Just like Vietnam?

Posted: Feb 07, 2004 12:00 AM

There?s one topic that seems likely to overshadow all others this presidential election year -- our policy toward Iraq.

Most of the Democratic candidates consider it a ?miserable failure,? or worse. ?I believe we should have stood up to Saddam Hussein,? John Kerry told CBS last month.
But ?there was a right way to do it, and there was a wrong way to do it. The president chose the wrong way.?

By that he presumably means that using direct force, as we did when Kerry served in Vietnam, was the wrong thing to do. But let?s remember that the only way that Iraq really resembles Vietnam is that we got into each as a means of self-defense.

In the 1950s and 60s, many politicians vowed to fight communism anywhere it appeared. Perhaps more important, almost everyone agreed it was important to fight the good fight, the long-term battle against communism.

 Today, our politicians have vowed to fight terrorism. Again, almost everyone agrees that?s a good idea. Again, we?re fighting the good fight, this time the long-term battle against terrorism.

Vietnam escalated, and many started to question whether we should be there at all. They complained that it wasn?t necessary to fight communism or insisted that Vietnam wasn?t a threat to us. After all, it didn?t have planes poised to strike American bases, as the Japanese did at the start of World War II. It wasn?t sinking our ships at sea, as World War I Germany had.

But the Americans who fought there, and those who fell there, did not do so in vain.

Vietnam served, as Korea before it had, as a battlefield where we could stop communist advances and prove to the Soviets and the Chinese that we were serious about holding them in check.

And we were indeed fighting the Soviets. Recently declassified files show more than 6,000 Soviet officers fought against us in Vietnam. Backing down might have sent the wrong message to Moscow, which certainly was a direct threat to us.

Today some say we shouldn?t be in Iraq. They claim it was the wrong war at the wrong time. They say it hasn?t made us safer from terrorism. They say it didn?t pose a direct threat to us. However, it seems likely history will show that we are safer because of our fight in Iraq.

Think of it this way. If, in the summer of 2001, the administration had proposed a preemptive war in Afghanistan, opponents could have used all the same arguments against it that they are now using about Iraq. After all, few thought the Taliban were a direct threat to us. Few imagined that terrorists could hurt us here, on our soil. Many would have argued that a war in Afghanistan would distract us from more serious problems elsewhere.

But if we had a chance to do it all over, virtually everyone would support taking action in Afghanistan before Sept. 11.
Also, let?s keep in mind that, unlike Vietnam, things have gone very well in Iraq. Saddam?s corrupt regime collapsed within weeks. This summer, we?ll begin turning power over to Iraqis. A democratic government there will be a beacon of freedom in the Islamic world.

And, perhaps most important, the terrorists have seen, as the communists saw in Vietnam, that we?re serious about stopping them. That probably explains why we haven?t endured another terrorist attack. We?re fighting terrorism at the source, rather than waiting to respond to attacks here.

Of course, there?s still the question of why, officially, we went into Iraq. Some have gone so far as to say the Bush administration lied to force our intervention. They base that on the fact that we haven?t found any Weapons of Mass Destruction there.

But let?s keep in mind that we must act preemptively to stop terrorists, and sometimes we?re going to be acting on information that?s difficult or impossible to confirm. Virtually all the pre-war intelligence -- from our CIA, from the British, from German intelligence sources -- indicated we would find WMD. That now appears to be wrong.

But what we knew then, and still know today, is that Iraq was a threat, as Afghanistan had been, because it harbored and supported terrorists. Sooner or later, Saddam would have found a way to strike us.

The president should have made a better, more complete case before he committed us to the war in Iraq. And we should have a full investigation into our intelligence services, so we can find ways to improve them.

But, on the whole, intervention in Iraq was the right thing to do.