By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007
KANSAS CITY, Mo., Aug. 22 -- President Bush defended his ongoing military commitment in Iraq by linking the conflict there to the Vietnam War, arguing Wednesday that withdrawing U.S. troops would lead to widespread death and suffering as it did in Southeast Asia three decades ago.
"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,' " Bush told a receptive audience at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention.
The president's decision to draw an explicit link between Iraq and Vietnam comes as he seeks to marshal support for his war policy among Republicans and to blunt calls from Democratic members of Congress for a drawdown of U.S. forces in the coming months. Although his comments played well among the veterans here -- the speech was interrupted with repeated cheers and applause -- the references to the Vietnam conflict, which remains a divisive, emotional issue for many Americans, prompted strong criticism from Democrats.
"The president is drawing the wrong lesson from history," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Bush also offered fresh support for embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, calling him a "good man with a difficult job." On Tuesday, speaking to reporters at a North American summit in Quebec, Bush had expressed his disappointment at the lack of political progress in Iraq and had said that widespread popular frustration could lead Iraqis to replace Maliki.
But in his speech to the veterans, Bush said "it's not up to the politicians in Washington, D.C., to say whether he will remain in his position. It is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship."
Later Wednesday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, echoed a call from Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for Iraq's parliament to oust Maliki if he cannot quickly forge a political compromise.
"I share Senator Levin's hope that the Iraqi parliament will replace Prime Minister Maliki with a less divisive and more unifying figure when it returns in a few weeks," Clinton said in a statement.
Fed up with the criticism, Maliki fired back in comments to reporters early Wednesday, saying that the United States should not impose conditions on his government.
"No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people," he told reporters at the end of a three-day trip to Damascus, according to the Associated Press. "Those who make such statements are bothered by our visit to Syria. We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere."
Bush's defense of his Iraq policy and the competing critiques of Maliki's leadership come as the White House prepares for its mid-September report to Congress on the progress of the war. Though the White House and even some of its Democratic critics say that the Bush administration's decision early this year to send 30,000 additional troops to Iraq has improved security in some parts of the country, both sides have expressed disappointment at the pace of political progress.
The administration has been trying to press Maliki to find some accommodation with his political rivals, particularly the Sunnis, who feel disenfranchised by his Shiite-led government. It also wants Maliki to make good on promises to disarm Shiite militias. Many Democrats, meanwhile, have pointed to the continuing political stalemate as a reason to end U.S. involvement in the conflict.
In his speech to the veterans, Bush said that to abandon Iraq now would be "devastating" and asserted that the troop buildup is contributing to military progress there. He said U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed or captured more than 1,500 al-Qaeda operatives every month since January.
"Our troops are seeing this progress on the ground," Bush said. "And as they take the initiative from the enemy, they have a question: Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they are gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq?"
Citing not just the Vietnam War but also the aftermath of other previous conflicts in Asia, Bush said U.S. action helped foster prosperous democracies in Japan and South Korea. By contrast, he said, the American withdrawal from Vietnam led to even more death, with hundreds of thousands of people dying at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, in Vietnamese re-education camps or at sea as they tried to flee communist rule in rickety boats.
"There are many differences between the wars we fought in the Far East and the war on terror we are fighting today. But one important similarity is that, at their core, they are all ideological struggles," Bush said. ". . . Today, the names and places have changed, but the fundamental character of the struggle has not. Like our enemies in the past, the terrorists who wage war in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places seek to spread a political vision of their own -- a harsh plan for life that crushes all freedom, tolerance and dissent."
"Prevailing in the struggle is essential to the future of our nation," Bush said. "And the question now that comes before us is this: Will today's generation of Americans resist the allure of retreat?"
The veterans warmly embraced Bush's comparison of the Iraq conflict with the other wars.
"I liked his speech. I agree with him. It is not time to pull out of Iraq," said Ronald Harshman, a Vietnam War veteran from Northern California. "I don't believe in giving up."
But Democratic senators, who will soon debate the future of the war, attacked Bush's analogies as flawed.
"Invoking the tragedy of Vietnam to defend the failed policy in Iraq is as irresponsible as it is ignorant of the realities of both of those wars," said Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), a Vietnam War veteran. "Half of the soldiers whose names are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall died after the politicians knew our strategy would not work. The lesson is to change the strategy, not just to change the rhetoric."
Kennedy said the United States "lost the war in Vietnam because our troops were trapped in a distant country we did not understand, supporting a government that lacked sufficient legitimacy with its people."