Monday, January 22, 2007
Ghosts of Vietnam
Ghosts Of Vietnam
January 17, 2007
Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success (John Wiley & Sons). The views expressed here are his own.
For a time, conservatives reacted to those who raised parallels between Iraq and Vietnam with shock, dismay, even rage. How dare anyone try to draw a parallel to a war built on presidential lies, false claims of American interests at stake and a steady flow of American deaths, each one offered so the last would not be in vain? But lately the comparisons to Vietnam have come more often in the form of warnings to Democrats: Don’t get carried away, or you will once again be branded the party of hippies and draft-dodgers, peaceniks and pot-smokers, bringing America down with your depressing vibe, crunching our patriotic buzz with talk of defeat and dishonor. You’ll be called “soft,” you won’t be trusted with our nation’s security and the charge of wimpishness will stick to you for decades to come.
Before Democrats react as they often do—with terror and frantic me-too hawkishness at the mere mention of the word “hippie”—they should take note of how often their opponents offer their friendly counsel to recommend timidity. Richard Nixon’s boundless enthusiasm for carpet-bombing notwithstanding, Vietnam always belonged to a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson. And though our next president will no doubt spend much of his or her time mopping up the bloody remains of this spectacular misadventure, Iraq will always be George W. Bush’s war.
And as in Vietnam, the American public has turned against a war they initially were persuaded to support. It was in August 1968—four years after the passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution authorizing President Johnson to launch a full-scale war—that, for the first time, over 50 percent of Americans branded the Vietnam War a mistake. The Tet offensive earlier that year had finally convinced Americans that the mission was doomed. Though a military success, Tet showed that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese were not going anywhere and there was no end in sight.
And just as the Bush administration so often reminds us of the extraordinary “progress” being made in Iraq, in Vietnam the government always saw the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Today opinions on Iraq match the final public conclusions on Vietnam: six in 10 Americans saying it was a mistake, and three in four disapproving of the job the president is doing on the issue (Johnson’s approval ratings on his handling of Vietnam bottomed out at 27 percent in an August 1967 Gallup poll; the latest one puts approval of President Bush’s handling of Iraq at 26 percent).
But the real reason Vietnam ended up hurting Democrats wasn’t the simple fact of their opposition to the war. Let’s remember that in the 1960s, America went through a full-blown culture war that makes our own seem like the tiniest of molehills. (In truth, it would be more accurate to say that it’s all one long culture war, but the conflict then was at a period of particular intensity.) During Vietnam, Americans had real fears (justified or not) of anarchy in the streets. High school students walked out of their classes, college students burned their draft cards and young people challenged the very foundations of the society on which comfortable middle-class life was built.
However we view those conflicts today, millions of Americans genuinely believed that they were personally under assault from the anti-war movement and the larger counterculture. Today, only the truly insane could believe that their very way of life is being threatened by an opposition to the war that is by any historical standard extraordinarily measured and well-behaved. This is not to say that conservatives won’t attempt to blame liberals for the failure of Bush’s war—of course they will. They can’t blame themselves, after all. (Kevin Baker examined this topic in his extraordinary article in last June’s Harper’s , “Stabbed in the Back! The Past and Future of a Right-Wing Myth.” It is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the politics of national security.)They will nonetheless have an awfully tough time making the case to anyone but the most fevered of Bush loyalists, a group that grows smaller by the day.
The Power of Positive Thinking
Johnson was famously tortured by the war in Vietnam, spending sleepless nights fretting about the casualties and the dim prospects for success. Bush, on the other hand, told People magazine in December, “I must tell you, I’m sleeping a lot better than people would assume.” Second-guessing oneself, in Bush’s endless cycle of insecurity and overcompensation, is for wimps. Steadfastness, firmness, lack of doubt — these things are not only critical to success, as far as Bush is concerned, they actually have the power to create success, to bend the world to your iron will. In the five years since 9/11, Bush has acted like a self-help seminar graduate, converted to the gospel of self-confidence, convinced that doubt forms the paving stones of the road to failure. He paid $395 for that afternoon of pep talks, and he’ll be damned if he isn’t going to let confidence be the key to the life he’s always wanted.
But it isn’t Tony Robbins whispering into Bush’s ear; it’s Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger, a veritable Bobbsey Twins of Death. As Bob Woodward’s latest book reported, Kissinger, former secretary of state under Nixon, has become a frequent visitor to the White House, counseling Bush not to go all wobbly. Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney— the man who peddled phony Iraqi connections to 9/11 long after they had been discredited; the man who in August 2002 told us, “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us”; the man who in May 2005 told us that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes” — is eagerly creating the next wave of the war.
Cheney told Fox News this Sunday, “The threat that Iran represents is growing, it’s multidimensional, and it is, in fact, of concern to everybody in the region.” (Reporting the latest news from Bizarro Iraq, Cheney also said in the interview that “we have, in fact, made enormous progress” there.) Whatever the true extent of Iran’s machinations in Iraq, they certainly didn’t begin last week. Yet all of a sudden, we hear Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and other assorted administration mouthpieces sounding dreadfully concerned about Iran.
When the “surge” (you can feel the testosterone every time you say it) fails to make Iraq’s warring sects join hands and inaugurate an Iraqi Spring of peace and togetherness, it will likely be blamed on the mullahs and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seems only too eager to become America’s next dark villain, complete with the standard-issue Hitler comparisons (Don’t you know he denies the Holocaust?!? We may have no choice but to invade.)
Talk of “victory” has recently disappeared from the president’s public utterances, as the idea grows ever more fanciful. There will be no banner headlines proclaiming our triumph, no ticker-tape parades, no one thrusting their arms in the air and shouting, “Woo-hoo! We won!” One way or another we will leave Iraq, and the best we can hope to feel is relief that our part in this miserable orgy of death and suffering has finally come to an end. One way or another we will leave, and there will be no joy on that day.
Watching Bush speak about Iraq of late, one can see the faint glimmer of defeat in his eyes. He often speaks of history, arguing that what today seems like epic stupidity, stunning naiveté, unfathomable incompetence and shameless dishonesty will, some decades hence, be seen by all as the soul of wisdom and vision. That hope may be all he has left. But it is enough to keep him comfortable in his bed, resting peacefully until morning.
[WA: He has his delusions to keep him warm.]
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