Vietnam-like defeat in Iraq will have far worse consequences

The political cartoon on my office wall shows Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a frazzled father trying to drive the car while kids in the front and back seats yell, "Is it Vietnam yet?"

Daryl Cagle's cartoon was delightful back in March 2003, lampooning critics of the war in Afghanistan. Now it's a mordant commentary on Iraq.

The tragic fact is that Iraq has become Vietnam -- a noble cause that has lost the support of the American people and Congress and is on the verge of ending in disaster. But this time, the consequences will be much worse.

Noble cause? Yes. The United States tried to save South Vietnam from being conquered by brutal communists. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush was trying to prevent weapons of mass destruction, which nearly everyone thought Iraq had, from being handed over to terrorists. And he wanted to bring democracy to Iraq as a model for the Middle East.

I think history shows that the United States and South Vietnam might have prevailed against the North but for the flagging will of the American people and opposition from the media and Congress.

For sure, as recent commentary has reminded us, the 1968 Tet offensive was a colossal military defeat for the communists -- 58,000 killed in two months -- even though it convinced Walter Cronkite and American elites that the war was unwinnable.

And so, it became unwinnable. Once Gen. Creighton Abrams took over as U.S. commander in Vietnam in 1968 and instituted new tactics, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces began winning battle after battle, but, as Abrams complained to his staff, "we never get a break from the umpires" in the media or Congress.



The Nixon policy of "Vietnamization" worked, too. U.S. troops were withdrawn over a four-year period and the South Vietnamese army successfully beat back a North Vietnamese offensive in 1972.

But in June 1973, Congress passed, in bipartisan fashion and with veto-proof margins, an amendment forbidding any further U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, meaning that the United States could not bomb to thwart a new invasion.

In December 1974, after Democrats had gained 49 seats in the post-Watergate election, Congress voted to cut off all military funding to South Vietnam. In March 1975, the North invaded. On April 10, then-President Gerald Ford begged Congress for $722 million in military aid and $250 million in humanitarian aid. Congress refused the military aid. South Vietnamese resistance collapsed and Saigon fell on April 30.

This movie is being replayed in 2006. The Ramadan massacres this year killed 93 American soldiers (compared with 4,000 during Tet), but the effect on U.S. morale seems similar. Most of the American media has been portraying Iraq as a lost cause nearly from the beginning, but now Bush is losing Republican supporters such as Sens. John Warner (Va.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.).

It took six months after Tet before opposition to the Vietnam War reached 50 percent, according to the Gallup Poll, and it was at 60 percent in January 1973, when the United States had lost 58,000 dead. The United States has lost 2,800 in Iraq, but opposition first hit 50 percent barely a year after the invasion and now stands at 58 percent.

In the face of election-year opposition, Bush has been forced to drop his "stay the course" theme and emphasize his efforts to adjust to enemy tactics. He is valiantly -- perhaps, desperately -- trying to prevent a total collapse of U.S. will and defeat in Iraq, but all around him there are calls for a major "course correction."

The Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., is expected to recommend that Iran and Syria, countries that are fueling violence in Iraq, be invited to help determine its destiny.

If Democrats take over Congress next year, particularly in a 1974-style sweep, they've indicated that they'll repeat the Vietnam pattern of legislation restricting U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Prospective Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told The Washington Post that majority Democrats would push for the immediate start of a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, to be completed by the end of 2007.

In an MSNBC interview Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the Democrats' plan "is to stop policing a civil war, to redeploy our troops over the next year, taking a large number out of harm's way, and focusing only on counterterrorism, force protection, training and logistics."

Can the U.S. side win in Iraq? Conceivably, it can -- if the United States pressures the fractious Iraqi government to write a new constitution and reach a national reconciliation agreement that's fair to the Sunnis, and if Iraqi security forces get trained to fight for their country. It may take the threat of U.S. withdrawal, preferably delivered in private, to get the Iraqis' attention.

But a precipitous U.S. withdrawal and defeat in Iraq will produce results far worse than in Vietnam, and that was bad enough. More than 2 million people were killed in Vietnam and Cambodia after 1975. Believing the United States to be weak, the Soviet Union was emboldened to invade Afghanistan, and Islamic radicals took over Iran.

Henry Kissinger, too, has seen this movie before, as secretary of State under former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Last year, he wrote in The Washington Post that "because of the long reach of the Islamist challenge, the outcome in Iraq will have an even deeper significance than that in Vietnam.

"If a Taliban-type government or a fundamentalist radical state were to emerge in Iraq, shockwaves would ripple through the Islamic world. Radical forces in Islamic countries ... would be emboldened in their attacks on existing governments. The safety and internal stability of all societies within reach of militant Islam would be imperiled."

If the United States fails in Iraq, Bush and Rumsfeld will be to blame, just as President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara were, for grossly misjudging the difficulty of the task and the strength of U.S. will, as well as for mishandling the war, the diplomacy and the domestic politics.

But all of us -- including Democrats in Congress -- will pay the consequences. It behooves them, if they win in November, not to repeat history.

(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)

Copyright 2006, Roll Call Newspaper

Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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