Chicago tribune, August 22, 2007
Bush claims U.S. exit could lead to a killing field, but some historians dispute analogy
WASHINGTON — President Bush attempted Wednesday to drape war policy in Iraq in the lessons of World War II-era Japan and Vietnam as part of a broader argument for continuing the military campaign despite fierce opposition at home and abroad.
But his remarks to a VFW convention in Kansas City, Mo., also invited stinging criticism from historians and military analysts who said the analogies evidenced scant understanding of those conflicts' true lessons.
In drawing parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, Bush said: "Then as now, people argued that the real problem was America's presence, and if we would just withdraw, the killing would end." But, he added, "The world would learn just how costly those impressions would be."
It struck some historians as odd that the president would try to use Vietnam — arguably the most divisive issue of the last 40 years — to rally the nation behind his policy in Iraq.
"If we get into a Vietnam argument, the country is divided, but if you are going to try to sell this concept that the blood is on the American people's hands because we left and were weak-kneed in Asia, that is a very tenuous and inane historical argument," said historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University.
Brinkley, who wrote both a flattering book on John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign and edited the private diaries of President Ronald Reagan, said Reagan was careful to rarely talk about Vietnam because of the passions it inspired.
Bush spoke just weeks before the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, will present his assessment of the so-called troop surge in Iraq, a report that most believe will be critical in determining the level of political support that the president will be able to sustain for the war.
Several officials, including prominent Democrats such as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have recently returned from Iraq and reported signs of military progress. Those assessments, however, have been leavened by an ever-bleaker view of Iraq's political leadership on the part of those officials as well as Bush, who on Tuesday said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government must "do more" to achieve political stability.
In his address to veterans, the president compared the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the later use of kamikaze pilots to the terrorists who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. Because the United States helped to rebuild Japan, despite concerns about the cost and conflicting cultural mores, that nation became a flourishing democracy and strong ally.
But unlike the situation in Iraq with Saddam Hussein, the U.S. allowed the emperor of Japan to retain at least ceremonial power, mindful of the tradition of allegiance to the emperor in an almost homogeneous society.
Bush used Vietnam as an example of what might happen in Iraq if U.S. forces were to be withdrawn precipitously, contending that Iraq would be a killing field much like Cambodia in 1975 and that hundreds of thousands would flee for their lives like the Vietnamese boat people. His strong implication was that a lack of resolve in the U.S. contributed to that disaster.
"There are many differences between the wars we fought in the Far East and the war on terror we're fighting today," the president said. "But one important similarity is at their core, they're ideological struggles. The militarists of Japan and the communists in Korea and Vietnam were driven by a merciless vision of the proper order of humanity."
The remarks set off a discussion in Washington of both the aptness of Bush's comparisons and the political wisdom of renewing yet another discussion in this country about the consequences of the Vietnam War.
Several analysts said that the president's characterizations were at best a strained view of history. "If in fact he is drawing analogies between Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, one wonders what in the world Iraq has to do with it," said Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "The Iraq who we attacked in 2003 had no connection to 9/11."
Some found the Vietnam comparison even less persuasive. "This was history written by speech writers without regard to history," said military analyst Anthony Cordesman. "And I think most military historians will find it painful ... because in basic historical terms the president misstated what happened in Vietnam."
Indeed, the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam did not create a domino effect of spreading communism, as was feared at the time. Instead Vietnam went to war against two neighboring communist states, Cambodia and China. Now Vietnam has embraced some free-trade principles and is a trading partner with the U.S.
Cordesman noted that human tragedies similar to those that occurred in the aftermath of U.S. involvement in Vietnam already have taken place in Iraq.
"We are already talking about a country where the impact of our invasion has driven 2 million people out of the country, will likely drive out 2 million more, has reduced 8 million people to dire poverty, has killed 100,000 people and wounded 100,000 more. One sits sort of in awe at the lack of historical comparability."