With rhetoric that would stir any patriot but logic that should persuade few, President Bush on Wednesday waded into the historical quagmire of the Vietnam War. Then, as now, Bush said, "people argued the real problem was America's presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end." He then listed the tragedies that followed the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia -- the Khmer Rouge slaughter in Cambodia, the harsh communist rule in Vietnam. "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,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields.' " Likewise, he argued, innocents will pay if a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq empowers Al Qaeda.
The president's Vietnam-Iraq analogy begins with a large kernel of truth, but goes astray. First, no serious Iraq expert believes U.S. withdrawal would end the killing. The debate today centers on whether the civil war that has been only partly suppressed by the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops will inevitably rage until the Sunnis and Shiites reach a rough equilibrium on the battlefield.
It's true that millions of Iraqi civilians have already paid a terrible price and may suffer even more as fighting may well worsen after a U.S. withdrawal -- whenever that occurs. But it seems equally clear that the civil war cannot be suppressed indefinitelyunless the U.S. plans to occupy the country for decades. Killing fields? Iraq's already got them: A dozen or two corpses are found dumped in the streets each morning, and bombs go off daily. Boat people? Two million Iraqis have already fled the country, and perhaps 50,000 more leave each month. Could it get worse? Absolutely. But can we stop it?
There is one Vietnam analogy that unfortunately does apply. U.S. frustration over Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's failures surely rivals the disdain President Kennedy had for the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem. We can only hope the Maliki-Diem analogy proves false, because Diem was ousted in a CIA-approved military coup, then executed. Perhaps Maliki is better compared with the last South Vietnamese leader, Nguyen Van Thieu? The hated Thieu never managed to make "Vietnamization" work -- and the U.S. refused to keep 500,000 troops in South Vietnam for another decade or three to help him.
The real lesson of Vietnam is that its civil war was a nationalist struggle that toppled no communist "dominoes" across Asia. Bush's rhetoric implying an Al Qaeda "domino effect" in the Middle East has the same false ring.