Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Vietnamization; Iraqization (Part I)

Wars tend to be hard on Presidents as well as on nations. Lincoln barely survived the Civil War before he was assassinated. Wilson's health permanently deteriorated in the immediate aftermath of WWI, when he undertook a grueling speaking tour in a vain attempt to rally the country around support for the League of Nations. FDR died shortly before WWII ended, leaving the unseasoned Harry Truman to make vital decisions at its conclusion.

The Vietnam War was a bit different; no executive died (although my guess is that it may have hastened the death of Johnson, who already had a bad heart). But there's little doubt that it prematurely ended the political career of Johnson, who'd been elected in a huge landslide in 1964 but declined to run in 1968. And of course Richard Nixon, the proximate cause of whose political demise was Watergate rather than Vietnam, had to leave office before the war was over, leaving the unelected Gerald Ford to preside inneffectually over Congress's final financial abandonment of the South Vietnamese.

President Bush is still with us, despite the war (and those who wish he'd drop dead). This time, the casualty was Republican control of Congress. The Iraq War will have been started by a Republican executive paired with a Republican Congress, and will now be continued by a Republican President (at least for now) and a Democratic Congress.

Many people who have only a passing acquaintance with the history of the Vietnam War fail to realize that the first phase, escalation of American combat forces in the country, was engineered by two Democrat Presidents (Kennedy but then much more importantly Johnson) and a strongly Democratic Congress. The second part--Vietnamization, or the drawing down of US combat forces, ceding the actual fighting to the South Vietnamese--was undertaken by a Republican executive, Nixon, working with a profoundly Democratic Congress. The third stage, occurring when there were no more US combat troops in Vietnam, was presided over by a weak and unelected Republican President and a Democratic Congress, although it was the Democratic Congress that was the main player in the cutoff of funding to the South Vietnamese, sealing their fate; President Ford was active in that decision mainly by his failure to fight it, or to suggest alternatives. We can say that the Vietnam War was a bipartisan affair, but Democrats had the leading role, especially in stages one and three.

Why am I bringing this up now? We seem to be facing a decision somewhat similar to that faced by Nixon on his election: how to deal with a war that isn't going as anyone would have hoped. This commission or that commission or the other commission is studying the problem: realpolitik or not? more troops or fewer? big, long, or home?

Victor Davis Hanson, an expert on military history, has recently written a column in which he weighs current suggestions for Iraq policy, especially troop increases. He says--and I agree--that it's the second stage of the Vietnam War our present involvement should try to resemble (only we need to accomplish it more effectively, of course): that of Vietnamization.

In contrast to Vietnam, the US political parties involved in the Iraq War are somewhat reversed. The first stage of the Iraq War (if this election can be said to mark the end of the first stage, which I believe it does) was as much a Republication endeavor as the first stage of Vietnam was a Democratic one: Republican President, Republican Congress. And now, although the change of party power is different than it was in 1968 (change of legislature rather than executive) the Democrats get a chance to try their luck at the second stage, Iraqization, just as the Republican Nixon did back in early 1969 when he introduced Vietnamization. It can either be done slowly and carefully, or quickly and recklessly.

As with all parallels to Vietnam, this one is far from an exact comparison. For one thing, President Bush and the Defense Department have been trying for years to Iraqicize the conflict, although without enough success. Another difference is that the American presence in Iraq has never been close to what it was in Vietnam in terms of numbers or casualties. We deposed Saddam's regime at the outset of the war, and in record time; we never achieved that goal in Vietnam with the North Vietnamese (in fact, it doesn't really seem to have been one of our goals there). In Iraq, we're facing a conflict that's less clear geographically (although Vietnam was far from clearly demarcated), and involves far more sides, including ancient religious clashes as well as modern-day jockeying for secular power, and an enemy that's even more brutal than the North Vietnamese were (and that's saying something).

Vietnam became a war in which both Democrats and Republicans had a chance to make decisions. Peggy Noonan writes, reflecting on the change represented in the recent midterm election:

We are in a 30-year war. It is no good for it to be led by, identified with, one party. It is no good for half the nation to feel estranged from its government's decisions. It's no good for us to be broken up more than a nation normally would be. And straight down the middle is a bad break, the kind that snaps.

"Vietnamization" was a word that became a sort of joke to many liberals and those on the Left, representing the shoring up of a corrupt regime in South Vietnam, the secret bombings of Cambodia (and thus, more deception to the American people), and the final retreat and abandonment of the country. In Part II, I plan to take up a discussion of what Vietnamization actually was, and how it might relate to the decisions we face today.

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