IF YOU THINK the growing similarity between Iraq and Vietnam is tragic but inadvertent, you’re not being cynical enough.
During the first years of the Iraq war, any resemblance to Vietnam was the result of the Bush administration’s disastrous miscalculations. But today, the Iraq war is looking more and more like the Vietnam War because that’s exactly what suits the White House.
Writing on this page Thursday, Jonah Goldberg praised President Bush for telling Americans that “he will settle for nothing less than winning” in Iraq. Sure, Goldberg acknowledged, Bush “may be deluding himself,” but at least he’s “trying to win.” No, he’s not.
It’s clear that Bush knows perfectly well there’s no possibility of “winning” anymore, so apparently he’s seeking in Iraq exactly what Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sought in Vietnam before the 1972 election: a face-saving “decent interval” before the virtually inevitable collapse of the U.S.-backed government.
By 1971, Nixon and Kissinger understood that “winning” in Vietnam was no longer in the cards -- so they shifted from trying to win the war to trying to win the next election. As Nixon put it in March 1971: “We can’t have [the South Vietnamese] knocked over brutally ... " Kissinger finished the thought " ... before the election.” So Nixon and Kissinger pushed the South Vietnamese to “stand on their own,” promising we’d support them if necessary. But at the same time, Kissinger assured the North Vietnamese -- through China -- that the U.S. wouldn’t intervene to prevent a North Vietnamese victory -- as long as that victory didn’t come with embarrassing speed.
As historian Jeffrey Kimball has documented, Kissinger’s talking points for his first meeting with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai on the topic of Vietnam included a promise that the U.S. would withdraw all troops and “leave the political evolution of Vietnam to the Vietnamese.” The U.S. would “let objective realities” -- North Vietnamese military superiority -- “shape the political future.” In the margins of his briefing book, Kissinger scrawled a handwritten elaboration for Chou: “We want a decent interval. You have our assurance.”
The “decent interval” strategy worked. By declaring that “peace was at hand,” Kissinger took the wind out of antiwar Democrat George McGovern’s sails, and Nixon won reelection. And though Nixon himself later fell to the Watergate scandal, the Republican Party successfully used the “decent interval” to cast the Democratic Party in the role of spoiler.
In December 1974, tired of hemorrhaging funds to prop up the failing South Vietnamese government, the Democrat-controlled Congress finally pulled the plug on further U.S. financial support. The following April, Saigon fell, just as Kissinger and Nixon had privately predicted. But enough time had elapsed for Republicans to pin the blame on South Vietnamese missteps and, most important, on the perfidy of the Democratic Party.
In the end, the Vietnam War was a terrible tragedy for the both the U.S. and the Vietnamese -- but it was a great success for the Republican Party. Nixon and Kissinger’s “decent interval” created the myth of the Democratic Party as weak and anti-military and helped keep the White House in Republican hands for all but 12 of the last 30 years.
Bush’s “surge” is the “decent interval” redux. It’s too little, too late, and it relies on the Iraqis to do what we know full well they can’t do. There is no realistic likelihood that it will lead to an enduring solution in Iraq. But it may well provide the decent interval the GOP needs if it is to survive beyond the 2008 elections.
The surge makes Bush look, as Goldberg suggests, like he really wants to win, even as he refuses to take the necessary and honest steps to mitigate the terrible damage we’ve already done. The surge buys time -- and meanwhile, the Democratic Party is placed in the same untenable position it was in during the last stages of the Vietnam War.
If it backs Bush’s feckless plan, it loses credibility with the voters, who hate the war. But if it opposes the escalation, it will be attacked for undermining the military. Ann Coulter offered a preview last week: “Democrats want to cut and run as fast as possible from Iraq, betraying the Iraqis who supported us and rewarding our enemies -- exactly as they did to the South Vietnamese.”
The Democrats need to break out of the script the White House has written for them and remind Americans that the war in Iraq is a dangerous distraction from other pressing threats to U.S. security, such as nuclear proliferation and the rise of militant Islam worldwide. They need to emphasize that withdrawal from Iraq isn’t about “defeat” -- it’s about shifting our troops, our money and our energy to the real challenges that the Bush administration is ignoring or exacerbating.
At this point, the Republicans win by losing in Iraq -- as long as they can blame the loss on the Democrats. And unless they find a way to refuse to play the game, the Democrats will just lose.