Echoes of Vietnam

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, June 30, 2005

About two years ago I sat down with a colleague and explained why Iraq was not going to be Vietnam. Iraq lacked a long-standing nationalist movement and a single charismatic leader like Ho Chi Minh. The insurgents did not have a sanctuary like North Vietnam, which supplied manpower, materiel and leadership, and the rebel cause in Iraq -- just what is it, exactly? -- was not worth dying for. On Tuesday President Bush proved me wrong. Iraq is beginning to look like Vietnam.

The similarity is most striking in the language the president used. First came the vast, insulting oversimplifications. The war in Iraq was tied over and over again to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, although that link was nonexistent. The Sept. 11 commission said in plain English that there was no connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Even a line such as we must "defeat them abroad before they attack us at home" had a musty, Vietnam-era sound to it. Whether it's true or not, it is an updated version of the domino theory: if not Saigon then San Francisco.

Second, just as Lyndon Johnson and others referred to communism as if it were a worldwide monolith, so Bush talks about terrorists. He mentioned "terrorists" 23 times, and while he also occasionally employed the word "insurgents," his emphasis was on the wanton murders of the former and not the political aims of the latter. He even cited the terrorist leader and al Qaeda associate "Zarqawi" by name, saying the United States would never "abandon the Iraqi people to men" like him -- strongly suggesting that he was the problem in Iraq. Abu Musab Zarqawi, though, is only part of the problem.

Bush sounded downright Johnsonian in talking about progress in Iraq. He cited rebuilt "roads and schools and health clinics," not to mention improvements in "sanitation, electricity and water." This, too, had a familiar ring. We got the same sort of statistics in Vietnam. Some of them were simply concocted, but most, I think, were sort of true. Roads were paved, schools were opened and village councils were elected -- and yet, somehow, it never mattered. The newly elected village council could meet in the newly opened school and get there on a newly paved road -- and spend the night planning an attack on U.S. forces. It is all so depressing.

In Vietnam, it took the United States forever to recognize that it was fighting not international communism but a durable and vibrant nationalist movement led by communists. Something similar may be happening in Iraq. Yes, foreign terrorists are flocking to the country. But the Sunni insurgency is a different thing. The Sunnis may work with foreign terrorists and gladly use their expertise, but their goals are not the same. The salient and depressing fact remains that no insurgency can survive for long without either the cooperation or the apathy of the populace. Someone's making bombs, and someone's not turning him in. Bush may extol Iraqi democracy, but at the moment not enough Iraqis feel it is worth dying for.

Finally, Bush descended to Vietnam-speak. This is the language used by the Johnson and Nixon administrations to obscure the truth by emitting a fog of numbers. Thus Bush cited the "8 million Iraqi men and women" who voted, the "30 nations" with troops in Iraq (a total joke, and the president knows it), the "40 countries" and "three international organizations" that have pledged "$34 billion" in reconstruction assistance (another joke), the "80 countries" that recently met in Brussels to aid Iraq, and the "160,000 security forces trained and equipped for a variety of missions" -- one of them being, clearly, to stay out of harm's way.

The war Bush declared to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction is not the war being waged. The two have only one thing in common: rhetorical sleight of hand. Yet the consequences of pulling out of Iraq would be awful. The day Saigon fell I was ashamed for my country -- an ugly, disgraceful retreat. I don't want that to happen again. But unless Bush rethinks his strategy, fires some people who long ago earned dismissal, examines his own assumptions (what's the point of continuing to isolate Iran and Syria when we need them both to seal Iraq's borders?) and talks turkey to the American people, he will lose everything good he set out to do, including the example Iraq could set for the rest of the Middle East. I know Iraq is not Vietnam. But Tuesday night it sure sounded like it.

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