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Saturday, May 19, 2007

"Nations and Governments Have Never Learned Anything from History"

In comparing Iraq and Vietnam, the author find that "some of the parallels sound disturbingly familiar today ... and give us a disquieting sense of how hard it can be for policymakers to learn from history":

Iraq Isn't Like Vietnam -- Except When It Is, by Robert Dallek, Commentary, Washington Post: These days, it's not terribly original to say that the Iraq war is like the Vietnam War. ... Like most historical analogies, it's a pretty inexact one. ... But having studied President Lyndon B. Johnson's descent into the Vietnam abyss, and having just spent several years poring over Vietnam-era papers and tapes from President Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, I've found that some of the parallels sound disturbingly familiar today. They're not perfect, but they're instructive....

Like Johnson and Nixon, President Bush is hoping that adding troops will turn a civil war around, is relying on local, U.S.-trained forces to stave off defeat, and is worried that failure will undermine America's international credibility. Bush also disdains antiwar voices and is determined to prove them wrong in the long view of history. But unlike Johnson and Nixon, he doesn't seem to realize that his war is lost. Instead of learning from his predecessors, Bush seems to be replicating their mistakes.

The parallels may be most stark when it comes to the current troop increase in Iraq. Military escalation was also LBJ's answer to unrelenting attacks ... in an uncontrollable civil war -- an increase from 16,800 advisers in 1963 to 545,000 combat troops by 1968. But compare that with Bush's increase of about 28,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. If more than half a million troops couldn't succeed in Vietnam, is a total U.S. force of more than 160,000 likely to pacify Iraq? ...

We can see another important similarity by considering "Vietnamization," Nixon's 1970s program to arm and train South Vietnam's forces to take care of their country's security. In effect, Nixon hoped that as the South Vietnamese stood up, the United States would stand down. Today Bush is trying something eerily similar with the Iraqi military. But it's proving no more capable than its predecessor in Indochina. During a typically ineffective South Vietnamese offensive against North Vietnamese forces in early 1971, Nixon privately seethed with frustration. "If the South Vietnamese could just win one cheap one," he fumed to his national security aides. "Take a stinking hill. . . . Bring back a prisoner or two." When the South Vietnamese air force failed to attack North Vietnamese trucks because they were "moving targets," Nixon exploded with invective that can't be printed...

The Bush administration can also be as dismissive of dissenters as were its Vietnam-era predecessors. Johnson sneered that 1960s doves were "nervous Nellies," and Nixon went even further, secretly encouraging public attacks on antiwar activists, whom he considered traitors. Today, Bush and Vice President Cheney blast the news media as defeatist and warn that listening to Iraq naysayers will mean disaster. Meanwhile, Bush offers hopeful assessments of the Iraq war that echo Johnson and Nixon, who also urged Americans to stay the course.

But unlike Johnson and Nixon, who eventually accepted that victory in Vietnam was probably impossible, Bush can't bring himself -- in public, at least -- to admit that success is out of reach. He and GOP surrogates pilloried Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, for saying recently that "this war is lost." But even LBJ was wiser than that. In 1968, after the Tet Offensive, Johnson finally understood that South Vietnamese ineptitude, Viet Cong strength and American impatience with the grinding conflict meant that the United States simply had to end its involvement and cut a deal at the Paris peace talks. ...

Such private honesty didn't mean public candor -- let alone withdrawal. .... [D]espite Nixon and Kissinger's behind-the-scenes pragmatism, they continued the fighting for four bloody years... Throughout, they knew that victory was impossible but hoped that military pressure on Hanoi would force the North Vietnamese into what Nixon called "peace with honor" -- a deal that could end the United States' commitment while preserving its international credibility.

That leads us to another important similarity. Bush, ... senior officials have warned that defeat in Iraq would have a catastrophic impact on U.S. credibility. Wittingly or not, they are echoing the assumption from LBJ's "best and brightest" and Nixon's national security team that a quick exit from Vietnam would undermine the United States' standing abroad -- turning a superpower, as Nixon put it, into "a pitiful, helpless giant." In fact, withdrawal did no such thing. What truly hurt America's international reputation on Nixon's and Kissinger's watch (Watergate aside) was the continuation of the conflict for four futile years... In fact, U.S. credibility was enhanced by ending a war that it could not win...

Bush is now fighting both in the arena of politics and in the arena of history. Having bet his presidency on Iraq, he seems to be planning to leave the war to the next administration, which he no doubt assumes may be Democratic, and then blame it for whatever additional disarray erupts when the United States withdraws.

And here, Bush is more like Nixon than he probably appreciates. Although Nixon had privately given up on the Vietnam War early in his first term, he wanted to label Democrats as "the party of surrender." For Bush, the silver lining in Democrats' new control of Congress is the chance it gives him to shift the blame for disaster or defeat. If the war continues to go badly, the White House is increasingly arguing, it is not because of any misjudgments from Bush or Cheney, Rice or Donald H. Rumsfeld; rather, the problem will be those "cut-and-run" congressional opponents who withheld funding from the troops and fatally demoralized the gallant Iraqis.

Bush's current hope is that history will vindicate him, even if 2008 may not. If he uses LBJ and Nixon as his measuring sticks, however, he will find that history is far more likely to condemn him -- not just for manufacturing reasons to fight an unsuccessful war, and not just for bucking public opinion, but also for failing to think seriously about the past. "Nations and governments have never learned anything from history," Hegel said. Historians like to think that's not true, but there are times when it's hard to believe otherwise.

    Posted by on Saturday, May 19, 2007 at 01:26 PM in Economics, Iraq and Afghanistan, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (40)

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