The Vietnam Syndrome : Why is Bush Hurting if There is No War?

Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report, is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (Random House)

Cynical cartoonists are already beginning to redraw the deserts of Saudi Arabia into the ominous Indochinese landscape of rice paddies and water buffaloes. A few have awarded George Bush the six-guns and cowboy boots of Lyndon B. Johnson--just another ego-driven Texas President who's all hat and no victory.

Well, not necessarily. Not yet. There is the oil factor and other differences between Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. But the comparison does have an incipient validity in light of Bush's recent troop escalation, rising criticism in Congress and increasingly negative opinion polls. By these yardsticks, public disillusionment with U.S. Persian Gulf involvement is developing at an unnerving, faster-then-in-Vietnam pace. If shooting does break out--and maybe even if it doesn't--events in the gulf could resonant throughout the 1992 election year. Politics doesn't stop at the water's edge any more than beach sand does.

For now, at least, if things go wrong, it' Republicans who are at risk. During the 20th Century, the party in the White House has paid the political price for inept military policies or naive wartime diplomacy--after World War I, World War II, Korea and, of course, Vietnam. Moreover, mid-November poll measurements already show support for Bush's handling of the Iraq crisis sinking into the 51%-59% range, down from August and September highs of 78%-82%. It took Johnson several years in Vietnam--and thousands of casualties--to fall that far.

It's becoming a truism that part of this reflects Bush's failure to adequately define U.S. goals and strategies in the gulf. The confusion, however, also stems from unacknowledged politics. Back in August, the White House saw challenging Iraq as a good idea for a number of reasons: the Panama invasion proved gunboat diplomacy was a ratings booster; the GOP needed a new foreign-policy theme--thus the "New World Order," and the gulf commitment could be used to maintain high defense spending.

Then, just before the election--when the White House was emphasizing the Mideast to shift attention away from the slumping economy--Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III seemed to offer a different explanation for why we were in the gulf each day: sometimes it was jobs, sometimes it was defeating aggression, sometimes because Saddam Hussein was a "second Hitler." To paraphrase the movie title, if it's Tuesday, the reason must be Kuwaiti liberation. By mid-month, several national surveys confirmed Bush receiving only fair or poor marks for defining U.S. objectives, and public support for White House policy in the gulf was "Vietnamized."

Against this backdrop, the Administration's early November announcement of nearly doubling U.S. troop strength in the gulf--clearly displaying offensive rather than defensive intentions--shifted public and congressional nervousness into overdrive. One mid-November survey--that made only vague reference to new troop increases--did find majority support; but the most precise inquiry, by The Times poll, found a 52% to 42% majority opposing an increase of 150,000 that would nearly double U.S. personnel to 400,000. The same poll found 62% of Americans worried that the Persian Gulf crisis could "bog down and become another Vietnam situation."

This resurging Vietnam parallelism may also be a factor in rising public war reluctance. Popular majorities will endorse a variety of Persian Gulf objectives--from getting rid of Hussein to destroying Iraq's chemical warfare and nuclear capacities--if only a limited military involvement is necessary, according to The Times survey. However, no more than a third would support pursuing these goals through a major war--even to save the lives of U.S. hostages. And starting a major war over the status of Kuwait has even less support.

Two disparate national memories are in conflict. Following the easy victories of the 1980s--in Grenada, the air strike against Tripoli and the invasion of Panama--Americans cheer gunboat diplomacy. But the possibility of a lengthy, drawn-out land war is something else again.

Even before the lessons of the Vietnam, U.S. history books documented how Washington hawks always evoked some enemy provocation or attack. Consider: the Spanish-American War followed the blowing up of the battleship Maine; World War I drew on Germany's sinking of U.S. ships and the Zimmerman Telegram, in which Germany promised Mexico Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in return for an alliance; World War II needed Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor; the Korean War started after North Korea's invasion across the 38th Parallel. The U.S. escalation in Vietnam took shape after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident provoked the congressional resolution that allowed Johnson to commit U.S. troops.

Hussein could still deliver a similar provocation. But Bush's confusing multiple rationales for massive U.S. military involvement--none as yet striking a public chord--may have reduced the prospect. The Administration, moreover, is also undercut by fast-rising public insistence that Bush not attack Iraq without meeting four conditions: First, that approval be secured from Congress (70%-80% public support); second, that clearance be won from the U.N. Security Council (60% support); third, that the current sanctions and embargo be given more time (60%-70% backing), and, fourth, that the other allied nations with military forces in Arabia must be convinced to commit their troops to die with ours (50% backing). Circumventing these will be a temptation, but it could be precarious politics.

Bush's decision to commit U.S. prestige could easily emerge as a major 1990s political debate. Wars have been powerful forces in U.S. electoral history, as well as powerful magnets for partisan maneuvering over the last month. The combination of Bush's troop build-up, his ineffectiveness at explaining the Administration's goals and his disinclination to let Congress exercise its war-powers role has handed Democrats a major tactical political opportunity.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) has said Bush will "destroy himself" if he sends "American men and women into battle" for the rich Kuwaitis sitting in the Sheraton Hotel in Taif, "drinking coffee and urging us to war." Senate Democratic Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine recently added that Bush should not send U.S. troops to war if our allies won't fight with us.

With the increased public dissatisfaction, these Democratic critics do not seem to be taking much risk. Yet for nervous politicians, history suggests two restraints. The first is that a careless anti-war attitude can stir voters' sense of opposition disloyalty--for example, the Federalists during and after the War of 1812 and the Whigs following the Mexican War and some Democrats after Vietnam. Precedents like this will insure periodic White House charges that critics give aid and comfort to Baghdad.

Pattern No. 2, a potential danger to the GOP, lies in the recriminations the party in power can face--during or after the conflict. Following World War I, the Democrats--who'd been running things--were badly hurt by witch hunts over why the U.S. had gotten involved--Wall Street or greedy munitions dealers were blamed, for example--plus a 1920s resurgence of isolationism. After World War II, Washington's ruling Democratic internationalists took political heat for being soft on Russia and having lost China and Eastern Europe to communism.

Korea, too, brought political complaints against Democratic President Harry S. Truman for firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur and for being unable to win once the Red Chinese entered the fighting in October, 1950. Then the Vietnam War undercut the Democrats in 1966-68--through anti-war hostility on the left, win-or-get out anger on the right.

Wise Republicans will take these war-policy vulnerabilities seriously. While it's still too early to say Bush faces a similar trap, autumn's missteps have increased the possibility of a 1992 criticism-cum-recrimination package. Democrats can cite fumbles and miscues--from spring's courtship of Iraq to autumn's inept attempts to negotiate military burden-sharing with Japan and Germany and the President's own recent confusion over the reasons for U.S. intervention in the gulf. Published reports suggest many Middle East experts believe the White House strategy is a potential debacle. And summer's pompous White House announcement of a "New World Order" is already getting laughs.

It's also significant that criticism of Bush policies is rising among Republicans as well as Democrats. Vice President Dan Quayle has already attacked one leading critic--former-Reagan Administration Communications Director Patrick J. Buchanan, who might also be challenging Bush in 1992 primaries. Hypothesizing a "McGovern-Buchanan axis," Quayle condemned "the strain of isolationism in our party." The vice president, however, is no expert on "isolationism"--beyond his own success in isolating himself from duty in Vietnam.

Mounting GOP rank-and-file dissent suggests the White House could be playing with fire. Opponents are tapping at an old party fault line. The Persian Gulf question, if not resolved in 1991, could boost Buchanan's prospects in the early primaries from the 10%-15% level to an embarrassing 25%-35% protest vote.

Overall, voters nervous over Bush's military escalation and inadequate justifications are probably over-indulging the comparisons between Vietnam and the gulf. Many of Bush's Mideast problems and vulnerabilities, especially on the economic side, bear little relation to those of a quarter-century ago. But the rise of the Vietnam-Persian Gulf analogy is itself a measure of the increasing political stakes of U.S. intervention.

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