In comparing the Vietnam and Iraq wars in a speech last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Bush implicitly acknowledged that the present course in Iraq bares similarities to the quagmire of Vietnam. Yet the lesson he took from Vietnam was that the United States withdrew too soon, using it as justification to stay the course in Iraq:
One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that 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, reeducation camps and killing fields.
Today on ABC’s This Week, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), a Vietnam veteran who supported the Vietnam war, said that Bush’s conclusion is inaccurate. According to Webb, in Vietnam, the “overall strategic objective” was directly related to the reason for going to war — i.e. ensuring “South Vietnam not fall to communism.” But the “implementation became flawed” and the United States needed to withdraw. On Iraq, he stated:
In Iraq, we’re having a reverse situation. We have an overall strategic objective that was not directly related to what we were attempting to do in the war against international terrorism. We have good people implementing a bad strategy. It’s just not the same situation. … We’re not going to have stability in that region until the American troops are out of Iraq.
Last week, several prominent scholars — including one quoted by Bush — denounced the President’s misuse of history. UCLA historian Robert Dallek, who has written about comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, said Bush was “twisting history.” “What is Bush suggesting?” asked Dallek. “That we didn’t fight hard enough, stay long enough? That’s nonsense. It’s a distortion.”
MORAN: Senator Webb, you’re a Vietnam veteran, won a Navy Cross there, and have made no secret over the years that you feel that America betrayed the Vietnamese people and abandoned them to a cruel fate. Isn’t that what the president is saying here will happen to the Iraqis if we withdraw?
WEBB: Well, I think I may be one of the few people in government who still on the one hand strongly believes in what we attempted to do in Vietnam, and on the other hand, from the beginning, strongly warned against the strategic blunder of going into Iraq.
They simply are not comparable. If you look at even the opinions of the American people, despite the way that the Vietnam War ended, eight years after the Gulf of Tonkin, in 1972, the American people, by a margin of 74 to 11 percent, still believed that it was important that South Vietnam not fall to communism. The overall strategic objective was strong; the implementation became flawed.
In Iraq, we’re having a reverse situation. We have an overall strategic objective that was not directly related to what we were attempting to do in the war against international terrorism. We have good people implementing a bad strategy. It’s just not the same situation. And in terms of the aftermath…
MORAN: Not that we’re there…
WEBB: In terms of the aftermath, no one in a responsible position in government is saying that we should pull the plug in Iraq and have a precipitous withdrawal. What we’re trying to do is to say, eventually we have to withdraw from Iraq, we have to draw down our troops. Even the military realities of the surge, which have upswung the cycles of deployment, are going to mandate that we reduce our troops, and eventually leave.
We’re not going to have stability in that region until the American troops are out of Iraq. We have to do it in a way that brings in the other countries around the region, allows us to focus on international terrorism, and does not destabilize the region. But it must be done.