This is “George Bush’s Vietnam,” railed Sen. Kennedy last week in a charge that angered Sen. John McCain.
And by any traditional measure of war, McCain is right.
While Vietnam lasted a decade and took 58,000 U.S. lives, Iraq has lasted a year and cost 650 US dead. Even the Filipino insurrection of 1899-1902 was a far bloodier affair. But one comparison is valid. A US defeat in Iraq would be a far greater strategic disaster than the loss of South Vietnam.
For what is on the line here is not only the Bush presidency, but the myth of American invincibility, the “democratic revolution” the president has been preaching, Tony Blair, the US position in the oil-rich Gulf and Arab world, and our standing as the world’s last superpower. For it is the definition of a superpower that when it goes to war, it prevails.
All is now riding on Bush’s commitment to create a pro-Western, democratic Iraq and not be forced out in a humiliating retreat and defeat by the burgeoning insurrection. And as in Vietnam around 1963, we have come to a turning point. The critical question before us: Do we go in deeper, or do we cut our losses and look for the nearest exit?
With the battles for Fallujah and Ramadi, the seizure by the Mahdi Army of Sheik al-Sadr of Kut, Karbala and Najaf, the fighting in Sadr City, the recurring attacks on aid workers, the abandonment of their posts by Iraqi police, the refusal to fight of one of four Iraqi battalions we trained, it is clear: We do not have sufficient forces on the ground to crush and snuff out the resistance.
So we must decide. How much blood and treasure are we willing to invest in democracy in Baghdad, and for how long? Is a democratic Iraq vital to our security? What assurances are there that we can win this war?
Finally, how lasting will any victory be? Lest we forget: When US troops and POWs came home from Vietnam in 1973, America appeared to have won the war. Not until the spring of 1975 did a North Vietnamese invasion overrun the South and Saigon.
President Bush faces three options. He can continue to draw down troops and transfer power to the Iraq Governing Council on June 30, and risk a collapse in chaos or civil war. He can hold to present US force levels and accept a war of attrition of indefinite duration, a war on which his countrymen have begun to sour.
Or he can send in more troops and unleash US power to crush all resistance, while declaring our resolve to “pay any price” and fight on to victory, even if it takes two, five or 10 years. The problem with playing Churchill is that, as in Vietnam, it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The incidence of attacks on our troops, aid workers and Iraqi allies is rising. The more fiercely we fight back, the higher the casualties we inflict on insurgent and civilian alike, and the greater the hostility grows to our war and our presence. Indeed, if our occupation itself is the cause of the insurgency, how do we win the war by extending and deepening it?
The Shi’ite regions are now inflamed to a degree they were not just two weeks ago. Where Moqtada Al Sadr was then a thuggish and receding figure, by his killing of US troops he has made himself an adversary to whom our enemies are rallying.
In dealing with him, we have three options. Kill him and make him a dead martyr, which could ignite the Shi’ite population, compelling even Ayatollah Sistani to condemn us. Arrest him and make him a living martyr. But if arresting his deputy ignited the present uprising, imagine the hell that will break loose if we take the sheik to Baghdad airport.
Or leave him alone. But then he will have shown Iraqis that one can kill US soldiers with impunity, even when Americans control your country. Not a good message to send. Like Vietnam, Iraq, too, has porous borders. There is no way to halt the trickle of foreign fighters slipping in.
Then there are the January elections. If militant Shi’ites and Sunnis run on a pledge to expel the Americans, what do we do if they win?
Americans supported Bush’s war because we were persuaded that the malignancy of Iraq’s leader and the horrific nature of the weapons he had or was seeking meant we must destroy his regime or our country was in mortal peril. With that threat gone, what we are fighting for? Democracy in Iraq? Or is it now just to avoid defeat in Iraq?