AS THE WAR in Iraq continues and casualties mount and other costs escalate too, more political leaders, commentators, and activists raise the haunting specter of Vietnam. That is of a military quagmire from which America must extricate itself lest the venture end in ignominious defeat.
The problem with this is not that Iraq is becoming “another Vietnam,” as critics say, for the differences between the two wars far outweigh the similarities. The problem is that our fear of “another Vietnam” could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with more references to Vietnam feeding more public doubts about Iraq, causing support to erode, the media to fixate on casualties, and politicians to call for retreat.
We must overcome our fears. At stake are our efforts to plant the seeds of democracy in the Mideast, which is a key element of our war with Islamo-fascist terrorism. Simply put, we must continue to win in Iraq — and, yes, we are making progress — not talk ourselves into defeat.
Recently, Sen. Charles Hagel (R.-Neb.) raised the specter of another Vietnam in high-profile media interviews. Former Sen. Gary Hart (D.-Colo.), who ran the anti-Vietnam-War campaign of George McGovern, echoed the sentiment, as did a bevy of Vietnam veterans and pundits. The analogy to Vietnam makes no sense for Iraq for at least three reasons:
First, we are numerous military victories, and a revolution in military technology, removed from Vietnam. Our forces and their weapons are smarter and more nimble, and we rely more on air power and less on massive armies to reach our goals. Rather than flatten villages and rice paddies, we deploy our laser-guided missiles to wipe out the enemy’s leaders while saving the physical infrastructure for the people whom we seek to liberate.
Second, we are fighting an Iraq enemy much different from that in Vietnam. Vietnam was a proxy fight in a Cold War between two superpowers, propelled on one side by the desire to spread communism and on the other by the commitment to “contain” Soviet expansion. We lost Vietnam, but won the bigger war as the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Soviet Union splintered. In Iraq we are fighting not a political ideology but a combination of terrorists, Ba’athists and Sunnis who share only the fear of democratic rule.
Third, and also unlike Vietnam, we are making progress in Iraq. While the violence is frightening and the bloodshed regrettable, the Iraqis defied threats to their lives to vote in January, drafted a constitution in August, and planned for a referendum in October and elections soon thereafter. That this is happening in a land where, until recently, the people had only known decades of servility to a brutal dictatorship is remarkable indeed.
Unfortunately, perception can become reality. The more we hear about “another Vietnam,” the more Americans will view Iraq through the prism of Vietnam. The more that the media focus on violence and casualties, the more Americans will think that Iraq is a land of only bloodshed. The more the media focus so much on bumps in the road to political progress, the more Americans will miss Iraq’s remarkable transformation from dictatorship to freedom.
Compounding the problem, we live in an era of constant news and instant gratification. As Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) notes, round-the-clock cable television makes the nearly 2,000 deaths we’ve suffered in Iraq seem like the 58,000 we suffered in Vietnam.
Our sitcom mentality, through which we expect problems to be solved in 30-minute increments, makes us decry the continuing struggle between Shi’ites, Kurds and Sunnis to develop a new polity. Never mind that we struggled for more than a decade in the late 18th Century to do the same thing here.
Let’s step back, take a deep breath, and look at the bigger picture. In the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, now is no time to “go wobbly.” We’ve got too much at stake.