Bogus parallels won't rally Americans to `stay the course'

August 28, 2007|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- We all know the famous phrase of philosopher George Santayana, who warned: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

But those who raise false historical analogies may harm their cause as much as the memory-challenged. Such is the case with President Bush, who last week compared Iraq to Japan, South Korea - and Vietnam.

We are engaged in a national debate of huge importance over how to rescue our Iraq policy from pending disaster. Republican stalwarts, whose support may be fraying, are mostly willing to back Mr. Bush's call to "stay the course," while the Democratic base believes we must leave Iraq as soon as possible.

In the middle are many Americans who grasp that an Iraq debacle will have ugly repercussions, yet still hope we can avoid this. I believe a large swath of the public hungers for a frank appraisal of how we might avoid catastrophe from our Iraq venture.

This crucial audience, however, can't be wooed by gung-ho presidential pep talks. Nor can it be convinced by historical parallels that are irrelevant or that convey a message opposite to what the president intended. Mr. Bush did just that in his speech last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The president held out the model of postwar Japan as proof that Iraq could be transformed into a democracy. But Japan was totally defeated in a world war, and all opposition eliminated. Moreover, the country was ethnically united (as was South Korea) and had had some experience with democracy.

Both Japanese and South Koreans wanted U.S. protection, from the Soviet Union and North Korea, respectively, during the Cold War. Nothing could be more different from the situation in Iraq today.

It's even harder to understand why Mr. Bush raised a comparison between Iraq and Vietnam. Needless to say, he never used the word "quagmire." His point was that our withdrawal from Vietnam caused immense suffering for the Vietnamese people, as would a withdrawal from Iraq. That's true. I've argued that one reason to stay longer in Iraq is our moral obligation to the Iraqi people. But given the suffering of Iraqis - and the desperate flight of 2 million who have left the country - this argument isn't sufficient to sway the debate.

So why would the president raise the specter of a war that haunted Americans for more than a generation? He seemed to imply - though one wonders why he didn't say it - that we could have won the Vietnam War had we stayed longer. Such a claim is popular with part of his conservative base. But it is impossible to prove and highly dubious. And it goes to the heart of Mr. Bush's problem: He has yet to give a coherent argument for how we can stabilize Iraq by staying on.

The Vietnam analogy highlights this problem in ways I doubt Mr. Bush intended. Late in the day in South Vietnam, the U.S. military began to implement a counterinsurgency strategy that was having some success. But a weak South Vietnamese government was unable to capitalize on the gains.

In Iraq today, under Gen. David Petraeus, a new counterinsurgency doctrine is belatedly winning over some Sunni insurgents. But Iraq's problems make those of the Vietnam War look simple. Unlike Vietnam, Iraq is afflicted with a sectarian civil war. A weak, Shiite-led government is unwilling to reconcile with Sunni groups, and vice versa. The purpose of the surge was to buy time for such political reconciliation; if it doesn't happen, the short-term military gains of recent months may be lost. The same Sunni insurgents now allied with us may turn against the Shiite government and accelerate the civil war.

A new report by U.S. intelligence agencies sees scant hope for Iraqi political reconciliation in the foreseeable future. Moreover, top U.S. military officers believe that the Pentagon must seriously reduce troop levels by next year or put an unbearable strain on our forces. Unlike in the days of Vietnam, there is no draft to replenish the troops.

The question ignored by the Bush historical parallels is how to translate tactical military gains into strategic progress. One option - promoted by the unlikely trio of Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Hilary Rodham Clinton of New York and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer - is to change Iraq's central government.

This is a pipe dream.

If there is one Vietnam lesson that is relevant, it is that we can't dictate Iraq's leaders. The Kennedy administration sanctioned a coup in Saigon in 1963, which brought only a series of hapless governments. We are not in a position to oust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and even if we could, it isn't likely that his successor could do much better. We set up an Iraqi governing system in which the center has very little power.

That brings us back to the question of how recent tactical military gains can be sustained, if U.S. troops must draw down next year, and if Iraq's government continues to be weak.

I and many others have argued that the only answer is a serious U.S. diplomatic initiative in the Middle East, one that encourages Iraq's neighbors, including Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, to push their Iraqi proxy groups toward accord rather than civil war. The White House has so far shown no interest in such a plan.

If that's not the White House strategy, what is? Making pointless historical analogies won't answer the legitimate concerns of the U.S. public. It will only add to the uncertainty about whether Mr. Bush yet grasps what is happening in Iraq.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

Clarence Page's column will return Friday.

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