The Pelosi Democrats in Congress and the leading Democratic presidential contenders all stress that things aren’t going well in Iraq. Yet they all seem quite pleased about this. The real question is whether the Pelosi Democrats and their left-wing allies want America to lose the Iraq war, just as a generation ago liberal Democrats pressed for a humiliating American retreat in Vietnam.
With the Iraq war now in its fourth year, comparisons to Vietnam become inevitable. There was Jane Fonda on the mall at the peace rally recently, invoking the spirit of 1968. Others have been making the Vietnam analogy for some time. Typical is columnist Robert Freeman, who frets that Iraq has become a “quagmire” and is leading to “an outcome perhaps even more calamitous than in Vietnam.” Several senior Democrats have taken up the theme, with Senator Ted Kennedy calling Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam.”
Actually Iraq is not like Vietnam. America has vital interests in Iraq, unlike in Vietnam. If the Islamic radicals seize Iraq, then they would have control of a second major state, since they already run Iran. Moreover, in Vietnam there were a million men fighting on the other side. In Iraq America faces an insurgency drawing from the Sunni faction that makes up only 20 percent of the population. Despite the ferocity of the enemy and the outbursts of civil strife, America can win in Iraq. And America must win, because the stakes of losing are too high.
But there is a whole political group here in America that is working overtime for America to get out of Iraq in the same ignominious way it retreated from Vietnam. And if America loses in Iraq, I suspect it will be less because of military defeat imposed by the insurgency, and more because of political defeat imposed by the left in this country. The political left, with its powerful allies in the media, and now with its hands on the levers of Congressional power, seems to be waging an undeclared war against Bush’s war on terror. For this group, “another Vietnam” is not a prospect to be feared, but welcomed.
Why? We commonly hear that America lost the Vietnam War, and this is true, but it is not true of the political left. The left won the Vietnam War. It won in the sense that it wanted America to withdraw and accept humiliation, and America withdrew and accepted humiliation. The result was very bad for the Indochinese, who suffered a Communist bloodbath in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal. At the same time, the result was extremely beneficial for the political left.
Withdrawal from Vietnam was a devastating blow for America’s pride and self-confidence, and inhibited direct American military intervention abroad for a generation. This was exactly what leading leftists wanted, and they got it. Moreover, a whole generation of liberal Democrats—the so-called Class of ’74—were swept into Congress, and some of them are still in office, such as Chris Dodd, Tom Harkin and George Miller. The Nixon presidency was further crippled, and the groundwork was laid for Carter’s election in 1976.
In addition, the antiwar movement generated by opposition to the Vietnam war greatly fortified other social movements that were gathering momentum at the time, such as the women’s rights and the gay rights movements. Without Vietnam, would the sexual revolution have exploded in the way that it did? It seems doubtful. Vietnam was the main reason for the counterculture of the 1960s, which may have developed anyway but would have been a much weaker force without this galvanizing cause. In sum, Vietnam was for the left not only a foreign policy success but also a political success and a cultural success.
One possible objection to the idea that the left wants another Vietnam is the results were not an unqualified triumph for American liberalism. Historians point out that the legacy of Vietnam produced a political backlash that helped Reagan get elected in 1980. The whole conservative ascendancy of the past generation is partly a product of this backlash. Even so, the left during the Vietnam era was able to make permanent changes in American society. Gender relations were transformed. Homosexuals came out of the closet. Abortion on demand became not only legal but interwoven with the lives of millions of Americans. Even now, a quarter of a century later, conservatives can only hope to moderate, but not reverse, these sweeping changes. The left paid a political price for these victories, but it was worth it.
A second possible objection to the theory that the left wants Vietnam-style defeat in Iraq is that the Islamic radicals are the most illiberal force in the world. The Vietnamese Communists, like Communists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, at least appealed to liberal principles such as social egalitarianism and workers’ rights. So one might understand how American leftists in the 1960s and 1970s might feel sympathetic toward their cause and view America as the enemy. By contrast, the argument goes, the Islamic radicals who are likely to benefit from America’s defeat in Iraq are resolute enemies of feminism, gay rights, civil liberties, and all the social causes that are a top priority on the left.
Yes, but it is precisely in the name of these causes that several figures on the left want the Islamic radicals to win, and Bush to lose, the war on terror. If you listen carefully to the rhetoric of leading leftists, you discover that they dislike Bin Laden and the Islamic radicals but they hate Bush and his conservative allies. Bin Laden to them is the “far enemy” but Bush is the “near enemy.” From their point of view, Bin Laden’s radicals want sharia in Baghdad but Bush’s religious and political supporters wants sharia in Boston. It is Bush, not Bin Laden, who threatens with one more Supreme Court appointment to jeopardize the left’s hard-won social victories of the past generation.
For this reason, the left is pursuing the strategy of the lesser evil. The left cannot publicly say this, but it is willing to work with the bad guy in order to get rid of the worse guy. The left and its allies in the press seem quite ready to risk an Islamic radical takeover in Iraq as long as it also produces the greater political good of destroying Bush and his conservative allies in America. If Bush is defeated in Iraq he could go down in history with a reputation as bad as Nixon’s and conservative foreign policy could be set back for another generation. Some on the left may be quite willing to give up the whole Middle East for this.
So far Bush and the right are fighting two wars, a military fight over there and a political war over here. So far the conservatives seem utterly ignorant of what they are up against. Conservatives continue their strenuous efforts to convince liberals and leftists that the Islamic radicals don’t like Hillary Clinton and Barney Frank. News flash to the right: the left already knows this. Conservatives also keep saying the liberal Democrats don’t have a foreign policy. But they do, and it’s the same strategy that Jane Fonda used a generation ago: to work with the enemy abroad in order to defeat the enemy at home.