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Analysts Discuss Possible Iraq-Vietnam Parallels

November 23, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And now, a historical comparison between the Vietnam War that ended 30 years ago and the current war in Iraq. Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, again, perhaps more than ever, America’s experience in Vietnam continues to loom over the nation’s foreign policy, especially the current situation in Iraq. In October, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman drew a parallel between the increased attacks on American forces in Iraq and the Tet Offensive by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese army in 1968.

Last week, when President Bush made a trip to Vietnam for a meeting with Asian leaders, he was asked what lessons the Vietnam War holds for the debate over Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I guess my first reaction is, you know, history has a long march to it, and that societies change, and relationships can constantly be altered to the good.

I think one thing — yes, I mean, one lesson is, is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world. And the task in Iraq is going to take a while.

JEFFREY BROWN: Asked a similar question, Secretary of State Rice told reporters that, quote, “Historical parallels of that kind are, I think, not very helpful, and I don’t think they happen to be right. This was a different set of circumstances with different stakes for the United States and a different kind of war,” end quote.

Differences Between Vietnam, Iraq

JEFFREY BROWN: We look at the Iraq-Vietnam nexus now with Robert Brigham, professor of history and international relations at Vassar College, and author of the book, "Is Iraq Another Vietnam?"

Mark Moyar, professor of international relations at the Marine Corps University, and author of "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965."

Meena Bose, professor of politics and presidential studies at Hofstra University and author of "Shaping and Signaling Presidential Policy."

And Stanley Karnow, author of "Vietnam: A History," and a former journalist who covered Vietnam for the Washington Post.

Well, welcome to you all.

MARK MOYAR, Marine Corps University: Thank you.

STANLEY KARNOW, Author and Journalist: Thank you.

ROBERT BRIGHAM, Vassar College: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meena Bose, starting with you, why Vietnam? Why does it loom again in the thinking about Iraq?

MEENA BOSE, Hofstra University: Well, I think there are several reasons. The first and foremost is that this is the first extended military engagement that we've had since Vietnam.

By extended, of course, more than 300 or so on-the-ground casualties, ground troops engaged. The first Gulf War lasted -- in 1991 lasted only six weeks. Since 1945, we've seen only three wars that extended into the years, Korea, Vietnam, and now the Iraq war.

Secondly, we face some similar questions between Vietnam and Iraq, namely, what is the end state that we seek? The term "exit strategy" isn't popular anymore, but I think the question underlying it is a particularly relevant one today. What are our goals and when will we know that we've accomplished them?

And, finally, I would say that the fact that many of our current policy-makers in the executive branch and in Congress came of age during the Vietnam War means that the lessons of the past that are important to them come from that period.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Robert Brigham, you heard the quotation from Secretary Rice. In what ways would you agree with her, perhaps, that the historical parallels are not very helpful?

ROBERT BRIGHAM: Well, I would say, in size and scope, Vietnam and Iraq are very different wars. There are not going to be 580,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; there are not going to be 58,000 American dead in Iraq.

It's unlikely that the insurgents will have any external support, like the Vietnamese Communists had in Russia and in Chinese. So there are thousands of strategic and operational differences between Iraq and Vietnam. So, in that case, she is correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that, Mark Moyar?

MARK MOYAR: Yes, I would add that, on both sides, the forces are much less well-organized than was the case in Vietnam. In Vietnam, you have communist forces operating in division strength. At the same time, the South Vietnamese government is pretty effective, by the standards of Iraq today.

Iraqi insurgents right now are operating in very small groups. At the same time, the Iraqi government is not as cohesive, and it's not even able to maintain order in the cities, which is something the South Vietnamese government could do.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Stanley Karnow?

STANLEY KARNOW: Well, first of all, Vietnam started as a guerrilla war and escalated into a conventional war. Iraq starts as a conventional war and has degenerated into a guerrilla war.

People who used the word "quagmire" at the beginning of the Iraq war were wrong. It wasn't a quagmire at the beginning. It's become a quagmire.

The reference to the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese government -- the South Vietnamese government was a disaster from the very beginning. The Diem regime was totally ham-handed.

It's true that we were in Vietnam up against a well-organized communist movement generated by intense nationalism -- Ho Chi Minh, the leader, was, of course, a communist, going back to the 1920s, but he was also an intense nationalist.

You had a cohesive country in Vietnam. You had a country with a real sense of its nationality. For 3,000, 4,000 years, the Vietnamese had been fighting external forces.

Iraq is an invention. It was invented by the British in the 1920s, and it's disparate groups, sectarian groups as they're called. And, you know, it's totally different in that sense, in terms of the country itself.

We went into Vietnam with phrases like, "We're there for nation-building," which was idiotic. There was already a sense of nationhood. Nation-building in Iraq, well, it remains to be seen. Are we going to build a nation? The Iraqis have to build their nation, and they don't seem to be doing it.

Similarities in the two wars

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let's go around again. Meena Bose, starting with you, in what ways do you see parallels that are useful?

MEENA BOSE: Well, I think that there are several ways in which looking at Vietnam informs our understanding of Iraq today. First and foremost, we have to look at the nature of public opinion, which was very strong at the outset in both cases, but then started to diminish in the wake of -- in Vietnam, with the Tet Offensive, and in the Iraq war, as the number of casualties has increased and the prospect for trying to contain the civil war has become more difficult.

Also, as I referred to earlier, the question of an exit strategy or of describing what our end state is. We went into Vietnam with the clear sense that, in 1965, when we increased our number of ground troops from 75,000 to 125,000, that we were going to bolster our ally in the Cold War. But what the Johnson administration seeked to achieve was never laid out.

In Iraq in 2003, we were very clear in stating that we wanted to topple Saddam Hussein, but we were not very clear on what our reconstruction goals were. And that's become a frequent critique now as we look back at the pre-war planning at how little attention was given to the post-war reconstruction.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Robert Brigham, what parallels do you see?

ROBERT BRIGHAM: I think the strongest parallel between Iraq and Vietnam is that in both wars the United States had overwhelming military power and in no way could turn that to its political advantage. Our inability to, over the long haul, see nation-building through in Vietnam is being replicated all over again in Iraq.

I think also the parallels in public opinion. We know from our polling data that Korea, Vietnam and Iraq all have the same drop-off level in public support. So it can't all be the media, because Korea was a very censored war.

And it seems to be the number of casualties. Most research points to public support falling by 15 percent every time you increase the number of casualties by a factor of 10.

Also, I think the parallel costs are enormous. If we stay in Iraq, the United States stays in Iraq through the summer, Vietnam and Iraq will roughly cost the same amount of money, and that's in real dollars, 20 years of Vietnam versus four years of Iraq. So I think that parallel is also going to be with us for a while.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Moyar, I know you've written about the South Vietnamese government. I think you argue something different than Stanley Karnow was talking about. But do you see it differently? Do you see parallels from then that are useful in thinking about Iraq now?

STANLEY KARNOW: I do. And I think one of the biggest problems we've had in both places is trying to impose American solutions onto a culture that is not similar to ours, in terms of its political outlook. In Vietnam, we see that.

In 1955, when we tried to convince Diem to compromise with his enemies, he refuses, and then he goes on to defeat his enemies. I do think Diem was fairly effective, and there was a lot of communist sources now that talk about that. And the Vietnamese do go on in '72 to defeat a major offensive without U.S. ground troops.

But in '63, we tried to force him to liberalize. And the evidence, I think, shows that that was a mistake. The coup that we support in the name of a more liberal government is a disaster, and the attempts at liberalization that followed after don't work well.

And I think clearly we went too fast trying to impose democracy in Iraq. I think that's generally recognized. So that, I think, is really the most important parallel.


STANLEY KARNOW: Let me tell you something. I'm old enough to have spent hours sitting with Diem. He was totally incompetent to handle that country. He was a puppet of the United States. But from the United States point of view, the trouble with him was he was a puppet who pulled his own strings. And by doing so, he finally alienated the United States and his own supporters.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, but do you see parallels? You made a strong case of some differences to that history, to Iraq. Do you see some useful parallels?

STANLEY KARNOW: I don't know enough about the Iraq government to make a comparison. I do know the Vietnam situation quite well.

But it seems to me what we have in Iraq is a government, a regime that sort of pasted it together, that is trying to cope with all these different factions, these sectarian groups, and having a terrible time of it.

Comparing leadership styles

JEFFREY BROWN: Meena Bose, you, I think, raised early on this notion that today's leadership came of age during that period. Do you see parallels between leaders then and now, in terms of becoming -- I'm thinking of McNamara and Rumsfeld -- becoming a kind of personification of the conflict, for better or for worse, in the public mind?

MEENA BOSE: Well, I think if you look at Secretary McNamara and Secretary Rumsfeld, they both came into the Pentagon with very ambitious agendas, including ones of kind of taking control of the military and insisting that civilian control rested in their hands.

What we also see, I think, in both cases is the challenge of maintaining a kind of support for their policies as the wars that they oversaw continued.

Now, of course, the big difference, however, is that Secretary McNamara, when he left office, had really almost been beaten down by the war. And, of course, some 30 years later, 25 years later, publishes memoirs where he says, "We were wrong, terribly wrong."

Secretary Rumsfeld has certainly not made any such statement in announcing his departure from the Pentagon, and it's not clear that he ever would do so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Brigham, what do you see in terms of their leadership then and now?

ROBERT BRIGHAM: Well, I wrote a book with Mr. McNamara, and I know him quite well. I don't know Mr. Rumsfeld at all.

I think there are some stark differences between the two. McNamara was an insider who was dissenting. He was dissenting from May 1965 on. He was in public, of course, supporting the war, but we have a long paper trail of him being less than satisfied with the way the war was going, especially the air war.

I don't make too much of the parallels in the presidencies. I mean, there was a liberal thrust in the Kennedy administration. There certainly was a liberal thrust, this idea that you could promote American institutions abroad, that Professor Moyar talked about earlier, this notion that there's an American solution.

I think that is another parallel, but I don't think that we can overdraw the parallels in personalities.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Moyar, you're a young historian who did not participate at the time of Vietnam. But I want to ask you, all these years later, what do you think Vietnam has come to mean for our population? Is it one thing or is it many things?

MARK MOYAR: I think it's many things. I mean, it is certainly for some a symbol of a war we lost. It was costly, that dragged on, that we could not win, and perhaps should have left earlier.

But there's a lot of other people, particularly among Vietnam veterans, who see Vietnam as something that we could have won had the politicians given us a free hand to, for example, cut the Ho Chi Minh trail or invade North Vietnam.

And, you know, as the 2004 presidential race showed, I think, there's still a fundamental lack of agreement among Americans over really what Vietnam means.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stanley Karnow, you were there then. You're watching what's happening now.

STANLEY KARNOW: Generally speaking, the American public looks back on Vietnam overwhelmingly as a terrible mistake. And the lesson of Vietnam is we're not John Waynes. We can't win every situation everywhere.

And the American public after Vietnam -- and you could look at the so-called doctrines. There was the Weinberger doctrine, named for the secretary of defense, the Colin Powell doctrine, all these doctrines saying, "Let's be careful of getting involved in situations where we don't have public support, where we don't have an exit strategy, where we don't know anything about the country we're getting involved in," and so on and so forth.

And I think that's one of the things that we learned. Now, this president, with the same kind of hubris that got Lyndon Johnson -- and even before him, Kennedy -- involved, you know, plunges into the Iraq situation, admittedly after 9/11, because he has a feeling he has to do something.

And in both cases, what's very similar, again, is we're plunged into these two situations on the basis of lies: weapons of mass destruction; contracts between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida, which never existed; the Tonkin Gulf incident in the Vietnam War, which never happened; and all sorts of other things.

The notion in Vietnam of the "domino theory." If we lose Vietnam, the dominos are going to topple. Lyndon Johnson used to talk about fighting the Vietcong on the beaches of Waikiki. I mean, it got to be preposterous. So you have all this kind of hyperbole going in, and it went on in Vietnam. It's going on today in Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will have to leave it there. Stanley Karnow, Mark Moyar, Meena Bose and Robert Brigham, thank you all very much.

MEENA BOSE: Thank you.