WASHINGTON -- As the president contemplates a ``surge'' of U.S. troops into Baghdad, a Vietnam analogy is pertinent. A surge might merely intensify a policy that is akin to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's and Gen. William Westmoreland's policy in Vietnam. A better policy might resemble that of two men who subsequently occupied the offices those men held -- Mel Laird, President Nixon's first defense secretary, and Gen. Creighton Abrams, who in 1968 replaced Westmoreland as U.S. commander in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon won the 1968 election with an implicit promise to replace the McNamara-Westmoreland policy of engagement and attrition (``search and destroy''), which was failing militarily in Vietnam and politically in America. Nixon's policy, formulated with Laird and Abrams, was for phased withdrawals of U.S. forces, coinciding with increased U.S. advisers and other aid for South Vietnam's army. The announced policy of withdrawals gave the U.S. some leverage to force the government in Saigon -- not a paragon, but better than the government in Baghdad today -- to recognize that the clock was running on its acceptance of responsibility for Vietnam's security.
Unfortunately, the political climate in Washington today is analogous to that of 60 years ago. In 1946-47, partisan divisions, deepened by disdain for a president considered in over his head, were threatening to make it impossible to reverse the unraveling of the U.S. position in the region that then was most crucial to U.S. interests -- Europe. In 1946, the president's party lost control of both houses of Congress, in what was partly a vote of no confidence in President Harry Truman. A shattered Europe was sliding toward chaos, with communism gaining ground in Western as well as Central Europe.
Truman, however, embraced a proposal for substantial U.S. aid to Europe, but directed that Secretary of State George Marshall's name, not his, be on it. That was achieved when Marshall made the proposal in his June 1947 Harvard commencement address. Truman also instructed Marshall and his deputy, Dean Acheson, to make necessary accommodations with Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the Michigan Republican who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee.
Today, no one has a promising idea for Iraq comparable to the Marshall Plan. And who would be the Democrats' Vandenberg, capable of muting Democrats' ferocious rejection of all the president's ideas?
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