Dien Bien Fool
This week, President George W. Bush stood up before the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and unspooled a whole lot of odd analogies to make the case that we need to stay in Iraq for… well, forever, I guess. I’ve not been in Iraq for more than a year but it’s still a central focus of my reporting here in the Middle East. So, this week, let’s step away from Lebanon — which is depressing anyway — and focus on Bush and his fantasies about Mesopotamia.
Because some days he makes it just too easy.
Bush’s VFW speech has received a lot of ink. Everyone’s been reporting on it, but what’s bizarre is that Bush was pointing to past wars in Asia — World War II against Japan, Korea and, most enigmatically, Vietnam — as lessons to learn from. For this White House, Imperial Japan was the al Qaeda of its day. The Korean War was a war to instill democracy on the Korean peninsula. And Vietnam was muffed up by Defeatocrats at home – pulling the plug lead to the deaths of millions.
“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,'” the president said.
Really, it’s hard to know where to start.
In his initial comparison, Bush describes Japan as a a nation run by a man who “despises freedom, and harbors resentment at the slights he believes America and Western nations have inflicted on his people. He fights to establish his rule over an entire region. And over time, he turns to a strategy of suicide attacks.” Well, the war in the Pacific was primarily one of great powers jostling over economic interests, which is way more serious than most ideological struggles. Japan was oil-poor and had its eyes on the Dutch East Indies. The United States and the West had engaged in economic tit-for-tat with Tokyo since the 1937 invasion of China and by 1941, the United States had slapped an oil embargo on the Empire of the Rising Sun in the escalating trade battles. The Japanese Navy was certain any attempt to seize the Dutch colonies would bring the United States into the war, so they needed to neutralize the U.S.’s Pacific Fleet first. Hence, Pearl Harbor.
Bush’s view of Korea is an even more interesting comparison: “Without Americans’ intervention during the war and our willingness to stick with the South Koreans after the war, millions of South Koreans would now be living under a brutal and repressive regime,” Hm, let’s see. The Korean War started in 1950. Democracy came to South Korea in the late 1980s, mainly because the military governments — which massacred democracy protesters in 1980 — were supported by … the United States.
But the Korea analogy is apt for reasons other than those Bush intended. Bush sees the Korean War as an example of the U.S. historical commitment to fight aggression and spread democracy. But the liberation of South Korea had been achieved by October 1950, four months after the war started, and the North Koreans had been pushed back. On October 19, United Nations and U.S. forces pushed north, past the 38th parallel and quickly triggered a Chinese intervention in the war. The coalition was rolled back and after three years and hundreds of thousands dead, a stalemate was achieved and an armistice signed with the original border in place. It was an outcome that could have been achieved in four months and many fewer people dead.
In short, invading Iraq in 2003 looks a lot like the decision to invade North Korea in October 1950: a monumental case of overreach. Don’t his speechwriters check this stuff? Or do they just rely on the historical ignorance of many Americans?
And finally Vietnam. In one speech, Bush had managed to drag out the knuckleheaded, right-wing argument that if only we’d stayed in Vietnam a little longer, we’d have won that sucker. If only the media and Democrats hadn’t been so hell-bent on undermining the troops…This is a tricky subject for Bush, considering he spent the Vietnam years partying and “protecting” the Gulf of Mexico from the Viet Cong in a champagne unit of the Texas Air National Guard. It’s also tricky because war critics have spent the past four years comparing the quagmire or Iraq to the quagmire of Vietnam — which, I might remind you, we lost.
“In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution,” said the president. “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.”
Yes, millions of innocent people died in Vietnam — a fair number of them from U.S. bombs. Yes, there was a massive refugee crisis following the American exit in 1975, but the U.S. threw open its doors and took the “boat people” in. It has not done the same thing for Iraqis, instead forcing them to stay in a deadly cage or face the instability of life in Jordan and Syria.
And the killing fields of Pol Pot were not in response to the U.S. leaving too early. Pol Pot came to power and started his murderous rampage because of the destabilization of the region brought on by the U.S. staying too long. In much the same way, the war in Iraq is creating more terrorists who are killing more innocent civilians. Again, apt analogy, just not the way Bush intends. (Furthermore, the Khmer Rouge were eventually crushed by, yep, the Communist Vietnamese in 1979.)
Today, Vietnam is a stable nation with good relations with the United States. East Asia didn’t fall to the Communists and the free world wasn’t imperiled by our withdrawal. “Vietnam was not a bunch of sectarian groups fighting each other,” said Vietnam historian Stanley Karnow. “Does he think we should have stayed in Vietnam?” It sure sounds like it.
Now, fact-checking the president is fun and all, but this is hardly the first time he’s gone off on some boneheaded direction with history. For instance, in 2004 Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld et al. began reminding people of the rampaging insurgency in Germany after World War II? Don’t remember that? That’s because there wasn’t one. Not a single Allied soldier died as a result of enemy action after the Germans surrender.
The VFW speech was a noxious attempt at playing to Bush’s base of “America First” conservative Republican support, a blatant attempt to play on the politics of fear by demonization the media, liberals, Democrats and anyone who questioned the Iraq war. The Vietnam portions of the speech were red meat to the right wing that has, for years, argued that the U.S. didn’t step into an unwinnable war — it was stabbed in the back by traitors at home. That this is the subtext for a major positioning speech by the president suggests that even he thinks Iraq is unwinnable and now is the time for finger-pointing, buck-passing and blame-shifting.
What a great legacy.
[*This column originally appeared on Spot-on.com.*](http://www.spot-on.com/archives/allbritton/2007/08/did_he_really_just_say_that_1.html)