Vietnam's lessons explain why the U.S. must stay in Iraq

So it's agreed. "Iraq,'' Senator Edward Kennedy said Monday, "is George Bush's Vietnam.'' On Wednesday, radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr drew the same parallel. Worse, both seem happy. There are some similarities. For instance, on Wednesday night the CBC called Mr. al-Sadr a leader of Iraqi "nationalism.'' It is hard to believe the CBC does not know that his claim to authority, valid or not, is as a religious leader. But then, in the 1960s much of the western press insisted that Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues were nationalists even though they insisted they were communists. Those zany rebels. After 1975, notes Mackubin Thomas Owens, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who served with the Marines in Vietnam, there were "a minimum of 100,000 summary executions at the hands of the communist liberators, about a million 'boat people,' and a like number of individuals sentenced to 're-education camps'.'' Let's hope reporters aren't setting us up for a similar surprise if Mr. al-Sadr wins in Iraq.

Also, if the bad guys stage a failed uprising, let's hope much of the western media doesn't claim the good guys staged a successful one. Especially now, it's important to recall that the consensus is that the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam was a stunning defeat from which the insurgency in the south never recovered. But by calling it a stunning defeat for the U.S. at the time, journalists made it one.

Worse, the elite western press did not report communist atrocities during Tet, particularly the very evident mass slaughter at Hue. On the other hand, they gleefully reported American atrocities with or without evidence. Does it not give Senator Kennedy pause that the most famous "atrocity,'' in which Americans supposedly destroyed a village in order to save it, was an uncorroborated story by the same "Baghdad Pete'' Arnett fired in 2003 for being too pro-Saddam?

Another thing about Vietnam is that after it fell to the communists, dominoes fell around the world. As late as 1980 prestigious American historian Stephen Ambrose wrote "Nixon's dire predictions about all the dominoes that were going to fall to monolithic communism proved to be wrong.'' (In the same book he conceded that "any doves who believed that the communists of Southeast Asia were democrats and agrarian reformers ... were in for a great shock...'') In fact, however, between the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, more countries were taken over by ostensible communists than in the previous history of the world.

So dreadful did communist rule prove that leading dove Senator George McGovern was calling within three years for the marines to invade Southeast Asia to stop communist atrocities. Talk about a classic liberal failure to ensure that your means are adequate to your ends. Yet UN Secretary General Kofi Annan just threatened military force against the ostensibly Islamic government of Sudan if it didn't stop committing atrocities. Do humanitarians like Senator Kennedy think that if the UN helps drive the U.S. from Iraq battered and humiliated, it improves the prospects for making good on this threat?

One final parallel should worry the angry left. According to historian Victor Davis Hanson in 2001, "The great, unsung tragedy of the anti-war movement was that its own lack of credibility, fairness, and fondness for hyperbole did as much to tarnish the hallowed Western tradition of open dissent and careful audit of military operations as did the worst excesses of the American military in Vietnam.'' And it happened even though the Vietnam debacle handed a huge geopolitical victory to a Soviet Union too clapped-out to use it effectively and a People's Republic of China not yet ready to try. A catastrophic American defeat in Iraq that hands an equally huge victory to a considerably more vigorous militant Islam risks doing the same again but worse.

Vietnam taught some useful lessons to the right on subjects from a volunteer military to exit strategies to the difficulties of nation-building. Not to mention Nixon's pithy retrospective observation that "'No more Vietnams' can mean that we will not try again. It should mean that we will not fail again.''

The left doesn't seem to have grasped a lesson that the bad guys abroad certainly did: You don't have to defeat the U.S. on the battlefield. You just need to give the masochistic left an excuse to defeat it from within. As the head of Hezbollah in Lebanon says "We may be unable to drive the Americans out of Iraq. But we can drive George W. Bush out of the White House."

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In Wednesday's column, I misstated David Ropeik's position with Harvard's Center for Risk Analysis. He is its Director of Risk Communication.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson