels are obvious: an overwhelmingly powerful U.S. military gets itself bogged down in a theater related to, but ultimately distinct from, a broader war. An administration (or two) unwilling to admit mistakes or tell the truth gets ensnared in its own lies and spin, which then become the justification for continuing the mistakes in the name of preserving U.S. credibility. And the American people, who are divided on what they think should actually be done, eventually reject the status quo and demand a new course of action.Lots of younger political analysts and bloggers view the whole Vietnam analogy as just another example of Baby Boomer narcissism. Far as I’m concerned, if you could make the case that the U.S. effort in Iraq reflected mistakes made by FDR and Truman in WW2, Wilson in WW1, or for that matter, Napoleon in Russia or Cromwell in Ireland, I’d be interested to hear about it.Now that Iraq is semi-officially an ongoing disaster, it’s actually Republicans, including George W. Bush, who seem to be into the Vietnam analogy, but not in a way that indicates any understanding of the lessons of Vietnam. Here’s Josh Marshall’s take on the subject, based on Bush’s quick trip to Vietnam:

Isn’t this trip a really odd venue for the president to be arguing that staying the course basically forever is the only acceptable solution? Though it took a tragically long time, the US, for all the moonwalking, eventually decided to pull up stakes in Vietnam. And what was the result? One might make arguments that the Soviets and Soviet proxies were temporarily emboldened in Africa or Latin America, though I think that’s debatable. But what of the real effects? The Soviet Union was dismantling itself within little more than a decade of our pull-out. And now we have a Vietnam that is politically repressive at home but proto-capitalist in its economy and, by any measure, incredibly eager for good relations with the United States.If geo-political standing and international repercussions are really the issue we’re discussing, it seems very hard to argue that our decision to pull out of Vietnam had any lasting or meaningful ill-effects. And there’s at least a decent argument to the contrary.And yet here we have President Bush, stepping on to Vietnamese soil to further our rapprochement with Vietnam, and arguing, in so many words, that the lesson of Vietnam is that we should still be there blowing the place up thirty years later.We’re really deep into the primitive brainstem phase of our long national nightmare of presidential denial and mendacity on Iraq.

Yeah, it’s odd, though not that suprising to anyone who followed this year’s House debate on the Murtha proposal for Iraq, in which most of the Republican debaters explicitly and reduntantly suggested that we could have won the War in Vietnam if we had really tried. For every Democrat who attacks Bush on Iraq without a clear plan for what to do next, there is at least one, or probably two, GOPers who think America has not sufficiently thrown its military weight around in Iraq or elsewhere. These are the ideological heirs of those who argued that we could have prevailed in Vietnam if we had basically killed everything in sight, and escalated the military presence to the gates of hell, and victory. As Josh noted, sometimes even the most hawkish observers have to be able to figure out that Iraq has been and continues to be a huge propaganda defeat for the United States. There are probably no real victories available at this point, but you’d like to think American policymakers can figure out how to pivot from Iraq to the broader war on jihadist terror. It’s out there, all the time.

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