Iraq, In a Way Worse Than Vietnam
Jude Wanniski
November 9, 2003


Memo: To: Political Reporters
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Iraq and Vietnam

Now that even Sen. John McCain believes Iraq is getting away from the easy victory he saw way back when, it is natural that comparisons are being made to the American experience in Vietnam. Pat Buchanan was among the earliest to see Iraq would be a "quagmire," although he used the term "tar baby" when he more or less predicted on the McLaughlin Group the situation we as a nation find ourselves in. The best piece I've seen appeared in today's New York Times by veteran correspondent Craig R. Whitney, who is old enough to remember the Vietnam years:

"But Iraq is not Vietnam, and 2003 is not 1975 or 1968. Saddam Hussein was driven out of power and his regime collapsed last spring. There is no independent sanctuary named 'North Iraq' for his Ba'ath Party henchmen to fight from, no Soviet Union to keep them supplied with arms and fuel, no equivalent of Laos or Cambodia in the Middle East for whole divisions of his loyalists to hide in, no Ho Chi Minh Trail that suicide bombers can use to drive to Baghdad. Nor is there an allied Iraqi government yet, elected or otherwise. The terms of the American discussion about Iraq are often similar to the arguments about Vietnam, and small wonder: although the Vietnamese Communists won the war in 1975, nobody won the battle about it here at home. That may be why, when boiled down to their essence, parts of the current debate seem to be almost as much about Vietnam as about Iraq, as Senator John McCain pointed out in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington last week."

It is interesting what Whitney, and much of the press corps, is spending so much time highlighting McCain's views, as he did spend six years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam. As far as I can tell, nobody has yet identified McCain as the politician who more than any other spearheaded the idea of going to war in Iraq. Yes, there is the cluster of civilian warhawks who have been agitating for an Iraq regime change since the Gulf War ended in 1991. But McCain is the only elected political leader who has for much of this period been bellicose when the opportunity presented itself. In September 1996, you will recall, President Clinton kicked off his re-election "Wag the Dog" presidential campaign by bombing Iraq, on the excuse that Saddam Hussein had violated the "no-fly zone" in the Kurdish region -- even though no Iraqi airplanes flew that day. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott thought this might have been a violation of the War Powers Act and said so. McCain was quick to denounce the President for "pin pricks," indicating that if he were in the Oval Office he would have dropped bigger bombs and more of them.

Because of McCain's commitment to war, the civilian hawks assembled around Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard made the conscious decision to back BOTH Texas Governor George W. Bush and Senator McCain in the Republican primaries. Two horses out of the same stable. Perle and Wolfowitz backed Bush. Kristol and his Rupert Murdoch forces backed McCain. They did this out of concern that young Bush might falter in the primaries, being new to national campaigning. McCain was the back-up. When it became clear Bush would be the nominee, there was some warhawk agitation for McCain as Bush's running mate. But that could never work and the hawks had a better idea in promoting Dick Cheney -- a hawk with a smile instead of the McCain smirk and snarl.

So much for McCain and his speechifying at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. Just think of his view that President Bush should forthwith send another 10,000 or 15,000 troops to Iraq, to "finish the job." McCain of course knows President Bush is going in the other direction, reducing the number of troops in Iraq as fast as he can. The President has no choice, because McCain and his pals have gotten him into a war with a rationale that has not stood the test of time. As every week goes by it becomes clearer to the American people that they are losing blood and treasure at an accelerating rate against an adversary fighting for what it not only believes in, but is willing to die for no matter how long it takes. In this way, it is even worse than Vietnam, where at least there was a reason for fighting

It was during the earlier days of the Vietnam War that I met the Perles and Wolfowitz's and eagerly joined their Cabal. I realized years later that was how I got to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, being accepted as a fellow hawk. Those were dreadful days for the American people, as they began counting the body bags by the hundreds each week, at times 500 or more in a week. In all, 58,000 dead, and as Craig Whitney points out, "millions of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians." Millions! And to the very end, public opinion held together behind the war for one reason: Ordinary Americans accepted the idea that we were the leaders of the "Free World" and were in a cataclysmic, historic struggle with the "Slave World" of communism. We had to fight, even if only to a stalemate. As I wrote in a letter to the Times when former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara "confessed" error in his role in the Vietnam War, "Vietnam was a losing battle in a war we won," and no apologies were needed. It was an honorable war.

We learn from history that if there is a good enough reason for a people sending their sons into battle they will do so even if the casualties run into the millions. The people on both sides of our Civil War believed that all of history was engaged in that conflict. To this day most Americans believe those who died, on either side, under the Union flag or the Confederate, did not die in vain. The same is true of the dozens of millions who died in World War II. There was a cause, even for the people of the Axis powers, who rationalized their reasons for fighting in the framework of the economic and political tensions that grew out of World War I. People fight for what they believe is worth fighting for.

Why are we in Iraq? President Bush this last week threw out all the other rationales of why -- weapons of mass destruction, Al Qaida, etc. -- and made a speech about how we are there to promote democracy. This tells us the emperor has no clothes, only a fig leaf about "democracy." Democracy at the point of a gun. "You better vote for who I say you should vote for, or I will bomb you." This is not hyperbole on my part. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked what he thought if there were elections and the new government in Baghdad would be an elected Islamic fundamentalist government, he said "That will not happen." The rest of the world does not believe President Bush is doing anything more than reading a speech that has been written for him.

What I am suggesting, political correspondents, is that President Bush may have good speechwriters, but he is on the wrong side of history. I'm afraid he is so committed to that position he will not realize he must cut his losses as fast as he can. It is the only way I believe he can get our country out of the quagmire "tar baby" we are in, and maybe win re-election on the strength of his economic agenda. He simply has to get on the right side of world history.