For the past 30 years, left-right debate over America's wars has traveled a well-worn rut. The left says whatever war is in question is "another Vietnam," while the right denies it. After three decades of being serially wrong, in the Iraq War liberals might be making their first-ever correct diagnosis.
In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we face a vicious insurgency that has worn down the will of the American public. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we have failed to cut off the enemy from re-supply. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we have had ever-shifting military strategies. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we have had trouble building effective, clean governmental institutions in the soil of an alien culture. Most importantly, in Iraq, as in Vietnam, we face the prospect of defeat.
The consequences of that defeat would be remarkably similar to those in the wake of Vietnam. The prestige of the U.S. government would sink around the world, emboldening our enemies and creating a period of American doubt and retreat. A humanitarian catastrophe would likely befall Iraq, just as it did Vietnam. The only significant difference is that in Iraq, radical Islamists harbor ambitions to come to our shores and kill Americans, whereas the Viet Cong never wanted to follow us home.
The American domestic political scene already has the hallmarks of Vietnam redux. The Democrats are waging an intraparty civil war to marginalize supporters of the war, and they revile President Bush as much as they did President Nixon. Republicans, on the other hand, are hoping that the Democrats lurch too far in their dovishness and will, once again, discredit themselves on national security for a generation.
The paradox is that Republicans are seeking to win the midterm elections on national security at the same time they are losing, or at least not obviously winning, a major war. This can't help but hurt the GOP, no matter how much weakness and incoherence there is among the Ned Lamont Democrats.
The two parties have clashing imperatives in the Iraq debate. The Democrats want to a wage a fight over the war in retrospect, emphasizing Bush administration missteps that have become a matter of conventional wisdom while declining to make any positive prescriptions that might divide their party or expose unpopular positions (e.g., an immediate pullout). The Republicans have to fight in prospect, avoiding the losing debate over the past while convincing people they have a plausible strategy for success and the Democrats have none.
But what is that strategy? President Bush sometimes seems not to realize that having a fierce determination to see things through is only the precondition for a winning strategy. For too long, his administration has seemed content to do the bare minimum in Iraq, hoping to hold things together just enough to allow troop drawdowns that justify the administration's assurances of progress. This hasn't worked, since the violence in Iraq has belied the rhetoric of progress and prevented any reduction in troops. Bush would be much better served by forthrightly acknowledging Iraq's distressing circumstances and backing an all-out push to secure Baghdad even if it takes thousands more American troops in the country.
Because there is one other similarity with Vietnam that should be avoided — the aching sense that not everything was done to win the war. By the end of Vietnam, we had essentially beaten the insurgency and could have helped the South Vietnamese hold off the conventional invasion of the North, if we hadn't given up. In Iraq, too, we have scored some successes against the Sunni insurgency, but the insurgents have managed to create a new and different threat by stoking a budding civil war.
It is not too late to tamp down that militia-directed violence, whichhasn't yet taken on an uncontrollable life of its own. But the clock is ticking, toward the hour when we will indeed suffer another Vietnam.