The Analogy Quagmire

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, August 22, 2007; 1:16 PM

President Bush boldly entered risky rhetorical territory this morning, likening the war in Iraq to Vietnam.

It's an analogy Bush typically avoids, given how strongly Vietnam is associated in the national consciousness with the concept of quagmire -- and with its lesson about the limits of American military power.

But Bush today tried to turn the Vietnam analogy on its head, arguing that the U.S. withdrawal led to disaster there and emboldened American enemies around the globe. He even went so far as to argue that present-day terrorists like Osama bin Laden are inspired by the turning of American public opinion against the war in Vietnam.

The White House was so proud of this speech that Bush's new counselor, Ed Gillespie, took the unusual step of releasing extensive excerpts last night. Among them:

"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left. Whatever your position in that debate, 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,' 're-education camps,' and 'killing fields.'

"There was another price to our withdrawal from Vietnam, and we can hear it in the words of the enemy we face in today's struggle -- al-Qaeda. In an interview with a Pakistani paper after the 9/11 attacks, Bin Laden declared that 'the American people had risen against their government's war in Vietnam. They must do the same today.' . . . . Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price to American credibility -- but the terrorists see things differently."

Bush's speech was a big hit at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Kansas City. But it's hard to imagine that it will go over nearly as well with a wider audience -- not to mention with historians.

That's because the obvious lesson of Vietnam is not that leaving a quagmire leads to disaster, but that staying only makes things worse. (And oh yes: that we shouldn't get into them in the first place.)

The previews of today's speech allowed reporters and bloggers to get a head start on putting Bush's remarks in context.

James Gerstenzang and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times: "Historian Robert Dallek, who has written about the comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, accused Bush of twisting history. 'It just boggles my mind, the distortions I feel are perpetrated here by the president,' he said in a telephone interview.

"'We were in Vietnam for 10 years. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than we did in all of World War II in every theater. We lost 58,700 American lives, the second-greatest loss of lives in a foreign conflict. And we couldn't work our will,' he said.

"'What is Bush suggesting? That we didn't fight hard enough, stay long enough? That's nonsense. It's a distortion,' he continued. 'We've been in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II. It's a disaster, and this is a political attempt to lay the blame for the disaster on his opponents. But the disaster is the consequence of going in, not getting out.'"

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