Hands Off My Analogy
Liberals object when Bush discusses Vietnam.
Sep 3, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 47 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Another set of critics argued that it was impolitic of Bush to bring up Vietnam. This was a line often repeated in media reporting on the VFW speech. A Time magazine web article had the headline: "Bush's Risky Vietnam Gambit." The Washingtonpost.com columnist Dan Froomkin said Bush had entered "risky rhetorical territory." The report in the print edition tut-tutted that Vietnam "remains a divisive, emotional issue for many Americans." Guest-hosting MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Mike Barnicle asked, "What does the president have to gain by opening old wounds?" Senator John Kerry said "invoking the tragedy of Vietnam" was "irresponsible." And yet, during the entire debate over Iraq, opponents of intervention have brought up Vietnam frequently. When that happens, no one deems it "risky" or "irresponsible" of them to bring up this "divisive, emotional issue."
Bush's opponents viewed Iraq as another Vietnam long before the war began. The linkage of Iraq and Vietnam on the New York Times editorial page occurs as early as January 31, 2002: "Not since America's humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam more than a quarter-century ago has our foreign policy relied so heavily on non-nuclear military force, or the threat of it, to defend American interests around the world." An August 11, 2002, editorial on Iraq twice mentioned Vietnam. On August 28, 2002, in an editorial entitled "Summons to War," the Times's editors wrote that Alberto Gonzales's "legal sophistry" was "reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson's use of the Tonkin Gulf resolution to authorize a disastrous land war in Vietnam."
In January 2003, the Times's editors wrote that the "first lesson of the Vietnam era" was that "Americans should not be sent to die for aims the country only vaguely understands and accepts." The "second lesson of Vietnam" was that the "country should never enter into a conflict without a clear exit strategy." For Bush's foes, such lessons are nonnegotiable. They are sacrosanct.
When war came in March 2003, the number of comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam grew, faded in the weeks following regime change, and then spiked once the war began to go badly. It was too much for Melvin Laird, secretary of defense in the Nixon administration, who penned a long article in the November/December 2005 Foreign Affairs attacking the phenomenon. "Those who wallow in such Vietnam angst would have us be not only reticent to help the rest of the world," Laird wrote, "but ashamed of our ability to do so and doubtful of the value of spreading democracy and of the superiority of freedom itself."
Those suffering from Vietnam angst, Laird wrote, think America was wrong in its intent in Indochina, wrong in its conduct, and eventually got what it had coming to it. They see the same things in America's intervention in Iraq. It's a view captured well by a September 14, 2002, letter to the editor of the Times:
A United States war on Iraq reminds me of another act of United States aggression, our war in Vietnam, which had no recognizable moral reasoning but economic and militaristic appeal. The similarities between the two eras are striking. Yet Vietnam created no economic gain for the United States, engendered years of infighting in our own country and led to a legacy of distrust of the government among many. How can we be the moral arbiter of the world if we can't even admit to our own failings?
The letter helps us understand why Bush's VFW speech has generated so much controversy. It's not because he brought up the lessons of Vietnam. It's because he brought up lessons which the opponents of that war and the current one--who so often seem to be the same people--deem incorrect. "The president is drawing the wrong lesson from history," Ted Kennedy said in response to Bush. The lesson of Vietnam, according to Kennedy, is that America lost a war "because our troops were trapped in a distant country we did not understand, supporting a government that lacked sufficient legitimacy from its people." For those who've been paying attention to the Iraq war debate, that probably sounds like a familiar lesson.
"The president emphasized the violence in the wake of American withdrawal from Vietnam," former Clinton national security council staffer Steven Simon told the Wall Street Journal. "But this happened because the United States left too late, not too early. . . . It was the expansion of the war that opened the door to Pol Pot and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge." Here is another "lesson" from Vietnam that, if true, would tend to support war opponents calling for America to leave Iraq.
Suddenly things become perfectly clear. Bush's opponents don't have a problem with Vietnam analogies. They have a problem with Vietnam analogies that undermine the case for American withdrawal. They see Vietnam as the exclusive property of the antiwar movement.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.