More echoes of Vietnam

May 19, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - For all the historians' and politicians' insistence that Iraq is not Vietnam, the same dynamic that eventually stirred a sluggish American public to question the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia may now be emerging regarding Iraq.

The political price President Bush is finally paying for his Iraq adventure is seen in the latest Gallup Poll. His approval rating has fallen to 46 percent, his lowest standing in that survey since becoming president, with a majority, 51 percent, disapproving for the first time. Other polls indicate the same trend.

In the case of Vietnam in the late 1960s, at least three events began to turn the tide. A military stalemate, a horrible scandal of U.S. military abuse in the My Lai village massacre and increasing numbers of Americans returning in body bags combined to challenge the wisdom and validity of the U.S. involvement.

A further combustible factor then was the existence of a military draft that threatened young American men with being drawn into the war. And the draft's unfairness in terms of deferments granted to college students and other elites added fuel to a growing street protest.

While no draft yet haunts the new generation, the unanticipated extension of combat duty by reservists and National Guardsmen in Iraq is fanning concern and resentment on Main Street. And while the body bag count has not begun to reach Vietnam War proportions, the toll of American troops and civilians killed and wounded is a continuing reminder of the human cost of this liberation-turned-occupation.

At the same time, while the invasion's aftermath may not be exactly a military stalemate, it is a nagging scab on the U.S. success in ousting Saddam Hussein. And another scandal of military abuse, in Abu Ghraib prison, has again put the world spotlight on American behavior that runs sharply counter to our claim to be a bastion of human rights.

The White House occupant a year before the 1968 presidential election, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, was acknowledged to be a man of exceptionally strong will and resolve, just as another Texan, George W. Bush, is seen today. But LBJ's strength and toughness could not prevent erosion of his wartime support, leading to his eventual decision not to seek re-election.

In 1968, it's true, Mr. Johnson faced intense intraparty opposition to his renomination, whereas Mr. Bush has none. But following the prison abuse story, some important Republican voices in the Senate are now criticizing their own administration.

Just as important, Democrats in the Senate, many of whom, including presumptive presidential nominee John Kerry, docilely went along with Mr. Bush's resolution authorizing the Iraq invasion, are beginning to stir, just as they eventually did against Mr. Johnson on Vietnam.

Earlier this month, when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee seeking an additional $25 billion for unspecified purposes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Democrats unloaded on him, balking at giving him "a blank check."

The Bush re-election campaign had been working diligently and effectively at the time the prison abuse story broke to raise public doubts about Mr. Kerry's consistency on the war. That tactic made it harder for Mr. Kerry to challenge Mr. Bush's conduct of that war - until Abu Ghraib forced the Bush administration onto the defensive.

The Bush assault on Mr. Kerry also had a parallel during Vietnam. In 1972, President Richard Nixon, facing growing criticism of his war leadership, launched a blistering attack on the Democratic nominee, Sen. George McGovern, as unpatriotic, soft, weak and indecisive. It worked. Mr. Nixon was re-elected easily, although he had failed to extricate the country from Vietnam.

Today, the Bush campaign seeks to discredit Mr. Kerry, as Mr. Nixon discredited Mr. McGovern, in order to produce the same result as in 1972 - re-election of the president despite an increasingly unpopular war.

All this may not be precisely history repeating itself. But with public sentiment, as reflected in the polls, slipping away from another beleaguered wartime president, it certainly has a familiar ring.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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