Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Is Iraq like Vietnam? Wrong question.

Last week the President formally announced the designated autumn 2007 argument for justifying a continuing US military presence in Iraq.
" ... 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' ..."
The Designated Argument: Since the Democrats voted to cut off funding for Vietnam in 1975, and massacres occurred in Cambodia, irresponsible Democrats were to blame and Congress must continue to support the President to avoid the same outcome in Iraq. The argument is usually illustrated in blogs by the iconic photo of the helicopter evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon seen at the top of this post.

This is not a new argument. It has been a staple on right-of-center blogs and comment threads since Republicans realized there was a possibility of losing their congressional majorities in the mid-terms. It was used last year to argue why it was so vitally important for the Republicans to retain majority control in Congress [October 2006 RedState example here*]. We have already seen how effective that argument was with the American electorate in the midterms. It will be equally ineffective now. The argument is intellectually bankrupt for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, we will hear it over and over again before, during, and after the Petraeus report next month.

The Wrong Question. The Right Question.
The primary problem with invoking Vietnam as a reason to stay the course in Iraq, is that the argument is a red herring. Arguing whether presumed actions and consequences in 1975 Vietnam are applicable to 2007 Iraq is a fundamentally unresolvable and ultimately unknowable argument. It serves only to distract attention from the real question. The real question is not "Is the 1975 Congressional cutoff of funds for Vietnam an appropriate historical lesson for 2007 Iraq? The real question is "Can we trust the judgment of this President and this administration to understand/predict the consequences of any military decision or action in Iraq?

The primary responsibility of the President of the United States, is the role of Commander in Chief with the responsibility of protecting the security of the United States. My view, like most Americans, is that the President should be afforded wide latitude and the benefit of the doubt when assessing whether military action is required to meet a threat to our country or our people. I believe that it is not only reasonable, but incumbent on the American people to support the President if he determines there is a threat. That is his job. that is what we elect him to do.

President Bush was given that latitude by the American people through their elected representatives in Congress in October 2002. I supported that decision. In November,2002 - 70% of Americans supported taking military action to remove Saddam Hussein if diplomacy failed, based on the representations of this administration that Iraq and Saddam Hussein represented a real threat. By June of this year, only 30% of Americans supported the war in Iraq and 66% believed the war was either a mistake in the first place, or badly mismanaged. This President and this administration lost the confidence and support of the American people for one simple reason - They demonstrated unequivocally that they do not deserve that support.

This is the key point - the confidence the American people placed on the judgment of this president and this administration in 2002 proved to be misplaced. The threat was not imminent. The stated rationale for the war was wrong. Over the course of the occupation, the administration moved the goalposts (objectives for the war) again and again. The nature and resilience of the enemy was misunderstood. The planning for the occupation was non-existent. The force structure deployed to maintain stability was inadequate. Bad decisions were piled on bad decisions. Dogma took precedence over analysis. Political loyalty took precedence over competence. Failures of civilian and military leadership were not recognized by the administration in a timely manner and action to replace that failed leadership came far too late.

For these reasons and more the American people have lost confidence in the ability of this president and administration to competently prosecute this war. The critics of the war are not to blame. The architects and strategists for this war are to blame. If it is incumbent on the American people to support the president when a threat is identified, it is equally incumbent on the administration to be right about the reasons for war, and demonstrate competence in prosecuting the war. Failing that, the administration has no right to expect to retain the confidence of the American people in their judgment on matters of war.

The question is not whether leaving Iraq will create a bloodbath like Vietnam. The question is whether the American people can trust the judgment of this President and administration to make that assessment.

The verdict of the majority of Americans is in, and the answer is no. This administration has forfeited any expectation of retaining the confidence and support of the American people in their judgment on war. As a result, we have no alternative but to substitute the collective judgment of our representatives in Congress, until such time as we elect a new president. This is not optimal, in fact, it is a very, very bad substitute. We just have no other choice.

This is not to say, that the Petraeus "surge" strategy should be dismissed out of hand as the appropriate strategy now. Personally, I am highly dubious. For me to support it, I have to hear that Congress supports it, as I have no confidence in this President to make a correct war decision. The "surge" debate in Congress will be contentious, heated, with strongly expressed views on both side. That is the way it should be. That is the way our government is designed to work. But arguments comparing a 1975 cutoff of funds for Vietnam to 2007 Iraq will not be persuasive.

That said, and despite Kevin Sullivan's reasonable admonition, it is worth considering the factual basis of the rhetorical question in the title of this post - to explore whether, which and how lessons extracted from the Vietnam experience can be applied to Iraq.

Over the next couple of posts, we'll stage that question by casting two actors who had major roles to play in both the Vietnam and Iraq theater - Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell.

*NOTE: This example is, coincidently, the very comment exchange that caused RedState to ban DWSUWF, a state that continues to this day, despite my conversion to Republicanism and supporting a Republican for President in 2008. It is a puzzlement.

Divided and Balanced.™ Now that is fair.

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