The Magazine

Hands Off My Analogy

Liberals object when Bush discusses Vietnam.

Sep 3, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 47 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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On August 22, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, Missouri, President Bush delivered a 43-minute speech in which he compared the war in Iraq, and America's war on Islamic terrorism in general, to the three large 20th-century U.S. military interventions in Asia. The most controversial section of Bush's speech was 15 paragraphs likening those who claimed that America was the problem in Vietnam and that "if we would just withdraw, the killing would end" to those who today are saying similar things about Iraq. Bush's speech received an enthusiastic response from the audience, which frequently burst into applause (some 36 times, according to the White House transcript). Advocates of American withdrawal from Iraq were far less enthusiastic about the comparison of Iraq to Vietnam. Which is curious, as opponents of the war have been comparing that conflict to Vietnam since at least 2002, long before Saddam was deposed.

Anyone familiar with American politics over the last six years knows the important role the Vietnam trope has played in the Iraq debate. A search for New York Times articles in which "Iraq" appears within ten words of "Vietnam" brings up 989 hits between January 1, 2002, and August 24, 2007. Until this speech, the president had rejected comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, so one might think those Iraq critics who have used the Vietnam analogy in the past would welcome Bush's admission of a parallel, however limited, between the two wars. But one would be incorrect, because apparently the only legitimate lessons from Vietnam are those that conform to the antiwar worldview.

Bush's argument is uncharacteristically constrained. He acknowledged that Vietnam is a "complex and painful subject for many Americans." He conceded that the "tragedy of Vietnam is too large to be contained in one speech." He recognized that "there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left." Yet he also cautioned that "one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 'reeducation camps,' and 'killing fields.'"

In Bush's view, there is a second "unmistakable legacy" of American withdrawal from Vietnam--or, perhaps more accurately, of the cessation of American aid to the South Vietnamese government in 1975, which guaranteed the North's victory. (American combat troops left Vietnam in 1973.) This second legacy, Bush said, can be heard "in the words of the enemy we face in today's struggle--those who came to our soil and killed thousands of citizens on September 11, 2001." Bush quoted from statements that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have made about how America's defeat in Vietnam exposed it as a weak power. "Here at home," the president concluded, "some can argue that our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price to American credibility--but the terrorists see it differently."

In what may have been the oddest response to the VFW speech, Hillary Clinton did not even mention Bush's reference to Vietnam: "The surge was designed to give the Iraqi government time to take steps to ensure a political solution to the situation," Clinton said. "It has failed to do so. . . . We need to stop refereeing the war, and start getting out now." (What made Clinton's response especially odd was that 48 hours earlier she had told the VFW that the surge was showing signs of progress.) Barack Obama at least acknowledged "the disastrous consequences described by President Bush," but argued that they are "already in motion" and that "there is no military solution to Iraq's problems." America is powerless to stop the killing.

Speaking chronologically, of course, Obama's argument makes no sense. An event cannot have consequences before it occurs. In his speech, Bush warns that "if we were to abandon the Iraqi people," then the global jihadist movement "would be emboldened," "gain new recruits," and perhaps establish a "safe haven" from which it could launch attacks on America. Now it's possible that Bush is wrong about these consequences. But we wouldn't know whether he is until after America has left--something that has not happened and is unlikely to happen as long as he is president.