Returning from a weekend of conversation about the Vietnam Warat the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, I read that the United States is threatening air strikes against Iraqi forces if they in turn use poison gas on Iraqi rebels. The weekend's conversation was off the record and primarily of interest to historians of that bygone ear, but it can't help evoke comparisons and contrasts with the war in the Persian Gulf.
It is generally agreed that we lost the Vietnam war. There are as yet no dissenters from the proposition that we won the gulf war. But there remains a nagging question, applicable to both wars: What difference does it, can it make?
If we had ''won'' in Vietnam -- if we had forced Ho Chi Minh to say ''uncle,'' how long would the fragile regime in Saigon have survived? How long before there was a resurgence of the conflict between North and South, as much internecine as international given the penetration of South Vietnam by Northerners? And what assurances are there that a stable market economy would have emerged any sooner than it is likely to anyway, in the clouded future of that unhappy country?
There seems to be a consensus that the Vietnam war was not worth the cost -- to our country and to the world. But what if it had been won like the gulf war with lighting speed, with a limited (but always tragic) cost in blood, and a manageable cost in treasure? Might the benefits of victory still be seen as transient, and the military venture as a well-planned, skillfully executed mistake -- unless we had built on military victory with an innovative program for initiatives in diplomacy, trade and development?
If that question can be asked about Vietnam, does not the same question have to be asked about the Persian Gulf, even in the face of the skill and planning and the admirable human patience and bravery displayed in the enterprise?
The United States and its allies have won a great victory. Saddam Hussein has been taught a lesson. But it is not yet clear that he has learned it, or that a successor regime administered by fundamentalist Shiites will believe the lesson applies to them. If the balance of power in the region shifts to Syria's Hafez el Assad, or to Iran's Hashemi Rafsanji as a result of the war, these leaders may think they have learned a quite different lesson.
Of course it will be argued that simply by winning the war -- and winning it so decisively -- we have established the principle that aggression will not be allowed to succeed. A similar argument was advanced about the Vietnam War: that by staying and fighting in Vietnam for all those years, we stemmed the tide of the communist advance in South East Asia and protected the development of market economies throughout the region.
Yet the argument is hardly persuasive that the United States' extended effort to save a failing protege in Saigon, undertaken at terrible domestic political cost, could have been replicated if necessary elsewhere in the region. Singapore, Malaysia and Australia might have been more comfortable if the United States had husbanded its resources to help in more promising situations.
Again, we won in the gulf, hands down. But our beleaguered friends around the world may not believe that the U.S. would mobilize another half-million troops and spend several more tens of billions of dollars to restore their sovereignty -- even with substantial oil deposits at risk.
The gulf victory is a precious gift to the United States and to the world. It is particularly precious because we compare it, inevitably, with our experience in Vietnam. But it is a gift we cannot afford to squander. If we and our wartime allies fail to make the most of the narrow window of diplomatic opportunity, and if we resume the mindless supplying of more and more powerful weapons to sometime friends in the gulf and in other troubled spots throughout the world, at best we shall face another gulf war that we can ill afford -- and at worst another Vietnam.
Adam Yarmolinsky is provost of the University of Maryland Baltimore County and board chair of the New Committee for National Security.