The Vietnam comparison

Sen. Norm Coleman (R–Minn.) sent my mind back four decades this week during Senate hearings on the progress of the Iraq war. “Americans want to see light at the end of the tunnel,” Coleman said. Ahhh, yes — like Vietnam, where the glimmer of light the generals saw at the far end of the tunnel turned out to be an oncoming train.

For the past four years, as Americans have grown more and more weary of our misadventure in Iraq, I have tried to avoid comparing Iraq to Vietnam. It was too simplistic, I thought. But President Bush has raised the issue on several occasions. Last November, on a trip to Vietnam, he sat before a bust of the victorious Ho Chi Minh and told us how that war had shaped his thinking on Iraq. “We’ll succeed, unless we quit,” the president said. A few weeks ago he tried to “provide broader context” for the Petraeus/Crocker report on progress in Iraq by invoking Vietnam to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, Mo. The president argued that America’s hasty retreat from Vietnam had emboldened today’s terrorists.

As we wait for the president to announce the next phase of his Iraq strategy, I find myself reminded of another Texan and his unpopular war. Lyndon Johnson was as concerned with history as George Bush is. Johnson didn’t want to be “the first American president to lose a war,” so much so that he chose to leave the White House rather than change his policies.

Johnson also brought his generals home to justify his strategic choices. Gen. William Westmoreland delivered a series of positive assessments to Congress between 1964 and 1968, when he was kicked upstairs to Army chief of staff after the Tet Offensive. At the time, President Johnson cited these reports as justification for continuing his strategy, much as President Bush will Thursday evening.

Forty years later, only the spin has changed. Gen. David H. Petraeus is much more cautious in his assessment of the progress in Iraq. He is poised, reasoned and rational as he acknowledges the going is slow. He cites statistics, uses anecdotal evidence and insists that things are getting better. He just needs more time. He brought Ambassador Ryan Crocker with him to divert attention from the 18 benchmarks set by Congress to measure progress in Iraq. They have stayed on-message in their congressional appearances, insisting that an early withdrawal from Iraq would be catastrophic for U.S. interests.

Like Johnson before him, this president had determined his Iraq strategy long before the general and the ambassador took their seats to testify this week. Bush fully intends to stay the course in Iraq until he hands off the war to a new president, likely of a different political party. That, too, is very familiar. Just as Lyndon Johnson did, George Bush will leave someone else to struggle with how to disengage from a war we should never have been in. “Let Hillary Clinton march out of Iraq carrying a white flag,” chortles one Republican strategist.

There will be nothing new announced Thursday. We will probably hear that 30,000 troops will come home next spring, just as was always intended. We’ll continue to buy time. But as Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) asked of Petraeus, “Buy time? For what?” Everyone agrees that Iraq is a political problem, not a military one. Even the president has said he is frustrated by the failure of the Iraqi government to reform. If our strategy remains the same, why would we expect theirs to change?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has observed that “the president has a tin ear to [public] opinion on this war.” I’m not sure she has it right. Bush knows the American people want the war to end. He just doesn’t care. Like Lyndon Johnson, he’s made up his mind. But unlike Johnson, he is not paying a personal political price. This president has managed to get his way despite the opposition of nearly 70 percent of American voters. He has cleverly threaded the needle these past two years, buying time with a “surge” solution, holding off growing opposition within his own party and now finessing a progress report that was supposed to bring him to heel. Bush has proven to be a cleverer politician than many thought. More clever, perhaps, than the towering Texan who occupied that office 40 years ago. George W. Bush will leave judgment of his presidency to history. He will also leave someone with a terrible mess to clean up.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com

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