National Security Watch: Iraq: So far, somebody else's problem
Thirty-eight years ago, a bumper sticker started to become popular across America. "Win or Get Out," it read. Of course, it would be an additional eight years before America finally withdrew from Vietnam and began a lengthy recovery from the traumatic, decade-long war.
With new polls showing that public support for the Iraq war is at its lowest point since the campaign began, some valid comparisons with the Vietnam War are emerging [Democrats see opportunity in Iraq polling (6/28/05)]. They don't involve the nature or scope of the insurgency the United States is fighting, or war strategy, or the body count, but rather the subtle, relentless shifts in public perception that can overwhelm the government's agenda the way a storm surge grows from tiny waves into an irresistible force of nature.
By the time Americans began to turn against the Vietnam War, in the second half of 1967, far more damage had been done than in Iraq. The U.S. death toll had surpassed 10,000 by the summer of 1967, more than five times the number of Americans killed in Iraq so far. The fighting in Vietnam had killed perhaps 10 times as many civilians by 1967 as have been killed in Iraq.
But it wasn't the body count that turned Americans against the war. Then, as now, Americans were willing to put up with casualties if they seemed to be for a worthwhile cause. Support for the Vietnam War turned from positive to negative after President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a 10 percent income-tax surcharge to help pay the skyrocketing costs of the war. Public opinion continued to slip for the rest of 1967 and might have been reversible had the 1968 Tet Offensive not shattered perceptions of a war being won. Once Tet occurred, support for the war crumbled, LBJ withdrew from the presidential race, and America's war aims shifted from decisive victory to face-saving exit.
Though Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi undoubtedly are familiar with Tet, few experts think a couple of hundred or even a couple of thousand insurgents in Iraq could mount such a complex, well-coordinated offensive. Still, this moment of twilight in Iraq elicits comparisons with Vietnam that are even starting to show up in polls. A recent Pew survey showed that 35 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war will turn out to be "another Vietnam," a prospect that barely registered in the polls during 2004. And in a fresh Gallup Poll, only 15 percent of those opposed to the war cite casualties as their main reason. More broadly, their objections involve vague and inconsistent war aims, the apparent lack of progress, and the long time it's taking to accomplish the job. To students of Vietnam, that sounds uncomfortably familiar.
The Bush administration, in other words, ought to heed that bumper sticker from 1967. The conventional lessons of the Vietnam War have been military ones: Fight with overwhelming force. Gradualism in war is disastrous. Military action must be undergirded by cast-iron political support. Don't micromanage from Washington. But there are a few other lessons from Vietnam that are being teased out by the situation in Iraq. For one, Americans prefer the sound-bite equivalent of war: Keep it short, and be able to explain it in one sentence. If you can't do that, the drip-drip-drip of negative news will wear away the public's patience. And if the cost suddenly goes up or there's some other shockboth of which happened in 1967 and 1968the whole support structure can collapse. The Bush administration hasn't faced a true domestic challenge to its Iraq commitment, but if something on the domestic agenda began to compete with Iraqan economic downturn, a burst in the housing bubble, another terrorist attackthere's a good chance the troops would be on their way home pronto.