Reviving the Vietnam War
by Jonah Goldberg
There's a deep irony to the Democratic Party's dilemma over Iraq. For 30 years, the party's left-wing base has reflexively proclaimed every foreign policy challenge "another Vietnam." These voices rise and fall with America's fortunes. In 1991, again in 2003 and ever since, they've insisted Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam. They also claimed that Afghanistan was Pashtun for Vietnam. There were even some who insisted Kosovo was Serbo-Croatian for Vietnam and, of course, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Grenada were each feared to be Spanish for Vietnam. Like the old saw about Eskimos having a hundred words for snow, it seemed that anyplace the United States sends troops creates a new word for Vietnam.
Indeed, two years ago – when the air was already thick with Vietnam clichés – I wrote in this space, "You get the sense that Earth could be invaded by Klingons and some editorialist would hear 'echoes of Vietnam' amidst their disruptor blasts." (continued…)
So it shouldn't be as surprising as it seems to be that, lo and behold, the Democrats are behaving as if Iraq is Vietnam all over again. But it is only now dawning on the Democrats that the Vietnam War wasn't exactly their finest hour.
The Democratic pickle is exquisitely simple: In the past election, they ran as the anti-war party and promised to bring the war to a close, but, like the dog who finally catches the car fender, they're at a loss about what to do now. As Virginia's Rep. Jim Moran says of his fellow Democrats, they "want to make sure this is still President Bush's war," but the only way they can end the war is to take possession of it. The Democratic base thinks that'd be fine. But, one gets the sense, someone in the party's leadership understands that might be a problem.
The Democrats are incapable of escaping the gravitational pull of the Vietnam myths they've nurtured for decades. At the same time, the liberal memory of the Vietnam War has become so gauzy and saccharine with nostalgia that they're unprepared to grapple with the downsides of their own all-purpose analogy. All that seems to matter is proving that the Iraq war not only has been lost but must be lost, lest the Vietnam worldview be invalidated. As my colleague Rich Lowry said in regard to Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha (news, bio, voting record)'s effort to sneakily thwart the Bush surge: "It used to be that the war had to end because it was a failure; now it must fail so that it can end." For example, Massachusetts' Sen. Edward Kennedy (news, bio, voting record) ridicules the notion that a withdrawal from Iraq would have grave humanitarian costs.
"I heard the same kinds of suggestions at the time of the end of the Vietnam War," Kennedy told NBC's Tim Russert, mocking the notion that we'd have a "great bloodbath" with more than 100,000 dead. "And for those of us that were strongly opposed to the war, (we) heard those same kinds of arguments."
Yes, but those arguments were right. Our withdrawal from Vietnam did contribute to a great bloodbath. More than a half-million Vietnamese died at sea fleeing the grand peace Kennedy and his colleagues orchestrated. And more than 1.2 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, thanks to the power vacuum created by our "humanitarian" withdrawal. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., a presidential candidate, insists that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq can't make things any worse. In 1975 he took a similar line: "The greatest gift our country can give to the Cambodian people is peace, not guns. And the best way to accomplish that goal is by ending military aid now." Someone rent Dodd a DVD of The Killing Fields.
Of course, the costs of defeat in Vietnam were hardly just humanitarian. America's loss at the hands of a small, comparatively weaker nation arguably prolonged the Cold War and has long served as an emboldening example to enemies eager to believe Uncle Sam has a glass jaw – from Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden.
In the wake of 9/11, Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's lieutenant, warned: "O, American people, your government is leading you to a new losing war. O, U.S. people, your government was defeated in Vietnam and fled scared from Lebanon. It fled from Somalia."
The Democratic Party itself – once the leader in vigorous internationalism – has since Vietnam been perceived as fundamentally unreliable on foreign policy by many American voters. Indeed, someone in the party recognizes this, which is why Democrats are working so hard to avoid being seen as the primary authors of U.S. defeat in Iraq, the way they were perceived after the Vietnam War.
The New Yorker's George Packer wrote in 2004 that since its experience with Vietnam, "the Democratic Party has had no foreign policy." Though Democrats were eager to spout the language of liberal internationalism in the 1990s, Packer noted, the Clinton administration nonetheless "allowed a genocidal war to bleed away in the Balkans for two-and-a-half years before acting to end it."
Sealing a defeat
I don't think it's fair to say the Democrats have had no foreign policy – it's more that they've had lots of them. But Packer's invocation of Clinton's intervention in the Balkans illuminates an important point. Today, liberals proudly tout the Yugoslavian campaign as nigh upon the sole proof that Democrats believe America can use its military power as a force for good. Forgotten are the anti-war left's opposition to an American empire, Clinton's circumvention of the United Nations (at least Bush had U.N. resolutions to back him up), or the ups-and-downs of public opinion. All people remember is victory.
If President Bush's surge is successful, odds are Americans will think it was all worth it. If, on the other hand, the Democrats are successful at ending the war in defeat, it's not at all clear Americans will see our loss as the unambiguous triumph Kennedy remembers in Vietnam. Nor is it clear they'll congratulate Democrats for securing a sure defeat rather than chancing a possible victory.
Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online. He is a syndicated columnist and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.
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