Monday, November 06, 2006

Pre-election musings on Vietnam and Iraq: the bitter end?

Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to hanging. Nothing is likely to save him, not even the antics of lawyer Ramsey Clark, who was thrown out of the courtroom yesterday for disrespect.

But despite all the charges against him, no one's ever accused Saddam of being dumb. Here's an interesting tidbit that shows how smart he really was: in the buildup to the Iraqi war in 2003, Saddam was already making the Vietnam analogy:

In the days leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, television stations there showed 1975 footage of U.S. embassy support personnel escaping to helicopters from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. It was Saddam's message to his people that the United States does not keep its commitments ...

Of course, Saddam's enemies in Iraq had already learned that particular lesson the hard way--from bitter personal experience after the Gulf War, when they were encouraged to revolt against Saddam by the US, which then looked the other way when they were slaughtered. But Saddam wanted to remind them, complete with visuals, that this was a recurrent US pattern.

Tomorrow's election has been billed as a referendum on the Iraq war, and the Democrats feel poised to win. But they are divided and planless, with some fearing an early pullout in Iraq and others desiring one. The former probably have studied the bitter lessons of the end stages of the Vietnam War, while the latter probably consider those end stages to have been a victory for their side.

Here's an article describing the debacle of the end game in the Vietnam War. Worth noting: once the US had withdrawn its forces, the North Vietnamese correctly surmised that we hadn't the stomach to return, no matter what the provocation. So they decided they could violate the terms of the Paris (how apropos!) Accords with impunity. When they did just that, the US responded by doing essentially nothing, giving the de facto green light to the North's final offensive against the South.

In a fascinating although lengthy article by Nixon's former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, published about a year ago in Foreign Affairs, Laird writes:

Mine is not a rosy view of the Vietnam War. I didn't miss the fact that it was an ugly, mismanaged, tragic episode in U.S. history, with devastating loss of life for all sides. But there are those in our nation who...wait for opportunities to trot out the Vietnam demons whenever another armed intervention is threatened...

...during [1973-1975, when US combat forces had withdrawn], South Vietnam held its own courageously and respectably against a better-bankrolled enemy. Peace talks continued between the North and the South until the day in 1975 when Congress cut off U.S. funding. The Communists walked out of the talks and never returned. Without U.S. funding, South Vietnam was quickly overrun. We saved a mere $297 million a year and in the process doomed South Vietnam, which had been ably fighting the war without our troops since 1973....

Vietnam gave the United States the reputation for not supporting its allies. The shame of Vietnam is not that we were there in the first place, but that we betrayed our ally in the end. It was Congress that turned its back on the promises of the Paris accord.

Laird supervised the slow withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, known as Vietnamization. It took four years. He makes it clear that it's not Congress that should be setting some sort of artificial timetable in such a process, it's the executive branch that should be responding to conditions in the field:

In those four years of Vietnamization, I never once publicly promised a troop number for withdrawal that I couldn't deliver. President Bush should move ahead with the same certainty. I also did not announce what our quantitative standards for readiness among the South Vietnamese troops were, just as Bush should not make public his specific standards for determining when Iraqi troops are ready to go it alone. In a report to Congress in July 2005, the Pentagon hinted that those measurable standards are in place. However, it would be a mistake for the president to rely solely on the numbers. Instead, his top commander in the field should have the final say on how many U.S. troops can come home, commensurate with the readiness of Iraqi forces.

Sounds reasonable to me. But I don't have confidence that a Democratic Congress won't try to force the issue and bring the troops home as soon as possible. After all, they may feel they won the election on that platform, and that their constituents demand it. As a USA Today article points out:

Bush has said repeatedly that he refuses to end the war according to an artificial timetable set by politicians in Washington, but if the polls are borne out in Tuesday's elections, the public will be setting timetables, and they will only accelerate if the situation inside Iraq continues to deteriorate.

This would be a tragedy of major proportions, both for the Iraqis, the US, and our reputation for staying the course. My hope is that, if the Democrats do win control of the House, enough of them will have learned all the lessons of Vietnam, including that of the bitter end:

Just days before his execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian statesman Sirak Mitak penned a final note to the U.S. ambassador refusing his offer of evacuation.

"I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty....You leave and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.

"But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we all are born and must die one day. I have only committed this mistake in believing in you, the Americans."

[ADDENDUM: What those serving in Iraq think, according to the Washington Post.]

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