Jim Hoagland: Bush's Vietnam Blunder





Desperate presidents resort to desperate rhetoric -- which then calls new attention to their desperation. President Bush joined the club this week by citing the U.S. failure in Vietnam to justify staying on in Iraq.

Bush's comparison of the two conflicts rivals Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" utterance during Watergate and Bill Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," in producing unintended consequences of a most damaging kind for a sitting president.

It is not just that Bush's speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on Wednesday drew on a shaky grasp of history, spotlighted once again his own decision to sit out the Vietnam conflict, and played straight into his critics' most emotive arguments against him and the Republican Party.

More important, Bush has called attention to the elephant that will be sitting in the room when his administration makes its politically vital report on Iraq to the nation next month. For Americans, the most important comparison will be this one: As Vietnam did, Iraq has become a failure even on its own terms -- whatever those terms are at any given moment.

That is, the administration has constantly shifted its goals in Iraq to avoid accepting failure and blame -- only to see the new goals drift beyond reach each time. Liberation of Iraqis became occupation by Americans, democracy became an unattainable centralized "national unity" government and this year's military surge has become a device for achieving political reconciliation among people who do not want to reconcile.

Bush's appeal to Americans to turn away from "the allure of retreat" centered on the indisputably horrific consequences for the people of Vietnam and Cambodia of defeat in 1975. But his analogy also summons the historical reality that U.S. involvement in Indochina became untenable when that engagement itself became a threat to America's social fabric and national cohesion -- and then to the very institutions that had responsibility for the war, the U.S. military and intelligence services, as well as the presidency and Congress.

Iraq fortunately has not produced anything like the scale of casualties and domestic conflict that Vietnam visited on the United States. The two conflicts also differ greatly in their potential regional consequences. Bush had done well until now to steer away from such analogies....



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list