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.
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.