Sunday, August 26, 2007

1972

The trouble with quoting history is that the idea presumes that you might actually have studied it-or worse yet-understand it in context. Neither of the those assumptions is a good bet when it comes to considering the current occupant of the Oval Office.

During a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Wednesday, Mr. Bush compared Iraq to Vietnam. Now to me that's a bit of a stretch given the very real differences between the timeline that brought Iraq to where it is today, and the pre-mature birth and short, sickly life that was that of the Republic of Vietnam. However in one point he may be correct-Bush is at exactly the same point that Richard Nixon was when New Years Day dawned in 1972.

Both Bush and Nixon were (are) in the position of trying to engineer an exit from a protracted conflict that is doing nothing good for the national interest. Both men had to do it in such a manner so as not to have the poorly governed state we leave behind fall apart when we left. Nixon had "Peace with Honor"; Bush has "Free Iraq is within reach". Neither statement was correct-they both were designed to distract folks from the fact that the US was cutting its losses and moving ahead to deal with more important items to the national interest. In the case of Vietnam, Nixon was hoping for a repeat of the Korean Armistice (some have argued he was really just hoping the RVN would hold on long enough so that we could not be blamed for when it fell..); Bush is hoping that a re-run of post colonial Malaysia can be attained. Now as in 1972, both men were deluding themselves.

Or maybe just one of the men is deluding himself. There is a lot of evidence that, in 1972, Nixon knew exactly what he was doing. Just go back and read some of Kissinger's stuff.

In both years, America had weak leaders that they stood by-Nixon had Thieu, Bush has Malaki-both of whom were pursuing agendas that were not entirely about improving the lot of their people. In 1972 Nixon upped the military ante significantly in response to a large offensive in Vietnam. In 2007 Bush upped the military ante by adopting a staged escalation. Both military postures had qualified success in improving the military situation-neither had much luck in making the political situation work.

Thieu at least had the advantage of having a more industrious people to work with and a population that was not fighting with itself over a flawed and apostate religion. And the government of South Vietnam was probably a lot more functional than Malaki's.

Bush cites a history of freedom in Asia:

The lesson from Asia's development is that the heart's desire for liberty will not be denied. Once people even get a small taste of liberty, they're not going to rest until they're free. Today's dynamic and hopeful Asia -- a region that brings us countless benefits -- would not have been possible without America's presence and perseverance. It would not have been possible without the veterans in this hall today. And I thank you for your service. (Applause.)


The last part is of course quite true, however I find it interesting that GWB ignores the fact that whatever progress towards free-wheeling democracy in Asia came AFTER they had built themselves up economically first. In South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand, the pattern was the same. Strong military/civilian rulers who ruled with martial law. Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand moved beyond it-the Philippines moved from martial law to incompetent, democratically elected leadership; one nation: Singapore, never moved beyond strongman rule. To this day, Singapore remains a democracy in name only. They all took many years to get to where they are today.

We won't even talk about the fact that China is doing just fine economically and lack of car bombs wise-without giving its people any rights or freedoms.......will we? Mattel makes contributions to the RNC.

Plus, while Bush claims that Asia only had two democracies at the start of World War II-they also had over a 100 years of European colonial tradition to draw from when the time came to enter the community of nations. A lot of folks would argue with me ont the value of that-but I think it had an affect for the better. Iraq never had that-in barely 13 years of British rule.

Bush's Asian analogies fail to recall the context that the historical events he speaks of occurred in.

Take his most famous quote from the speech, the one that has been seized upon by many as proof that we have to stay in Iraq.

The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea.

Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam
War and how we left. There's no debate in my mind that the veterans from Vietnam
deserve the high praise of the United States of America. (Applause.) Whatever
your position is on that debate, 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."


There is no doubt that history of the region post 1975 was indeed tragic. However to link all of that misery solely to the United States withdrawing it's forces from Vietnam is an incomplete hypothesis at best.

First, Bush assumes then that the US could have maintained a troop presence in Vietnam for what? 20 more years? Despite the popular theories about that-its doubtful that politically, the American public would have stood for it. It is true that Nixon had promised to strike hard if Vietnam was attacked-but Watergate and his failure to get the VC out of the South laid pre-conditions for the fall. Even if Congress had not cut off aid, would the public have stood for new POWS so soon after getting the ones from 1972 back?

Second, Cambodia could still have very well fallen on its own. The North was using it is a staging base for attacks on Vietnam. Even with American airpower to shield the ARVN, the was no way the US was militarily in a position to intervene in Cambodia-short of re-invading the country or reintroducing troops. The ARVN was in no position to do so. Don't forget it was a unified communist Vietnam that overthrew the Khmer Rouge-not because of love for the Cambodian people-but to stop the flood of refugees into Vietnam.

The flip side of course is that the fall of South Vietnam accelerated that process. However in Vietnam, as in Iraq, the failure to apply military force was as much an outcome of not applying it at the right time as it was not applying it. The left did not lose Vietnam. The American Presidents willed the end of Vietnam by not getting it right at the start. The time that Nixonian bombing and mining/blockade could have been done was in 1965. By 1972, the die had already been cast-it was just a matter of running out the clock by then.

The governments of both Cambodia and Vietnam willed it by not getting their governmental stuff together and by being corrupt. Which is a little like Iraq, come to think of it.

In 2003, Bush had the opportunity to get it right with a larger commitment of troops. He let a misguided Secretary of Defense undermine some well done work trying to give the President a plan that would work. He's been trying to patch up the ugly results of his mistake ever since.

Johnson in 1965. Bush in 2003. Both Presidents allowed a war to be started that was not in the national interest-and then, having made the decision to do it-failed to get it right from the start.

I take it back. Maybe Iraq is like Vietnam after all.

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