Two Texans in Trouble
At the White House, they call it the "V" word. Vietnam. It is the historical parallel that the Bush administration dreads most, because of fears that comparisons with the bitter, bloody Southeast Asian conflict will cast even more doubt on the conduct of the war in Iraq today. "Entirely different situations," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told U.S. News.
But the idea that Iraq increasingly resembles Vietnam in some important ways appears to be gaining credibility among historians, pundits, and, most important, the public. While 50 percent of Americans think the United States will avoid another Vietnam-which was far more costly in terms of human life and military spending-40 percent think the United States is "heading for the same kind of involvement in Iraq as it had in the Vietnam War," according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in mid-October. President Bush fueled the debate last month when he agreed that the current spike in Iraqi violence reminded him of the Tet offensive in 1968. That's when attacks across Vietnam seemed to under-mine President Lyndon Johnson's claims that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Bush conceded that, in a similar manner, Iraqi insurgents may be trying to break America's will today.
The comparisons will only intensify as Bush prepares to visit Vietnam for a high-profile economics conference next week and as frustrations with the course of the war in Iraq grow. "People see Iraq as an echo of the experience of Vietnam," says historian Robert Dallek, biographer of President Johnson, who escalated the Vietnam War in the mid- and late 1960s. "We got trapped there in a quagmire. And today, there is a sense once again that, like Vietnam, we are caught in a trap of our own making, and there is no way out."
Such assessments are vigorously challenged by President Bush and his senior aides. The war in Iraq, they say, is being won, contrary to media reports, and the administration has an effective strategy to eventually turn security over to the democratically elected Iraqi government. White House counselor Dan Bartlett conceded that Americans are frustrated, but he said that's mostly because "they want to know we can win." And Bush is confident of victory, Bartlett told U.S. News.
But those arguments are being aggressively challenged by the critics, some of whom cite eerie parallels with Vietnam. Johnson and, later, President Richard Nixon said they would turn over security to the South Vietnamese, and the plan failed.
It is also true that in each case, America's commander in chief immersed the nation in a faraway conflict for reasons that turned out to be misleading or just plain wrong. In each case, the cost in lives and treasure-and the strength and tenacity of the opposition-exceeded the government's initial estimates. In each case, as opposition mounted at home and abroad, the exit strategy seemed unclear. And in each case, a president who initially sought to focus on domestic issues found his other priorities shunted aside.