Behind Bush's History Lesson

By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, August 27, 2007

Karl Rove may be leaving the Bush administration, but at least one aspect of Rovism -- the effort to try to pivot off a perceived political liability and turn it into a strength -- seems hard-wired into the White House psyche.

That could be seen in President Bush's widely discussed speech last week drawing lessons from America's engagement in Asia since World War II. From the beginning of the Iraq War, the White House has resisted analogies to Vietnam, apparently convinced that any association with such an unpopular venture was a political loser for the president.

When Bush was asked at a news conference in June 2006 whether he saw any parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, he replied with a simple "No."

That posture changed markedly with Bush's Kansas City, Mo., address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, as the president waded into the thicket of Vietnam reinterpretation. While suggesting that he did not want to re-litigate the war, Bush sought to focus the audience on what he described as the horrific consequences of the U.S. withdrawal -- Vietnamese reeducation camps in which many perished and the hundreds of thousands of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

The inference was clear: The people who think America can get out of Iraq with minimal human costs are sadly mistaken. "Whatever your position is on that debate," Bush said, "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.' "

More than many other Bush's speeches these days, this one hit a nerve, with commentary filling up the blogosphere from the left, right and all points in between. Many believed that the president was whitewashing the mistakes that landed the United States in a quagmire.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, Boston University professor Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran, accused Bush of being "oblivious to the history that actually matters." In the Houston Chronicle, Robert Buzzanco, a professor at the University of Houston, said Bush missed the point that it was U.S. intervention in Cambodia that caused the rise of the Khmer Rouge -- an interpretation still hotly debated three decades later.

Military author Max Boot, by contrast, hailed Bush's analogy in the Wall Street Journal but said he should have gone further in laying out the lessons of Vietnam and the dangers of withdrawal.

White House officials seemed pleased with the attention to the speech. Even with the negative commentary in many quarters -- predictable, in their view -- the feeling seemed to be that they needed to do something to shake up and reframe the debate over Iraq as the Sept. 15 date approaches for a new administration assessment of the war. "Now is the time to use that argument," said one White House ally who has been involved in the war policy debate.

White House counselor Edward W. Gillespie, who oversees the speechwriting department, suggested that there was little hesitation about including the discussion of Vietnam in last week's speech, especially since Bush discussed the other great conflicts in Asia. "To have talked about South Korea and Japan, and not about Vietnam, you couldn't do that," he said.

But some outside the administration saw greater significance in the White House move. "They have not used this analogy up until now," said Peter W. Rodman, a Defense Department official in the Bush administration. Rodman co-wrote a recent New York Times op-ed with the British journalist William Shawcross, cited by Bush last week, laying out what they believe to have been the grim consequences of U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. "I have always thought they were good debating points," he added.

Whether they resonate won't be known until the fall.

What Are Friends For?

When it comes to helping Republican political candidates fill up their campaign coffers, Bush seems to be taking a fairly thick-skinned approach these days. He showed up in Mobile, Ala., in June to help raise money for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) after Sessions played a big part in helping sink his immigration bill.

Now the president plans to raise money in an Albuquerque suburb today on behalf of Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). This comes after Domenici seemed to cut off the president at the knees last month by questioning his Iraq policy and by calling for a new strategy that could end combat operations by the spring.

"There isn't any problem at all," Steve Bell, Domenici's chief of staff, said of his boss and the White House. "They knew exactly where the senator was coming from."

The White House certainly seems to be taking a more relaxed approach toward heretics than it once did. "We'll never have 100 percent agreement on every issue with every member -- that's unrealistic," spokesman Tony Fratto said. "But we certainly agree with Pete on most things, and he shares the same goals as the president."

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