President Bush is finally getting over his version of the Vietnam syndrome.
"If you're 60 years old, you tend to be a product of the Vietnam era," Bush told me and other journalists in the Oval Office a few months ago when asked if we needed more troops in Iraq. "I remember the tactical decisions being made out of the White House during that period of time. I thought it was a mistake then, and I think it's a mistake now."
Bush will eat these words if he orders the troop "surge" into Baghdad that is considered skeptically by some of his top generals. He thought he was avoiding a mistake of the Vietnam War by deferring to his generals on troop levels, but he has only internalized an erroneous conservative belief about that conflict. Conservatives falsely think that it was the civilian leadership that lost the Vietnam War by restraining the military.
The true lesson of Vietnam is that the civilian leadership should exercise close supervision of the military and ensure that, when fighting an insurgency, it acts in ways that don't come naturally to a U.S. Army that is most comfortable when smashing a conventional enemy.
As Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. recounts in his classic book on the military's failures in the war, "The Army and Vietnam," it was a civilian, President John F. Kennedy, who was prescient about the coming era of guerrilla warfare. He pushed the Army to learn counterinsurgency warfare, but it ignored him.
The civilian who bears the brunt of conservatives' ire is President Lyndon B. Johnson. He once bragged that "they can't bomb an outhouse without my approval" and imposed political constraints on the use of force. But in a limited war, such constraints are inevitable. The question is whether they make sense or not. Some of LBJ's limits were for sound reasons. We understandably feared provoking the Chinese by a too-wide-ranging bombing campaign in the North.
If LBJ meddled on the air campaign, he didn't meddle enough on the ground. When Gen. William C. Westmoreland wanted 200,000 troops in 1965, LBJ quickly ponied them up.
The problem was that the military didn't know how to win the war. It was clueless about counterinsurgency, which typically requires careful discrimination in applying firepower, light infantry undertaking intensive patrolling, and political action to undermine the basis of the insurgents' support in the population. Instead, it dreamed of replicating the conventional clashes of World War II.