President George W. Bush’s speech this week suggesting that the US should exorcise the ghosts of Vietnam by staying the course in Iraq was partly aimed at winning over wavering Republican lawmakers.
It marked the opening salvo in what could be the stormiest phase of the Iraq war debate; next month Congress is likely to consider a deadline for withdrawal after it hears a progress report on Mr Bush’s 30,000-troop surge.
Few believe the Democratic majority can muster the two-thirds margin needed to override Mr Bush’s veto on laws passed by Congress, which he has used twice before this year to kill less stringent resolutions.
But what remains of the president’s public standing is likely to suffer further damage if a large number of Republicans cross over to the Democratic side. Among the targets of Mr Bush’s speech was John Warner, the octogenarian senator from Virginia, who was secretary of the navy in the Nixon administration when it pulled US troops out of Vietnam in 1973.
On Thursday Mr Warner added his voice to the chorus questioning Mr Bush’s sense of history. “I read it very carefully,” said Mr Warner. “I feel that there are no parallels, really. It’s a different type of situation.”
Others, such as Ted Kennedy, the Democratic senator for Massachusetts, who described the Iraq war as “Bush’s Vietnam”, were more blunt. But most observers said they were puzzled as to why Mr Bush would link America’s most humiliating modern episode to his own immediate fortunes in Iraq.
In the speech Mr Bush likened the consequences of a rapid US withdrawal from Iraq to the genocide that Pol Pot wrought on Cambodia after 1975 and the re-education camps the Vietnamese communists set up for former collaborators with the Americans.
In what was perhaps the most history-laden speech of his presidency, Mr Bush also associated the US project in Iraq with its occupation and democratisation of Japan after 1945 and its defence of the Korean peninsula against the Chinese-backed communist uprising in 1950.
His central theme was to identify a universal yearning for freedom to which the US plays handmaiden, in a narrative beginning with the world wars and concluding with Iraq. “I recognise that history cannot predict the future with any certainty,” he said. “But history does remind us that there are lessons applicable to our time.”
So far the reception has been harsh. “Most people in America see Vietnam as
a mistake and will wonder: ‘Does President Bush mean we should still be in
Vietnam? Don’t we have good relations with Vietnam now?’ ” said Charlie Cook,
a leading political analyst. “You could hold a five-day symposium of the best brains and they still wouldn’t figure out what Mr Bush could gain from remind-
ing people of Vietnam.”
However, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser in the Carter administration and a tough critic of Mr Bush, said he saw a political logic in Mr Bush’s parallel. “Americans have accepted that the war in Iraq is unwinnable,” he said.
“But that doesn’t mean they want to see images of helicopters taking off from the Green Zone and troops abandoning tanks and equipment as they retreat. Bush was appealing to America’s desire to avoid another Vietnam-style humiliation, however wrong-headed his underlying analysis.”
Former officials say Mr Bush was also pitching for a better place in history than contemporary observers are according him. The US president has referred on several previous occasions to Harry Truman, who left office in 1952 a deeply unpopular figure but whom later generations reappraised as one of America’s most far-sighted presidents.
“President Bush has no intention of withdrawing from Iraq unless the situation has drastically improved,” said a former speechwriter to Mr Bush. “He still believes future generations will look back on the Iraq war as a historic turning point that planted democracy in the Middle East. In that he is unshakeable.”
The US president has staked out ground before only to give way when expediency dictated. Mr Bush insisted that the US was winning the war in Iraq right up until the Republican party’s defeat in mid-term elections last November. The following day he sacked Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, and ordered a review of the war.
But with just 16 months left in office and the US military dangerously overstretched, Mr Bush has almost no scope to launch another overhaul of America’s military strategy in Iraq. His options are to sustain the existing troop surge for as long as he can, or order a gradual drawdown.
“By linking Iraq to Vietnam Mr Bush has unconsciously admitted what a massive failure this war has been,” said Mr Brzezinski. “It is doubtful his speech will sway many people.”