Robert Brigham: Different war, same mistakes

Bush's claim sounds eerily familiar to statements during the Johnson years
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The Independent Online

President Bush is going to have a hard time selling his troop "surge" plan to the American public and Congress because so many in the United States hear Baghdad but see Saigon. The President's insistence that adding 20,000 more US combat troops to the roughly 130,000 Americans already there will stem the tide of insurgent advances and strengthen the Iraqi government sounds eerily similiar to White House statements made during the Johnson years. Then, Lyndon Johnson and his military commander, General William Westmoreland, argued that there was light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam, that the will of the enemy was weakening, and with a few more thousand troops the job would be finished.

Johnson got his troop requests early on, nearly doubling the number of US combat forces in Vietnam in 1965 alone. But the surge in troops failed to produce the desired results. With each US escalation came an increase in the number of Communist troops in South Vietnam and an increase in the violence.

Unsure of what to do, Johnson and Westmoreland simply added more troops and bombs to the mix and increased their optimistic predictions about the war's end. The president never endorsed a ceiling on troop levels or announced a phased US withdrawal. Instead, he significantly expanded the list of bombing targets and increased the number of US combat troops to over 500,000 by the time he left office in January 1969. That was the high-water mark for US military personnel in Vietnam.

Johnson's policy of more of the same sparked a heated and often acrimonious debate in Washington. Congressional critics attacked the president and his national security team for failing to see the complexities that naturally emerge in a protracted war. They argued that the United States had no political corollary to its overwhelming military superiority and that the Saigon government had done little to provide for its own security. With a cost of 4,000 American casualties and nearly $2bn per month, Congress wanted more answers and better results. In the absence of any evidence of success, Congress pressured Johnson and then Richard Nixon to end the war in Vietnam through a phased US troop withdrawal and negotiations.

No wonder, then, that several members of the new Democratic Congress have gone on record opposing President Bush's troop surge plan. They reject the illusory nature of the wishful thinking that seems to afflict the Bush White House and often compare it to the Johnson years. Senator Ted Kennedy, sponsor of a resolution that would make it impossible for President Bush to increase the number of troops in Iraq, last week called Iraq "George Bush's Vietnam". Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, is expected to introduce a non-binding resolution against the troop surge, following his claim that "Twenty thousand American soldiers are too few to end this civil war in Iraq and too many American lives to risk on top of those we've already lost".

Even some Republicans have turned against the troop surge idea, invoking the image of another Vietnam. Senate Republican and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel called the plan to send more troops to Iraq a "dangerously wrong-headed strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp at great cost".

It is unlikely that Congress will pass any binding resolution to restrict the President's ability to increase troop levels in Iraq, despite overwhelming public support for it to do so. Most members simply do not want to take that project on at the moment. A more likely scenario is that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will rally Democrats there to cut off funding for the troop surge in the President's supplemental budget request needed to keep the war going. In an ironic twist of fate, the President's troop surge plan might depend on hearings conducted by the House's Defense Appropriations Committee, headed by Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha. The usually hawkish Murtha stunned his House colleagues in November 2005 when he compared Iraq to the Vietnam war and called for the immediate withdrawal of all US troops. Murtha argued US soldiers were a primary target of the insurgency and Americans had become a catalyst for violence in Iraq. Vice-President Richard Cheney issued a press release stating that anyone who compared Iraq to Vietnam and criticised the President was engaging in "dishonest and reprehensible behavior". Murtha, himself a Vietnam veteran, vowed to bring the American troops home. He may get his chance. Congress controls the flow of troops and supplies to Iraq because it ultimately controls the purse-strings. Sensing an anti-war mandate from the November elections, when Democrats took both houses of Congress, the House is likely to cut funding for additional troops.

Some supporters of the President's surge argue that congressional Democrats too easily hear the echoes of Vietnam and that it is time for policy-makers to get over Washington's national obsession with America's longest war. "Iraq is no Vietnam," Senator John McCain, another Vietnam veteran, frequently states. McCain favours the troop surge, believing that added forces will stop another Vietnam from happening. McCain has all along insisted that the United States needed more troops in Iraq to get the job done. One of the reasons General John Abizaid is no longer in charge of military operations in Iraq is that he openly disagreed with that assessment. Bush has finally listened to McCain, but it is probably too little, too late.

In the end, McCain is right about one thing: Iraq is not another Vietnam. In size and scope these are just terribly different wars. But President Bush's plan to simply add more troops and call on Baghdad to do more of its share is to repeat many of the same mistakes that made Vietnam such a long and costly war. History does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.

Professor Robert K Brigham is the author of 'Is Iraq another Vietnam?' He teaches History and International Relations at Vassar College, New York