Is Iraq Another Vietnam?

Is Iraq Another Vietnam?

Incisive new book draws out the parallels without overdoing it

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- Only a die-hard Bush-hater would wish Iraq to become another ``Vietnam’’ disaster. But the truth is more and more Americans are beginning to worry about this possibility, as every day more and more U.S. men and women die.

All historical analogies wind up being intellectual stretches: The Munich analogy has been used so many times that maybe it ought to be retired. The analogy of Iraq to Vietnam is certainly a reach.

The first dissimilarity is the menacing image of a major power -- China -- that hung over Vietnam and President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s head. It’s the specter of 9/11 and Islamic extremism that’s hanging over Bush’s head.

Another major discrepancy is the nature of the conflict. Vietnam was a civil war in which one side (Hanoi) was far better organized and steeled than the other; Iraq is a former authoritarian state, mostly Muslim, occupied by Western armies, mostly Christian.

But some parallels do stick out.

Both were accompanied by early official expressions of extreme self-confidence about quick victory at relatively low cost; and both Vietnam (“light at the end of the tunnel”) and Iraq (Bush declares victory, then more soldiers die than before “victory”) sprang deadly surprises that prolonged the agony.

In both instances, Congress, by and large, went along; neither intervention, at the early stages, provoked significant domestic protest. Both interventions were premised on our military might overcoming political weaknesses on the ground: There was no competent civilian government to speak of in Saigon (or now in Baghdad). And neither intervention proved to have a pressing or compelling national-security interest, despite all the official puffery.

Both interventions became the central issue of American politics and life, and both actions were approved by presidents hailing from Texas. Worried yet?

For further sleeplessness, you need only pick up the new book “Senator Mansfield,” by former Washington Post foreign correspondent Don Oberdorfer. On the surface, it’s a well-told biography of the late Sen. Mike Mansfield, the quiet but legendary Montana Democrat who served between 1961 and 1977 (thus coinciding with the ill-fated U.S war in Vietnam) in the powerful post of majority leader of the U.S. Senate (still holding the record) and was later to become (among older Japanese at least) the most historically popular U.S. ambassador ever to be appointed to Tokyo.

The book is more, though: Under the surface, it’s the most panoramic current history of the agonizingly ill-fated U.S. intervention in Vietnam in print.

The book never mentions Iraq, of course, but you cannot read it without seeing parallels. Our current intervention and that of Vietnam would seem to arise primarily from genetic defects in the American character, especially our tendency toward supreme hubris. Under questioning, Asia hand Oberdorfer, speaking to a luncheon in Los Angeles last week (Nov. 14) sponsored by the Japan America Society and the Asia Society, reluctantly drew this parallel: “We’re deeply involved in a country we don’t understand. We never even understood the situation into which we put ourselves.” He meant Iraq as well as Vietnam.

The Vietnam tragedy is instructive. Oberdorfer quotes the then-U.S. Defense secretary as saying long after the disaster: “We never carefully debated what U.S. force would be required, what our chances of success would be, or what the political, military, financial or human costs would be if we provided it. Indeed, these basic questions went unexamined.”

Despite deep misgivings about U.S. policy in Vietnam, Senate Majority Leader Mansfield tried hard to support his president in public. But privately he submitted to Johnson written reservations like this: “We tend to talk ourselves onto a limb with overstatements of our purpose and commitment, only to discover in the end that there were insufficient American interests to support with blood and treasure … the desperate final plunge.”

John F. Kennedy, who as president inherited the mess created by the French colonial withdrawal and the subsequent Eisenhower concern about dominos falling in Southeast Asia to the Communists in Moscow and Beijing, emerges as a mystery on the issue. Would he have withdrawn U.S. troops from Vietnam? Oberdorfer’s wise book provides no final answer, but it is suggestive.

In one passage Mansfield returns from a tour of Southeast Asia with a privately critical assessment of conditions and potential dangers in Vietnam. To Mansfield’s face, the great JFK, whose tragic assassination took place 40 years ago this month, would bark: “This is not what my advisors are telling me.” But then Kennedy confided to an aide: “I got angry at Mike for disagreeing with our policy so completely, and I got angry with myself because I found myself agreeing with him.”

Democrats should not oppose the Iraq intervention simply because they despise the Republican president; Republicans should not support it simply because they support their standard-bearer. All must understand that only the president of the United States is in a position to make these hard foreign-policy decisions -- and Iraq is becoming increasingly more difficult by the day. But, before Bush makes any more decisions, he needs to hear a Mansfield-like voice in his head.