By William Fisher
Tony Snow and Keith Olbermann may disagree on how many times President Bush has used the phrase “stay the course” but, whatever the number, it probably pales when compared to the number of times we’ve heard the president tell us “As they stand up, we’ll stand down.”
That phrase has always spooked me because it conjures up memories of Vietnam. Those of you old enough to remember that war may recall that eerily similar language became the mantra of President Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, as they tried to sell the notion of “Vietnamization” to a deeply divided Congress and a war-weary public.
That strategy was designed to transfer full responsibility for the defense of South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese. It was to be achieved over time, with the U.S. continuing to provide logistical support and air cover to the Vietnamese military. That gradualist approach would allow the U.S. to withdraw “with honor” and to avoid the “cut and run” charge. To achieve this goal, America poured millions of dollars into training and equipping the South Vietnamese military. The U.S. quickly began the drawdown of its troops.
But Vietnamization was doomed from the get-go. Experts agree that it started far too late. Kissinger’s secret peace talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris bought the enemy time to regroup and reequip. The South Vietnamese administration of President Thieu opposed the plan. Thieu’s government was riven with corruption and bitter power rivalries. Corruption was also rampant in the South Vietnamese military. Inexperienced South Vietnamese soldiers bribed their superiors to obtain high-level commissions, and were ill prepared when they had to face combat. Millions of dollars in U.S. aid simply vanished and no one was ever held accountable. Compounding the dilemma was Nixon’s preoccupation with the gathering Watergate nightmare.
Sound familiar? Comparisons between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq can be stretched too far, but Vietnamization and Iraqification could be twins.
On “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer” last week, Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was outlining possible options for an American exit strategy from Iraq. He called one of them “Blame and Run.” It was an option he didn’t recommend, but he meant we should set goals – benchmarks -- for the Malaki government in Iraq, blame them when they failed to achieve these goals, then use their failures as justification for pulling our soldiers out.
I could be dead wrong, but I have to wonder if we’re not seeing the beginnings of a “blame and run” strategy already emerging in the country. Public opposition to the war is at an all-time high and, if Vietnam taught us anything, it’s that we cannot sustain a war in the face of widespread public and Congressional opposition.
Today, that opposition seems to be jelling. The President announces at a news conference that the U.S. and the Iraqi Government have agreed on benchmarks for achieving “victory” – though it remains unclear what the benchmarks are or what might constitute victory. The Iraqi president almost simultaneously objects; the U.S., he says, can’t dictate strategies, tactics, or timing to a sovereign state.
Meanwhile, members of the president’s own party, faced with a mid-term election disaster, are frantically distancing themselves from Mr. Bush and his war. Prominent and well-informed Republican leaders such as Senator John Warner are insisting that Iraq’s so-called Government of National Unity start meeting its obligations: Disarm militias, provide basic public services, get busy with reconstruction, curb corruption, create jobs, purge death squad members from the ill-equipped police, and begin to establish some modicum of security for their people. In other words, replace democracy with security.
All of this reminds me of Colin Powell’s famous Pottery Barn analogy. “You break it, you own it,” he told the president before the invasion. Well, if we own it, achieving all the above goals were and are America’s responsibility. We have spent – and wasted -- billions to meet these objectives but have precious little to show for it.
Despite testimony from a small army of retired military officers, the president insists he will send more troops to Iraq when his generals ask for them. Just where they will come from remains unclear.
So Iraq looks into the abyss of a civil war, Iraqis and Americans and Brits continue to die in record numbers, everyone agrees there is no military solution, but there is no evidence of any other strategy.
The president strains credibility by insisting he is open to ideas and new approaches. He had lots of them before we invaded in 2003, but listened only to those coming from Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al. Now he says he welcomes recommendations from the Baker-Hamilton Commission (which none of us will see until after the elections). Maybe they’ll give him a way out of his mess “with honor.” But don’t hold your breath.
And if the Democrats end up controlling Congress, the president’s may not have much time to consider new ideas and approaches. His position could become even more untenable if, as during Vietnam, Congress uses its power of the purse to block further funding for the war. Thirty years ago, it was Congress that voted to cut off money for U.S. air and logistical support for the South Vietnamese, thus hastening the collapse of Vietnamization. Vietnam's President Thieu resigned,
accusing the U.S of betrayal. Thieu said his forces had failed to stop the advance of the Vietcong because of lack of funds promised to him by the Americans.
But even if that should happen in Iraq, my guess is that this president is so messianicly consumed with “victory” there that he will remain in his “State of Denial” and leave it to his successor to clean up his mess – as JFK did to LBJ, as LBJ did to Nixon, and as Nixon did to Jerry Ford.
President Bush is at that time in office when he must be giving serious thought to his legacy. I suspect his worst nightmare is the idea of Iranian tanks rolling into Baghdad as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon thirty years ago.
So my guess is that he’s not likely to be influenced by the semi-tongue-in-cheek strategic prescription offered during Vietnam by the late Sen. George Aiken, a Vermont Republican: “Declare a victory and get out.”
Aiken gave that advice to both Presidents Johnson and Nixon when their war was collapsing. Predictably, they ignored him.
So will Bush.