Of Soldiers, Spooks, and Do-Gooders

Right wing spokespersons are dutifully picking up Bush’s “Iraq is Vietnam” theme and trudging along with it. There are a couple of examples at the Corner. Here is the reliably inane Jonah Goldberg:

The mainstream media and a lot of liberal-leaning analysts seem to think it’s politically foolish or reckless for Bush to compare Vietnam to Iraq because they have one very specific narrative in mind when it comes to that war: America shouldn’t have gotten in, couldn’t have won, and then lost. What they have long failed to grasp is that’s not the moral of the story in the hearts of millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost (whether we should have gone in is a murkier question for many, I think).

And Byron York digs up an old article by James Webb that describes the aftermath of the fall of Saigon (Webb’s full article can be found here). Webb wrote in 2000 that the antiwar view of Vietnam was oversimplified, even cartoonish, and I agree that was usually the case. But then, so was the pro-war view.

York is implying, I think, that because terrible things happened in Southeast Asia after our military left, our military should not have left. He fails to note that terrible things happened in Southeast Asia while we were still there, and that most of the really bad things that came after — such as the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge — came about because of our military actions in Southeast Asia. In other words, the monster turned loose by our leaving was one of our own creation.

And who’s to say that, had we stayed longer, the monsters that eventually would have been unleashed wouldn’t have been bigger and badder?

The Right’s sudden, tender compassion for Cambodians reminds me of the concern that materialized in 2002 for the poor gassed Kurds. American right-wingers brushed off the gassing of the Kurds when it happened, in 1988. Attempts by liberals in Congress to address the issue were squelched by the Reagan administration, which continued to support the perpetrator, Saddam Hussein. Years passed without the poor Kurds being given a second thought. But suddenly, in 2002, when the Bush Administration needed to paint Saddam Hussein as the new Hitler, the Right seized upon the gassing of the Kurds as an unforgivable atrocity — which, of course, it was and always had been. And just as suddenly American wingnuts were beside themselves with anguish over the Kurds, and they insisted another second could not be lost in coming to their rescue, even though the gassing had occurred 15 years earlier and the Kurds had been protected from Saddam Hussein by U.S. flyovers since 1991.

I agree with Goldberg that there are “millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost.” In a nation of more than 300 million you can find several million people who believe just about anything. However, I doubt that remorse over what happened to southeast Asians flickered through all that many wingnut hearts. It was, as Goldberg said, all about “prestige and honor.” And when Goldberg writes —

This is a point the Democrats fail to grasp: being on the side of surrender in a war is popular enough during the war, but if you succeed lots of Americans will later get buyer’s remorse and feel like it was a mistake and the next generation will see things very differently than their anti-war activist parents.

he fails to understand that millions of Americans in the early 1970s wanted us to stay in Vietnam, and these are the millions who kept alive the “we could have won had we stayed” notion. It wasn’t “buyer’s remorse,” because minds didn’t change. Somewhere in America there may be a handful of people who opposed the Vietnam war at the time but came to regret ending it, but I’ve never met such a person. The hawks, on the other hand, nursed their bitterness and shame, stubbornly refusing to notice that leaving Vietnam had no bad effects on the United States. Which, IMO, amounted to big honking empirical proof that what happened to South Vietnam was not a vital interest of the United States, and we shouldn’t have sent troops there to begin with.

What Really Happened in America is that once we were out of Vietnam the whole nation dropped the subject like a hot potato. This was a bipartisan subject dropping. The terrible things happening in Southeast Asia after 1975 had no measurable political ramifications here in the U.S. that I can think of.

It may be, as Goldberg suggests, that Americans too young to remember the Vietnam War themselves have been persuaded that we could have “won” had we stayed. It’s fairly easy to support a war when you are in no danger of being drafted to fight it. But in all these years no Vietnam War hawk has ever been able to explain to me what we would have “won” had we won, except more and bigger trouble, possibly from the Soviets, or China. Hawks never think past the parade.

Vietnam and Iraq are similar in that they present the same paradox — that victory could equal defeat. By that I mean using enough military force to utterly crush the warring factions would amount to throwing away our political objectives. The operative phrase, I believe, is “Pyrrhic victory.” To those who continue to complain that we could have “won” in Vietnam, and could still “win” in Iraq, I say, of course. But this isn’t a game. Get over childish ideas about “victory” and “defeat” and see the bigger picture, for once.

Instead of talking about winning and losing, we should clearly understand what our objectives are in Iraq and then consider how those objectives might be achieved. Military “victory” and “defeat” are abstractions that don’t apply to the reality.

Vietnam and Iraq are different in that, once out of Iraq, I doubt we will be able to shove it out of our minds as we did Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. The Middle East is far more strategically important to us than Southeast Asia was. How we withdraw really does need to be given serious thought and planning. Just because we Americans could ignore what happened in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s doesn’t mean we will be able to ignore what happens in Iraq after we leave. Matters could get worse there. On the other hand, they could get better. There are so many variables I don’t think anyone can know with certainty how events will play out. However, the argument that we can’t leave because the situation might get worse if we do does not wash.

Andrew J. Bacevich writes in today’s Los Angeles Times:

Politics, not ideology, will determine the future of the Middle East. That’s good news and bad news. Good news because the interests and aspirations of Arabs and non-Arabs, Shiites and Sunnis, modernizers and traditionalists will combine to prevent any one faction from gaining the upper hand. Bad news because those same factors guarantee that the Middle East will remain an unstable mess for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes people can manage their own affairs. Does the U.S. need to attend to that mess? Perhaps not.

Here the experience of Vietnam following the U.S. defeat is instructive. Once the Americans departed, the Vietnamese began getting their act together. Although not a utopia, Vietnam has become a stable and increasingly prosperous nation. It is a responsible member of the international community. In Hanoi, the communists remain in power. From an American point of view, who cares?

Bush did not even allude to the condition of Vietnam today. Yet the question poses itself: Is it not possible that the people of the Middle East might be better qualified to determine their future than a cadre of American soldiers, spooks and do-gooders? The answer to that question just might be yes.

There is much hysterical rhetoric coming from war supporters about the “cause of freedom.” I suggest the best way to support the “cause of freedom” is to let people have it.

See also Dan Froomkin’s “The Lost Year” and the Saturday cartoons.

Update: This post of Digby’s slipped my mind, but deserves to be mentioned here. A right-wing organization called Family Security Matters sent around an email, since scrubbed, advocating nuking Iraq.

The wisest course would have been for President Bush to use his nuclear weapons to slaughter Iraqis until they complied with his demands, or until they were all dead. Then there would be little risk or expense and no American army would be left exposed. But if he did this, his cowardly electorate would have instantly ended his term of office, if not his freedom or his life.

And this reveals the “inadequacy of democracy.” Barbara Comstock, Monica Crowley, Frank Gaffney, Laura Ingraham and James Woolsey are among the righties on the Family Security Matters board of directors.