No one knows the tragic story of America in Vietnam better than Jim Webb, first as a Marine, then as a writer. So the newly elected Democratic senator from Virginia--a fierce opponent of the war in Iraq--wants to keep Vietnam out of the debate over Iraq. "As much as possible, we need to keep this debate away from Vietnam," Webb said last week. Iraq "is not a parallel situation." But Webb feared that many who supported the Vietnam war, and watched America abandon South Vietnam as it grew close to victory over the Communist forces of North Vietnam, might see similarities.
Indeed, they might, for certain parallels between Iraq and Vietnam are uncanny. A new general, David Petraeus, is taking over in Iraq with a credible new strategy, counterinsurgency. Four decades ago, General Creighton Abrams became the American commander in Vietnam, also with a new strategy. It called for taking and holding the villages and hamlets of South Vietnam. In a word, it was counterinsurgency, and it worked. Now in Iraq, Petraeus has as good a chance of success, starting with the pacification of Baghdad, as Abrams had. And the painful lesson of Vietnam applies in Iraq: Don't give up when victory is at hand.
Those in Congress who advocate retreat in Iraq refuse to acknowledge this lesson. And they may have their way, whatever Petraeus accomplishes. With their calls for troop withdrawals and fund cutoffs and their antiwar resolutions, they have put America on a slippery slope in Iraq. And we know where it leads: to defeat while victory remains quite possible. This happened in six descending steps in Vietnam, and today's coalition in Congress of antiwar Democrats and vacillating Republicans has started pushing us down that dangerous slope.
The first step is, when the war goes poorly, public support falls and politicians dramatically increase their criticism. In Vietnam, this occurred after the Tet offensive in 1968. In Iraq, it occurred gradually at first, then rapidly once violence and chaos in Baghdad flared over the last year.
Step two consists of growing criticism of the foreign government that America is supporting. In Vietnam, the target was the government of President Thieu. In Iraq, it's the elected government of Prime Minister Maliki. Senator Hillary Clinton, for instance, insists Maliki has failed to seek reconciliation between Shia and Sunnis--that is, a political solution. "I do not support cutting funding for American troops, but I do support cutting funding for Iraqi forces if the Iraqi government does not meet set conditions," she said two weeks ago.
The third step involves resolutions and threats. This week, the Senate will take up resolutions opposing the addition of 21,500 troops to Iraq, a buildup Petraeus says is indispensable to his plan to secure Baghdad. If resolutions fail to force President Bush to begin winding down the war, Senator Joe Biden promises the Senate will take stronger measures. In the Vietnam era, congressional critics passed limits on funding.
The fourth step--the one we're approaching now in Iraq--would put restrictions on troop deployments. In 1970, the Cooper-Church amendment sought to bar funding for any American troops in Cambodia, a sanctuary for invading forces from North Vietnam. Today, Hillary Clinton would put a cap on the number of American soldiers in Iraq. Webb, echoing many others in Congress, said withdrawals should begin "in short order."
Step five is the last resort of war opponents: a fund cutoff over the protests of the president. In Vietnam, it came in 1974, after American combat troops had been withdrawn, but with the United States still supporting and funding the South Vietnamese government. What's striking is how much the congressional majority then resembles today's antiwar coalition, mostly Democrats but with more than a handful of Republicans. True, only a minority in Congress favors a cutoff today, but that bloc could grow.
Step six: the collapse. In Southeast Asia, it led to the deaths of more than two million people in Vietnam and Cambodia after the Communist triumph. The members of Congress whose actions prompted the collapse expressed no shame or embarrassment for having betrayed allies. And practically no one held them accountable. Their perfidy was greeted with silence.
In Vietnam, the slide down the slippery slope seemed inevitable. But in Iraq, there's time to halt it. Bush can be expected to hold firm in his pursuit of victory in Iraq. If Petraeus achieves a breakthrough in pacifying Baghdad and then in controlling insurgent-dominated Anbar province, the war opponents must stand down. If they refuse to acknowledge success and cause a repeat of the Vietnam calamity, they should be held accountable. This time, self-inflicted defeat should not be met with silence.
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